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Beauty Contests


“I try to send as much of the team who would be working with the client as possible.”

Richard J. Canter, partner,
Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP

Some call them “beauty contests.” Others call them “bake-offs” or “dog and pony shows.” Still others call them a “pain in the butt.”

If you’re in the last group — where you shun “competitive bidding” for clients — depending upon your practice concentrations, you might be closing the door on opportunities — translation: income. That’s because in today’s challenging economic times, more and more prospective clients are being more and more selective of their legal counsel — making them prove their mettle and price themselves creatively and competitively.

Competitive bidding is nothing new for lawyers who regularly represent municipalities, like Nancy L. Pirkey, a partner with the Milwaukee branch of Davis & Kuelthau, s.c. Pirkey is a member of the firm’s labor and employment group, and responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) is a frequent task for her.

But more and more private-sector clients are also using competitive bidding, according to Richard J. Canter, who will assume the role of managing partner at Michael, Best & Friedrich LLP in January. Within the last three to five years, his firm has seen an increasing number of RFPs in virtually all practice areas, including his own, the health care group. The firm’s intellectual property group is another area where RFPs are becoming very commonplace, he notes.

It’s much like applying for a job, Pirkey explains; your RFP response is like a great cover letter and resume, that will get you to the next stage, the interview. At that point, there is mutual give and take, but for the most part, you’re selling yourself to the interviewer. Both experiences entail hard work, creativity and thorough preparation, not to mention a positive attitude. The rewards — a great client or a great job — are worth the effort.

If you’re up for the challenge, read on.

Winning Tips

Screen the RFPs. A thorough conflicts check is an essential first step.

Next, consider the source of the RFP, and the likelihood of obtaining the work. Sometimes an RFP is really a sham, Pirkey says. Its proponents like to be able to tell a board of directors or taxpayers that they’re always looking to cut costs so they’re sending out RFPs, when in fact they have no intention of changing their legal representation. Or sometimes, when you know the prospect’s current attorney charges rates that are way below what you’re willing to charge, it’s best to just say no.

You have to use your best judgment when deciding if you want to respond, she emphasizes. You never know — you could be wrong and maybe they really are looking for a new attorney. And if nothing else, you’ll likely benefit from the practice of completing the RFP and attending the interview.

For his part, Canter says that Michael Best rarely decides to pass on an RFP, even if they know the chances of obtaining the work are slight. They’ve been pleasantly surprised with outcomes in the past, ob-taining the work when they thought the odds were against them. Moreover, since they’ve noticed the increasing use of RFPs, they’ve built up staff to assist with them. Sometimes you must respond, if for no other reason than to stay in your prospect’s good graces — just don’t expend a great deal of senior partner time on it.

Treat the response to the RPF as you would a brief. RFPs are getting longer and much more specific these days, Pirkey says. Questions you might encounter are, “Tell me what you would do in this situation,” or “Tell me your opinion about this proposed legislation.” One of the recent RFPs she responded to required somewhere between 10-20 hours to prepare, and that was with the assistance of marketing staff.

A task of that magnitude can’t be left to the last minute, arriving five minutes before it’s due, and riddled with typos or excess verbiage.

Pirkey adds that you must tailor your responses to what you think that prospective client wants. Don’t be disingenuous — but do put yourself in their shoes. Lawyers haven’t always been good at thinking in that way.

Do your homework before responding to the RFP, and before an interview. View it as an oral argument if you’re a litigator, or a presentation to a board of directors if you’re a business lawyer, says Canter.

Get on the phone or the Internet and find out as much as you can about the prospect. That might include directly contacting the prospective client, to ascertain how much they’ll tell you about what they’re looking for, Pirkey says.

If you are able to talk to someone before submitting the RFP, make certain that individual is in the know, Canter adds. You don’t want information from someone who has a different perspective than the ultimate decision-maker.

It’s also helpful to try to match the style of the prospective client with that of the attorney. Pirkey explains that some clients clearly want “aggressive” attorneys. Others want “problem-solvers.” Still others want to head off problems before they arise. Make sure the right person or persons respond to the RFP and go to the interview, who will convey that there would be a good fit.

Then, the day before an interview, bone up on the client again — the business, the individuals and past court decisions involving them — the prospect’s “legal history,” as Pirkey calls it, “So I can say, ‘I’m familiar with some of the issues you’ve had in the past.’”

Be ready to “speak the client’s language.” In addition, Pirkey always tries to think of a way to differentiate herself from the others she thinks she’s up against. Canter agrees, observing that he never lets fees serve as the only differentiating factor; he always looks for something more.

Send the appropriate people to the interview. “I try to send as much of the team who would be working with the client as possible,” says Canter. “Where you’ll get in trouble is the ‘bait-and-switch’ approach, where you’re actively involved in the RFP but not the work. Clients are more sophisticated than that.”

That might mean sending a partner and an associate who would be teamed on the client’s business. Pirkey says that since you want to express a desire to keep the costs down, during the interview you can ascertain the level of complexity of the client’s legal matters, and point out that sometimes the associate could do the work, while other times the partner would be better-suited. Or, if the client is looking for attorneys with expertise in multiple matters, one person from each of those practice areas should attend. And even if a marketing person was great help up until now, it’s probably best to leave him or her behind.

