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The Art of Negotiating like a Lawyer with Laura Wasser

“I think that if you put it all in perspective, and back up a little bit from ‘How do I ask for more money and how do I ask for more equity?’, every relationship is a bargain for exchange. That might sound cold and jaded but it's true. Even with loved ones, there are always conditions with it—whether it's with your parents, your spouse, or your kids” - Laura Wasser (1:52)

Who is Laura Wasser?

Laura Allison Wasser is a highly respected author, entrepreneur, and Family Law expert. Most people know her as the divorce attorney to the stars. For over 20 years, she’s represented A-list celebrities from Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, to Stevie Wonder.

Laura is the senior partner at the law firm Wasser, Cooperman, Mandles. She is also the founder and C.E.O. of It’s Over Easy, an accessible online service that makes divorce a hell of a lot less stressful—because, as she says, divorce terrifies everyone. Her mission is to empower couples to reclaim control over their own destinies.

She has been named one of the California Daily Journal’s Top 100 Lawyers and Southern California’s Top 50 Women Attorneys every year for the last seven years. Laura is also the author of “How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself” and the host of "All's Fair With Laura Wasser," a podcast on iHeartRadio. 

Listen in as Laura shares important advice on how anybody can negotiate like a lawyer, whether in the workplace or in relationships. 

This episode was recorded live in front of an audience at the Girlboss Rally in 2019.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On negotiation basics

JFK once said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

It’s true that sometimes as women, we have a harder time asking for what we want. I've been practicing law for almost 25 years now. I think that if you put it all in perspective, and back up a little bit from ‘How do I ask for more money and how do I ask for more equity?’, every relationship is a bargain for exchange. That might sound cold and jaded but it's true. Even with loved ones, people say, ‘Oh, I love you unconditionally,’ but there are always conditions with it—whether it's with your parents, your spouse, or your kids. 

On working as a divorce attorney

I am a family law attorney, which means I'm a divorce attorney. Most of the negotiating that I do is advocating for somebody else, whether it's a wife or a husband. It's figuring out how to get my client the best deal—whether that has to do with child custody, how much estate they walk away with, or the support they're either paying or receiving for their children or to their spouse.

Sometimes it’s easier to negotiate on behalf of somebody else. It certainly keeps things a little bit less personal. Throughout the years, I've had to negotiate for myself as well in the arena of child support and custody with two different dads of my wonderful young sons. I've also had to negotiate with employers, partners, and venture capitalists because I started my own company, It's Over Easy

On the importance of knowing your audience

The thing I find the most important is knowing your audience: who is it that you are talking to, and who are you negotiating with? Generally, you know what you want, but you won't always know what they want. 

Knowing what the other person wants is an important component. Simple cases are: ‘I'm in this job, and I should be getting paid more.’ You need to think about what employers want. They don't just want to pay you as little as possible, but they also want a happy employee or partner. They want somebody that's going to be able to get the most out of you. Be able to walk into the negotiation and say right off the bat, ‘I understand where you're coming from, now, here's where I'm coming from.’

Don't take things too personally. Your boss doesn't care that your mortgage rates went up, or that your kids are in daycare. Putting that out there for them is unhelpful. You want to talk about why you're entitled to more income. Tell them all the great things about you. You can intimate that other people would be interested in hiring you for the same position, and pay you more money. But you also have to give them something to look forward to when they pay you what you’re worth. It's important to know who you're talking to and what's important to them.

On finding your negotiation voice 

As women, sometimes we learn our negotiating techniques from watching other people. If we haven't had great mentors, then sometimes we're learning from people that may not have a style that works for us. She or he who yells the loudest isn't always the one that gets heard. A very wise woman once said to me: ‘When you speak softly, they lean in to listen.’ I've seen a lot of young women in the courtroom or at the conference room table throwing profanities around. If it works for you, that's great. Sometimes it's a turnoff. It's a turnoff when men do it as well. 

