I look at business interactions as a series of rounds of battle, each of which ends with one side or the other prevailing. It is the sum of the outcomes of all of the rounds that determines who is the ultimate winner in the interaction. Each round is won by the person who appears bigger, stronger, smarter or faster, causing the other person to flinch. The negotiation ends when one side flinches to the point that they decide to drop out. One common tactic in such battles is the phrase, “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!” Let’s review an hypothetical verbal battle, and see how that tactic plays out:
Handshake and college
The first round comes with the handshake. In the United States, the person with the strongest handshake wins. This puts women at a disadvantage because they often don’t shake hands, so they often forfeit the first round. After the handshake comes verbal sparring. Here the two people attempt to show that they are stronger by experience. This most often involves mentioning that they went to college, and which college it was. Since different colleges have different admission standards, the one who attended the school with the toughest admission standards wins the round. Of course, we all should know that the importance of a person is not based on college, but rather on the life experiences they have had and how they have dealt with those experiences, so if the person without college experience keeps this in mind and doesn’t flinch, they can win the round. If not college, then a mention of serving in the military is currently an oft-winning move. So if someone has a college degree or military experience and you don’t and it causes you to flinch, they win the round.
I met with a young environmental attorney a few years ago and he told me that he had been part of “the landmark environmental lawsuit.” I looked at him and wondered, because he seemed too young to be part of GE vs. Litton, the first lawsuit to go to the US Supreme court and challenge the then-new environmental laws. The young lawyer proudly named a different, more recent case. I mentioned GE vs. Litton and he said, “Oh, I studied that case in law school.” I then mentioned that my partner had been part of the team that remediated the site and brought the case to trial and that he had testified in the case in federal court. Even though I had just married it, being close to that more significant experience helped me to win that round.
Knowledge of the rules
The next round is to determine who knows the most rules about the situation. When I was new to supervising, I had an employee tell me that any work over 8 hours of each day was to be paid at overtime rates. I didn’t flinch, but I did say I would have to look into it. Of course it is not true; it is any work over 40 hours in one week that is due to be paid overtime, and at that an employer is only “required” to pay the minimum wage. But if I had flinched and given in, the employee would have won the round by just stating a rule what wasn’t really a rule but that I was not completely knowledgeable of.
Having the important documentation
Having the telecon record, the e-mail, or the recording is always a clear winner. We were once in a battle with a corporate client over money. They wanted the originals of all of our files and were refusing to pay us for several matters. We finally mailed a copy of a telecon to their corporate general counsel and their CEO, with a note that said, “Here is what your people are trying to find and destroy.” The telecon contained an inflammatory statement by one of their project managers. They immediately paid us all that we were owed, and even paid us to make copies of our files for them.
When all else fails invoke a lawyer
If the interaction is hostile, at some point one side or the other will say, “You will be hearing from my lawyer.” Once again, a knowledge of the relevant law is helpful. I once fired an at-will employee because of poor job performance, including several documented no-shows at work. When he said the lawyer phrase I didn’t flinch. I said, “OK, I’ll look forward to talking to them.” I knew that if the employee did consult a lawyer, the lawyer would explain the meaning of at-will employment to the employee and conclude that they had no legal recourse. So I won that round, and now about 15 years later I am still waiting to hear from that lawyer.
The lawyer phrase normally ends the discussion, because at this point either one side flinches and asks that lawyers not be involved, thus forfeiting the round, or they don’t flinch and take the challenge. If they don’t flinch then both sides have to adjourn and someone has to really call a lawyer. The round is won by the person who actually calls their lawyer and can jump back into the negotiations with some real knowledge.
When the lawyer threat is used, I always picture the lawyer as being someone scary, like a big mean bouncer from a bar. But seriously, think about the lawyers that you know; are they physically frightening? OK, a few of them are, but most of them are plain folks.
The ultimate move
So let’s say that you were in negotiations with someone and weren’t intimidated by their handshake; you weren’t intimidated by their schooling or experiences; you knew the law and weren’t intimidated by their threat to call a lawyer; how about if the person said “You can send that information to my lawyer.”? What a really cool move if you flinch and agree to do it! Now you are calling their lawyer for them! This is definitely a winning move for the person who states it.
Shake hands, stand strong, consult your lawyer, (but keep this information in your back pocket), and don’t’ flinch. What have been your experiences? What do you think?