Arrive on time. Pirkey says, “It might sound really obvious. But lawyers are busy people, and I think some lawyers think people will just wait for them. It’s OK for some things — running a few minutes late for a lunch appointment, for example. But not when you’re trying to get new work.”


“Speak the client’s language.”

Nancy L. Pirkey, partner,
Davis & Kuelthau, s.c., Milwaukee

Time can be a big issue for clients, and it’s a double-edged sword for lawyers, she continues. On one hand, you want to convey that you’re knowledgeable and experienced. On the other, if you come across as being too busy, that might discourage some prospects. That, in combination with arriving late for the meeting, sends the message that you don’t have time for them or you don’t respect their time.

Ask meaningful questions, as early into the interview as you can. One of Pirkey’s favorites is, “Why are you looking to change attorneys?” The way the interviewer responds is a good indicator of how she should target her presentation.

Canter, likewise, says the goal should be to get the interviewer talking as much as possible, early into the meeting, so your responses will not be “in a vacuum.”

Pirkey also inquires if the person she is interviewing with will be the person she’s primarily working with, should her firm be hired. An attorney-client relationship, even if the client is a business or municipality, still is a very personal relationship, she says — and many times, during the interview, she can tell if there’s a good rapport or not.

Other questions include: What are your legal needs? Where, in the past, have you felt you didn’t receive good legal advice? How would you like to structure the fee agreement? Hav
e you had fee agreements that haven’t worked in the past? How do you like to communicate with your lawyer, and have you had problems communicating with lawyers in the past?

When heralding your victories, be careful not to reveal client confidences. Much of Pirkey’s work involves published decisions, and that’s certainly fair game. But anything else should be approached with caution.

Look for needs that the prospect might not know they have. This is one way to differentiate yourself, Pirkey says, and it’s not always easy to do, especially if you haven’t been able to gather much information before the interview. And it takes a certain amount of diplomacy, so you don’t just come across as “Sell, sell, sell.” When you do unearth a unique way that you can help the client, without sounding too pushy, it can go a long way toward getting you the business.

Be frank about your practice philosophy and methods. Pirkey always explains that she works best with clients who are candid with her and who communicate with her frequently, because she likes to be proactive and prevent problems before they arise. If a prospect hems and haws in response, maybe it wouldn’t work out, she tells herself.

Evaluate what your firm can offer the client. In Pirkey’s case, she likes to emphasize that Davis & Kuelthau is big enough where she can refer the client to another lawyer in her firm if she doesn’t practice in a specific area, and there’s always coverage, in the event that she’s unavailable. But they’re not so big that they’re impersonal, the prospect’s attorney might change frequently, and they can charge big-firm rates.

As for Canter, he stresses Michael Best’s well-established reputation, that the prospect will receive legal services that are second to none, that the firm is results-oriented and highly efficient in its staffing.

Meanwhile, small firms might focus on their personal service and more affordable rates.

When the topic of fees comes up — and it will — talk about value and price. Canter usually indicates that the firm can be flexible, pricing some legal services on a per-project basis rather than the standard hourly rate, if the client is interested in alternative billing. But his main emphasis is on value — that the client will receive high-quality services, however they ultimately decide to be billed for them.

Similarly, Pirkey says that especially when the prospect is a public entity, their starting point is who’s the cheapest. But the key words there are “starting point.” It’s important to emphasize that sometimes, you get what you pay for, and in the long haul, bargain-basement counsel might not save the client money, especially if they do not avert problems before they develop.

Pirkey additionally conveys that she is money-conscious for her clients. She tells them that, from her past cases, she has a good idea of what certain courses of action might cost. “I sometimes warn them, ‘To go into this type of litigation or this round of bargaining is expensive, unless we can cut out some issues so it doesn’t get as costly.’ I always make sure they know that I know how much they’ll be paying for something, and that I’ll make sure it’s what they really want.”

In addition, expect questions about expenses beyond the hourly rate or flat rate. Pirkey has noticed that more and more prospective clients are disdainful of “add-ons” such as a high mileage rate, charges for faxing, photocopying and long distance. In some cases, you might want to forego passing the expenses on to the client. In other cases, if a low hourly rate is negotiated, then go ahead and charge for the add-ons, but just make sure the client knows in advance what exactly will be charged as expenses.

From time to time, a prospect’s billing standards are have already been expressed in the RFP, Canter says. In some cases, for example, the pro-spect has a policy that you must obtain consent before using on-line legal re-search.

And a final word on fees. Clients hate it if they hire you and two months later, your billing rate increases. If they don’t ask about guaranteed billing rates for a specified term, then you should bring it up. And be prepared to hear a request for a long-term rate; Pirkey says a prospect recently inquired about a four-year rate.

Don’t get out the door without determining the next step. When will they make the decision? Is there anything else from you they need before making the decision?

Then follow-up with an appropriate thank you. For some prospects, that’s a quick e-mail. For others, it’s a handwritten thank-you, along with additional information, says Pirkey. “We talked about this case. Here it is; I thought you might find it helpful.” Or, “Here are some sample training materials.”

If you don’t get the business, find out why. Canter says that, depending upon the relationship with the prospect, you might feel comfortable enough to call the interviewer; if not, a note or
e-mail will do. Thank him or her again for his time, and inquire if there was anything you could’ve done or offered the client that might have swayed the decision in your favor. Close on a positive note.

Next time, you might get the business.

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