Don't emulate a style of somebody that doesn't fit you—do what works for you. Experiment and practice a little bit—don't go straight into the negotiation cold. Talk to somebody else. Roleplay if you have a friend, relative, or significant other. Find your voice, and be true to it. 

On being observant and doing research

Another thing that I've heard several times is to leave some stuff on the table—give room for growth so that in six to 12 months, you can come back and be ready for another round of negotiations. If six months is too short for that company or employer, pull back and wait a little bit—observe everything during a negotiation. Be like Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Get in the other person's head, and know what’s important to them. Do research before you go in there. Figure out what other people in your field are being paid. Tailor your negotiation skills to you, know your facts, and be able to present them when you're speaking to the person. 

On harnessing the power of silence in negotiations

What happens often with women is, we're very uncomfortable with silences. We want to keep talking and keep the ball rolling. It's okay to be quiet for a second. Uncomfortable silences are often what reaps the benefits of either a great story, a fact coming forward, a great counter argument, or a fold on the other person's part. It's uncomfortable, but do something else in your head—count to 10, think of a funny video you saw. Be at peace with it, and let the other person be a little bit uncomfortable for a second—they're just as uncomfortable as you are. So sit there and wait. You are entitled to an answer and an explanation. Hear what he or she has to say about what it is that you're requesting. 

On the peppercorn example in law

When I was in law school, one of the first things we learned is that there's consideration. We learned the peppercorn example—it’s what you’re getting in exchange. They'd say, even if it's just a peppercorn, meaning nothing like a little pepper or a penny, there always has to be something that's given back. That's why I started with saying that every relationship is a bargain for exchange. If you are going in and asking for more money, what is it that you’re giving them? Why are they paying you more? Most people don't want to pay you more just because you've been there, they can find somebody else. 

As an employer now, I can see both sides of it. I'm thinking: ‘You have a pretty good job here. I'm nice to work for, we pay you a lot of money. What is it that I'm going to get for paying you more money, rather than just hiring another first year associate who's going to be so eager to please?’ 

Give them the list of things that you have done over the past six months in terms of your experience—come in armed with facts. If nothing else, they will be very impressed at the prep work that you've done. If they don't have an answer that is acceptable to you, ask why. It’s their turn to think about it. You're entitled to their honesty. 

They might say, ‘I don't have to give you my reasons why.’ That will shape your negotiations in the next round and in your relationship. I would want to have an employer who was being honest with me.

On practicing patience 

Patience is important if we’re doing a negotiation that takes a longer period of time—maybe it’s somebody that’s going to offer you a job. Sometimes we're so eager for instant gratification, particularly in the society of Instagram, social media, and immediate results. Wait it out and see what they say. Show your patience and that you have other things going on.

On negotiating in personal relationships

Significant others come up all the time in my practice. You need to be able to provide something in exchange for what you're asking for, whether it be a friend or a romantic relationship. For example, if I really need some time as I get home to unwind, I ask: ‘How about if you do the dishes before I get there?’ 

A lot of the times when my clients get to me, they're not quite ready to get divorced. We've put marriages back together. Communication is very important. The better you are at honing your communication skills, the better outcome you’ll have in your interpersonal relationships. Sit with yourself for a minute, and figure out what works best for you in terms of communication with whomever it is that you're negotiating. 

On remaining calm in difficult negotiations

Take a minute. Don't go in blind if you've reasoned and be reasonable. Don't let them see you sweat. If you're not doing well, take a minute and go back to the drawing board. Be like, ‘So I sense I'm not doing so well here. What is it that I could tell you that might influence your decision about how we're having this conversation?’

On ensuring both parties are prepared 

Catching people unaware often doesn't work. Line up time in advance so that you know what you're going to be talking about has a certain parameter. If it isn't a good time to talk in the hallway about getting a promotion, find another time to sit down once both parties are ready to discuss it. Let them have an opportunity to be prepared for what you're going to discuss so that you get the answers you want. Nobody wants to be questioning what they did wrong, and what could have been done better. 

