Patrick Baldwin and Rachel Jones had a problem. They wanted to talk liabilities — specifically, which liabilities would transfer to their private-equity client should they move ahead with a $50 million purchase of a folding trailer business. However, their counterparts in this negotiation weren’t interested in discussing liabilities or other details just yet. They wanted to get a feel for how serious the buyer was about the purchase, particularly since the sellers were in tight financial straits.

“We need a letter of intent” before getting into the minutiae of the deal,” said April Finn, representing the seller with Jennifer Langley. “We just want to make sure this isn’t a wild goose chase.”

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