There is a scene in Erin Brockovich where a bunch of lawyers come into an office to talk about a settlement. Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, asks the receptionist how many lawyers they brought. The answer is 4. Brockovich then gets 3 extra interns with papers and pencils to join her into the meeting so at least she is outnumbering the other lawyers.

The rumor is that when eBay wanted to acquire Markplaats.nl in 2004 they flew 40 lawyers over to handle the negotiations. Marktplaats held out as long as they could and then sold for EUR 225 million in cash.

Microsoft bought Hotmail in 1997 for USD 400 million. They negotiated for months with the founder of Hotmail; Sabeer Bhatia. From the Wired article:

When Microsoft came bidding in the fall of 1997, they came as a small army. Six at a time, they flew down from Redmond and sat in Hotmail’s small conference room across the table from Sabeer. They offered a figure, something that would have put tens of millions of dollars in Sabeer’s pocket. Sabeer rejected it, and they stormed out. A week later they were back, and every other week thereafter for two months.

There seems to be strength in numbers. And it takes a skilled negotiator to ignore the amount of people on the other side of the table. Or the relative size of the company you are negotiating with. It is easy to be overwhelmed by numbers but remember it is just a cheap negotiating trick.

So when your opponent brings 6 lawyers, you will know he is just trying to smoke you out. That isn’t a signal of strength, but of weakness.

P.S. When we flew to Monaco to negotiate the sale of my first company I printed out a few copies of the Wired Hotmail article and gave it to my partners to read during the flight. I hope it made us feel stronger and less eager to accept just any deal. The article is 13 years old but I still get sweaty palms when I read it.

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