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As companies actively seek to cut costs, more law firms are being invited to pitch for their business. John Timperley looks at how to select the appropriate client and how to deliver a profitable pitch

Reports from the legal sector suggest that panel reviews are increasing in the current downturn. Invitations to pitch are being created as clients seek to review their professional services expenditure and look for cost savings where possible. Given the time and energy required for each pitch, a law firm could quite easily burn a hole in its profitability when it comes to client acquisition. So how do you select the pitches you have a realistic chance of winning? And how do you avoid repeatedly wasting energy and writing off valuable time?

People still buy relationships – especially in a downturn. General counsel and in-house lawyers typically favour those they know and trust in pitches and panel selections. To take a risk on a new legal adviser means that a firm has to be significantly better than others they have used before. The timescales given to panel selections and pitches, however, often afford little time to build that trust and competitive advantage.

Pitches are not cheap to get involved with. While the prize of winning a client may seem attractive, dragging lawyers away from other productive and revenue-generating work can prove costly – especially if you lose. As a result, a number of law firms are becoming more selective over the pitches they participate in and choosing to decline some invitations. Behind their approach lie some fundamental questions.

Firstly, firms should ask why they are pitching to this client. If a law firm does not know the prospective client, and if the tender is being sent to many firms, it is wise to question the chances of winning the pitch. Should you invest the time and energy? What will you really gain, when you factor in the costs of time involved and the time diverted away from other work? Will you be able to build a solid relationship with all the key decision-makers in the time allowed?

Another question that law firms are starting to ask themselves is: are we really willing to do what it takes to win this? A half-hearted effort rarely wins and often results in a huge time write-off and low team morale. To avoid this, some firms consider if they are willing or able to give this pitch the 100% it needs in time and effort. In helping law firms win pitches over the years, we have found that a ‘gung-ho, let’s go for it’ attitude (despite the odds) only wins when a firm has something unique to offer and is willing to put in significant effort to win. Even in the current economic climate, this is a risk fewer firms are prepared to take.

Setting up a pitch evaluation process

So if you are looking to set up a process to evaluate invitations to tender when they come in, what should you include? In addition to the questions we have posed already, we recommend conducting an analysis into the following areas. Those firms that do, tend to have a higher pitch success rate.

1. Factor in the risk: what risks might you have in taking on this client? Could losing/winning result in potential damage to your reputation, and are there any conflicts of interest? Ask yourself whether this client is going to be profitable for you and if you can cover your costs at the very least.

2. Consider the wider opportunities: is there the potential for selling other services here, over and above the initial work? Will this assignment bring you an opportunity to develop a new business sector, for example, and what is the likelihood of a long-term relationship with this client?

3. Evaluate your chances of success: do you have personal contacts already in place with this client and do you have the support of key decision-makers? Do you know what the selection criteria are and have you got a good track record of this type of work?

4. Define your competitive advantage in this pitch: do you have industry expertise in the client’s sector? What is your technical strength? Do you have a team available that will appeal to key decision-makers? In what other ways can you differentiate yourself? Do not forget to consider the competition and how strong will they be, and find out if they have existing relationships with the decision-makers.

Some of these questions are very challenging and are often skipped over by partners pitching for work. Different methods of evaluation are used from elaborate scorings and weightings of certain answers (based on past pitch experience) to simply answering yes or no.

Whatever the system, if, at the end of the analysis, these lawyers feel they have not got a strong winning chance then they politely decline and focus their energies and efforts elsewhere. Over time, this approach has enabled them to become highly profitable fee earners in their firms.

It is not easy to say no – to yourself, your colleagues and, of course, the client. It helps, however, if you have a strong rationale and can position yourself as having real integrity with their interests at heart. Try and articulate why you believe you are not best placed to help them. Also explore what other options are available. There may be other ways you can best help them to get the support they need and achieve the goals they are aiming for. That may even involve recommending another adviser.

Going for it

And if you decide that you have a good chance, what have you got to do to win? Here are some observations we have made from very successful firms. In winning a pitch, they have invariably considered:

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