On picking your battles

Pick your battles. When you are making your list of items that you want to discuss, make a list of a couple throw-aways too. I make sure that we always do this when we're negotiating divorce settlements. I tell my clients to list one of the two things that they just don't give a shit about at all. We include them to give the other person an opportunity to win something. If it's something that's important to them, and it doesn't matter to you, put it out there. Figure out in terms of most important to least important, what you will take and what you won’t.

Leave yourself a little bit of room if the person on the other side is going to need to feel like they won. Know your audience. Sometimes the other person is going to be a martyr—they feel like they’ve given you everything and feel like they lost. But for the most part, people need to feel like they walked out of a negotiation like they won, or they didn't get too badly beaten. Allow that by leaving a few things on the table, either to discuss next time or to give up. 

On the importance of putting words in writing

What happens after your negotiation and things have gone your way? Put it in writing. When it's in writing, nobody can dispute it. So many negotiations go well, and then go poorly after everybody walks out of the room. Oftentimes, people will tell you what you want to hear, and they don't follow through. Confirm your receipt of this—it doesn't always have to be signed. 

If they don't like it in writing or that offends them, there's something wrong. Nobody has ever said to me, ‘I can't believe you put this in writing. Don't you trust me?’ I put everything in writing. 

On negotiating with friends

It can be uncomfortable to talk about things with friends. Lead with: ‘Your relationship to me is so important, and that's why I'm bringing this up because it's not an easy thing to discuss. I wanted to tell you that sometimes when I get a text from you at 3:00 in the afternoon, and I'm in the middle of a courtroom experience, I can't write back to you right away. I hope you understand that because sometimes there's no way I could possibly write back. I wanted to let you know that that's how I feel. How do you feel about it?’ 

And then they'll write back. They'd be hard pressed to go: ‘Bitch, you need to write back to me right away’, especially when you've been the one to bring it up and say, ‘I'm so appreciative when I see your text.’ It's such a small thing to do. It puts things in perspective and figures out what's important. 

On negotiating with friends who are business partners

It’s very difficult but doable. I actually have three of my closest friends working for me. One in my office, one is my personal assistant, and one at It’s Over Easy as our Director of Communications. Everyone says that I’m asking for trouble, and that It’s going to end badly. Well, it's been seven or eight years. 

The reason it works is because I probably talk about everything. If your friend that you're doing business with is very sensitive about that at the beginning, it may not work out. Keeping the lines of communication open with friends, with business people, and with significant others will help that resentment from building up. 

The reason why friends don't do business well together in many instances, is they don't want to hurt their friends' feelings. You'll probably know right off the bat if they’re someone you can communicate and have a long standing relationship with. Communicating is important because when you don't, things get pushed down. If you have an employer and they will not communicate with you, you may need to get out of there. Because if you can't have a conversation with them, not only about a raise or a better office, then it's a one way street.

On the verbiage of negotiation 

People don't like to hear, “No.” People don't like you to lead with the bad, lead with the good. In terms of other verbiage, it depends what you're discussing. Obviously, if you're having a relationship conversation with somebody, there's things that you might want to avoid. Knowing your audience is very important.

On navigating adversarial negotiations

First of all, you have to get them to agree that they will communicate with you. Try to set a time to sit down where nobody's going to be interrupting so there’s no added aggravation. Get wine if you can, but not too much wine in a business setting. Again, lead with the good—most of my negotiations in work are adversarial. 

Here’s a tip. They say I'm very good in a room. Particularly if I'm representing the guy, I will always say to him: ‘I'm probably going to shit on you a little bit in this negotiation because I want your wife to understand that I'm a mom, I'm a woman, and I've been there. You can be a little bit of a jerk sometimes but I still believe it's in the best interest of your whole family to get through with it.’

