It is the week of the winter holidays and you have just been notified that a lawsuit has been filed against your company. There is not much time to go through the typical selection process to retain outside counsel, yet you need to find the firm that combines the best expertise, value and “fit” for your organization. Sound familiar? With increasing frequency, my team often identifies the right firm through an Expedited Request for Proposal (E-RFP) process.

As a former law firm partner, I recall RFPs being an extraordinarily time-consuming and ponderous endeavor: A large volume of information was required, the response was like a tome and the selection process was lengthy and tedious. The E-RFP process my corporate legal team uses is streamlined to enable us to make engagement decisions quickly and confidently.

Here are a few guidelines we use:

Selective use. If your department has a list of trusted counsel with a proven track record for handling routine matters, the E-RFP is probably not the best vehicle. In our experience, the E-RFP is best suited to significant matters or those that require a unique expertise or legal skill set.

Small number of candidates. Cast a small net. An E-RFP is most effective when it focuses on firms that clearly make sense for the particular matter.

Effective format. The format of the E-RFP should reflect your office culture. The in-house attorneys on my team do much of their work via e-mail, so we are comfortable sending out an E-RFP electronically. As for the content, the best E-RFPs contain a brief description of the engagement, a copy of the complaint in a litigation matter, and a request for the proposed strategy for handling the project, proposed staffing, experience in handling similar projects and estimated fees or costs. Limiting the E-RFP to these items keeps the responses concise and free of unnecessary material.

Evaluating the responses. We typically ask that the E-RFP response be returned to us by e-mail with a rapid turnaround time–sometimes as little as 48 hours. This helps us evaluate the nimbleness of the firm’s attorneys preparing the response, their attention to detail, their capacity for handling the matter and their eagerness for the representation. Our most important criterion is the expertise of the proposed team in successfully and efficiently handling similar cases or projects. Beyond that, what sets firms apart for us is the originality of their work, their communication style and their understanding of our business and our goals.

Meeting with the finalists. If time permits, set up in-person meetings with the top three finalists. This is an invaluable opportunity to get to know the attorneys with whom your organization will work. An in-person discussion gives you the chance to see the attorneys “in action” and to gauge their “fit” with your organization. We tend to rule out counsel who merely regale us with “war stories,” as opposed to engaging in practical conversation. You may well find that the in-person meetings change the preferences you formed based on the written responses.

Selection. Once you have selected the best fit, it is important to notify all of the E-RFP candidates quickly. It takes a lot of effort to put together a compelling E-RFP response–particularly on short notice. Your candidates deserve a response and recognition of their hard work, even if they were not selected. Additionally, the attorneys who were not selected still may have impressed you, and this is a chance to establish a foundation for working with them in the future.

The E-RFP can be an excellent resource for corporate counsel. With a little forethought and structure, it can drive you quickly toward expertise, efficiency and enhanced relationships with your legal vendors.