YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Beauty pageants, law firm style

By Kathryn E. Brown | Aug 23, 2006

Dear Prospective Law Firm,

Dear Prospective Law Firm,
We cordially invite you to beg us for work.
Sincerely yours (maybe),
Potential Client

CHARLESTON -- One of the foulest terms in law firm vocabulary just might be "request for proposal."

Or, as consultant John W. Olmstead stated in a recent interview, an RFP should be disturbing if a law firm receives one from an existing client.

Just when a lawyer thinks he has done everything in his legal mind and networking power, a client wonders if the grass is greener somewhere else. Once an extended member of their client's business, a lawyer is then expected to perform as a contestant in a beauty contest.

Given this attitude toward the proposal process, some firms actually decline the opportunity to compete.

"Firms are offended that a client is treating them like a vendor," Olmstead said. "Many firms simply refuse to respond. Others that do participate are often unsuccessful because they have not put the proper systems in place and developed the appropriate skills.

"This is especially true of smaller firms that don't have a marketing staff."

The drudgery of responding to proposal requests is due, in part, to lawyers not having a firm-wide policy to rely on when such work develops.

Olmstead feels the assembly line of developing a proper package of materials should include procedures for coordinating the project, conducting research, interviewing the client to establish a relationship ahead of time, developing a service strategy, preparing the proposal, selecting the attorneys to attend the meeting, debriefing, then following-up to ensure all bases were covered.

Clearly, hundreds of non-billable hours could be dedicated to the effort. Olmstead warns that being selective about the potential client is as important as the company's choice for legal counsel.

"The big issue is picking the right battles," he said. "Don't enter into RFP competitions unless you are qualified to do the work and have a fair chance of winning."

Olmstead also said that it is a waste of time to assume lawyers can change the outcome of competitions that are wired. Quite frequently, managers and general counsels have already decided who they want to work with, but to make the interview process appear fair, they send out mass form letters to numerous firms.

For those firms willing to participate, a properly-constructed proposal should end up looking like a piece of art.

"The document should be tailored to the client's needs and be solution-focused. Beforehand, though, lawyers need to get a feel for who is in the driver's seat and that can be done by studying how the RFP is worded," Olmstead said. "The proposal must conform to the RFP guidelines, and lawyers need to determine the preferred format for presentation. It should be eye-catching with color and graphics and there should be no legal jargon."

After the client has established a "short list" of law firms from which to make the final decision, the panel will ask candidates to make presentations concerning their proposal.

"They want to eyeball the firm and the attorneys they will be working with," Olmstead said. "Often, the wrong people go on these visits and the presentations are not properly done. Firms have lost deals simply because of this."

When everything falls into place, what can lawyers expect from parading on the beauty pageant circuit? Olmstead judges from experience.

"The winner takes all, and the prize can be substantial."

Kathryn E. (Katy) Brown is the managing member of and senior writer for The Write Word, LLC. She can be reached through the agency's new Web site at

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