It's not being fake or phony—I do understand those points. Figure out who your audience is. I always go in and say, ‘Hi, Myra. I'm Laura. I represented Steve.’ One time, Myra looked right past me and looked at Steve and said, ‘Steve, are you sleeping with her too?’ Other women would have said, ‘What's wrong with this bitch, we're leaving.’ Instead, I responded, ‘Oh Myra, I am a lesbian and I would not sleep with Steve.’ And she laughed. That's not really true, but you try to give some levity.

On It’s Over Easy

I’ll give a little plug to It’s Over Easy. After doing this for 25 years, I realized that there is an easier way to do it. We're trying to effectuate this by having an online mediation process. In any event, going through a negotiation in an interpersonal relationship is a terrible time. If you're breaking up, getting divorced, moving out, or ending an engagement, it's awful. Your heart is broken. 

We have seen this enough times. This isn't 1979 with Kramer v. Kramer. When my older son, Luke, started kindergarten, his dad and I were the only two parents in the class that weren't living together. He's now in seventh grade, and we're now at 45% of the class. That's super sad and maybe it's a commentary on society. So if it's happening, why isn’t this generation equipped to deal with it in a better way? 

You can either use It's Over Easy, a wonderful online platform where you can do it all in one inexpensive step, or go with a mediator that can help you take the emotion out of the litigation. We have so many tools these days to help us through breakups. If you can’t afford a therapist, find a group at the local high school or college. There’s even online group chats about this. People are talking about their feelings more particularly in and around breakups. Heal your heart and do what you need to do to be good to yourself, whether that's meditation, a trainer, or a cleanse. Take the business, legal, or financial component out of it, and do that in the most cost effective way that you can.

On negotiating rates

How do you negotiate with a client after raising your prices?

If you have one client that's your biggest client, I would write them a letter and follow up to see if they got it. I would say: ‘Your business is so important to me.’ And if you’re able to do this, say: ‘I've actually waited longer to raise the rate on you. I've raised yours less than other people,’ unless that's going to create a problem with other clients. Give them something so they feel like they're benefitting from being your most important client. 

Every time somebody tells me: ‘Hey, I know you've been a client of mine forever. I'm raising my rates.’ I wince for a moment and then I say, ‘I'm so glad for you. You are worth it. The cost of living is going up.’ If it's a facialist, a trainer, or a therapist, I want the best service from them. If it costs them more money to improve their skills, go to seminars, or have a nicer office because rent has gone up, it all trickles down. Be direct about it and know that you deserve more. Tell your clients that you’re worth it. If you don't feel that way, give them great referrals. As soon as you tell them that you might be giving them to somebody else that's less expensive, they pay double for you. It's weird psychology, but that's how it works. Be direct, be confident. 

On getting male bosses to take you seriously

I have been practicing law with old, white, mostly Jewish men for 25 years. They were out playing golf half the week, so when we arrived at the council table to argue our case, I knew my facts. They've been doing it for 25 years already at that point, but they weren't paying attention. They didn't know the intricacies of the law. Often I would blow them out of the water because I knew my audience. I respected them and I didn't clash with them.

On navigating multicultural contexts

Maintain who you are. You do have a different culture, however, learn about theirs. If you have somebody that you can befriend, they can give you some tips on it. Look for things that the person with whom you're negotiating will find as a benefit to them, and earn their respect if you can. 

On negotiating on Facetime

It's so important to be able to look somebody in the eyes when you're talking to them to have a connection. If you can do it in person, all the better, but if they're in a different location, set something up. Be like: ‘I really want to be able to have a face to face about this. Here are the items I wanted to discuss’ so they can't blow you off.

I would make a very definitive bullet point list of your concerns and wants and send it. Tell them you’d really like an answer by this date, if possible. They may get angry that there was an arbitrary deadline but make it long enough that there shouldn't be a problem and nobody will be offended.

