Blaming your lawyer

an effective negotiation tactic when everything else fails

“We can only make hamburgers well done,” said the waitress.

“If you can make it well done,” I said, “you can make it medium rare, you just take it off the grill a minute or two earlier than usual.”

“I’m sorry,” the waitress replied, “but our lawyer won’t let us make it that way.”

For 20 years I’ve been hanging around lawyers—and, of course, I am a lawyer—and I’ve never heard of any lawyer telling someone that they couldn’t cook a hamburger medium rare. It then dawned on me what was happening: the waitress was blaming the lawyer just like my mother told me to blame her when I was seven.

“If your friends want you to do something that you don’t want to do,” my mother told me, “you can refuse to do it and blame it on me.” My friends couldn’t argue with my mother, especially if she wasn’t even there. Similarly, you can’t argue with Ursula the waitress when she tells you that the restaurant’s lawyer won’t let them cook your hamburger medium rare.

Blaming your lawyer can be an effective tactic. It’s a polite way for you to say “no” or “take it or leave it” without actually taking that hard line: “I’d love to be able to offer you those terms, but our lawyer just won’t let us change that part of our contract.”

If you’re going to blame your lawyer for you taking a particular position in a negotiation, there are three things that you should do. First, you should have a lawyer (although this tactic may still work even if you don’t).

Second, you should tell your lawyer what you’re doing, preferably before you do it, but always at least shortly afterward. You don’t want your lawyer spoiling things by readily agreeing to something that you’ve already rejected and blamed your lawyer for doing so.

And third, try to keep it believable.