On gaining confidence 

You gain comfort by speaking more. Use the uncomfortable silence trick. Pick your battles. Start the conversation with something in writing so that the person is prepared. 

If you're a non-confrontational person, you're probably not nitpicking the little things all the time. If they know that you’re uncomfortable and that you’re non-confrontational, they will often unfortunately use that to their advantage. Don't fold eye contact and be strong. Whatever it is that you're raising is an important thing to be raised, not just for you, but for them too. 

You have to practice. You’ll probably feel shitty after the first time it happens, but after the third time, you'll feel better about it. If it's worth it to you to bring it up—especially if you don’t like bringing things up—then it must be really important. 

On negotiating with clients 

How do you deal with a client who is trying to talk you down when it’s not warranted?

Obviously in divorce law with litigation, sometimes we win, and seldom we lose. But when we do lose, they'll come back and say, ‘I've not only spent the retainer, but I've also paid you for an additional three months. We lost and I don't want to pay you for this next month.’

I say, very reasonably, ‘I get that. I understand that you're upset but that's the nature of litigation.’ I will often give a client a discount if they're really unhappy, because I want them to be happy. But I'll say it must be paid by the end of the month. It's making somebody feel like they got something, even if they didn't get something. For attorneys, we bill by the hour and work really hard for clients. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way any of us thought it would but we didn't do anything wrong. We tell clients every step of the way that this could happen. They still pay for the services that were rendered. But maybe if you discount the bill, they’ll feel like: ‘Okay, she did me a solid, she reduced it by a little bit.’

On getting corporate to take you seriously

Take yourself seriously first. If you take yourself seriously, 50% of the people who perceive you will also take you seriously. The other 50% are morons. If they don't like how you look, or maybe they like how you look too much, they are misperceiving you—that's their bad. If somebody is underestimating you, go with it. Let them underestimate you because you will knock their socks off.

I wouldn't change how you look, how you act, or how you speak to fit anybody else's perception of who you are. At the same time, when you're representing a client, you want to be a certain way. From my first 15 years of practice, I would always wear either stockings or booties because I had a tattoo. I didn't want that to affect my client that I was representing, and have somebody say I wasn’t taking it seriously. I feel at this point, I've gained enough credibility in my practice for it to not matter anymore. I always try to dress in a way that will respect the court and respect the people that I'm representing. If you look respectable, you dress the part, and you do your best, that will usually change peoples’ perceptions. If it doesn't, they're idiots, and then you use that to your advantage. 

How do you negotiate for a new role that you haven’t been in before?

You want to define who you are and what you have to offer. That's going to be what that person or firm takes with them throughout the relationship. Show them who you are, your experience, your salary expectations, and what you bring to the table. Always be looking towards the future. Give them a chance to show you that they're willing to up the ante. 

On the gender clichés in negotiations 

One thing that I think men have historically been better at is being very rational. You don't want to be humorless nor be too dry. People say to women, ‘Don't get hysterical.’ Don't fall into the traps that people set for you because you aren’t. You want to counter that. 

Another difference is that sometimes women are more reticent to push forward, particularly with money. I spoke at the Women in the World Summit that Tina Brown puts together in New York about what I know about money as an attorney, an employer, an employee, and as a startup. But the women there were like real money people. They said that so often, women are uncomfortable speaking about money that we abdicate. We let our husbands, our business partners, or our business managers take care of it. You got to talk about money if you're negotiating in business. So start practicing in front of the mirror or to your cat—talk about money until you feel comfortable. 

On negotiating with someone who feels like they always need to win

Let them feel like they won. Know what the breaking points are. If you know who you're negotiating well enough to know that, that's half the battle. Let them think they’ve won and then you get what you need. 

This episode was recorded live in front of an audience at the Girlboss Rally in 2019.

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Follow Laura on Instagram at @laurawasserofficial and Twitter at @itsovereasy.

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