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The Law Firm Proposal Process - Obstacles and Hacks

It’s a random Tuesday at 6:30 am. I stumble out of my bedroom and get my phone. I receive a somewhat frantic email from a New York corporate partner, who has been asked by a colleague in Asia to submit a proposal by noon Eastern Time for an unusual corporate transaction. I am a business development manager at a global firm, and proposals involving multiple offices and time zones are a regular occurrence. This deadline is tighter than most, but not completely out of the ordinary. My heart starts to race. I have another proposal that I started yesterday that's due today, I have to get my kids to school and walk my dog, and then there’s also that matter of taking the train to work. Basically, I’m left with a two-hour window to get this thing done.

Anyone who has worked inside a law firm as a marketing professional or worked in sales support in other industries has been in this situation: Tight deadline combined with a potentially important and lucrative piece of business equals a mad scramble. There is also the inevitable disappointment and frustration for everyone involved in the process. First, there’s the partner who is feeling under the gun both because she/he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone and because winning new business is an imperative. Then there is the marketing professional (aka me). Is there even a question as to whether it makes sense to drop everything and get that proposal done? As a support professional, my time is considered fungible and the importance of this task pretty much trumps everything I have on my to-do list. In the back of my mind is the fact that most fire-drill proposals don't amount to anything. The win rate is very low.

Is anyone happy with this situation? Are we unhappy but successful? No and no.

Global law firms are filled with brilliant people. The lawyers and professional staff that I have worked with over my 20 years in the field nearly always impress me. But as law firms are run more professionally, we have tried to automate the proposal process, which has resulted in dull, impersonal documents. Efficiency is fantastic, and we all want tools that make our jobs easier, but it’s almost as if law firms measure proposal success by the sheer quantity of proposals produced rather than searching for quality and results. Proposal teams have sprung up all over the world, and databases containing proposal language are now standard at large law firms. Churning out relevant deal lists, lawyer biographies and Chambers rankings often can be done very quickly, but do they make a proposal effective? That’s hard to answer, but I can answer with certainty that it is not satisfying to work on these proposals, and I will take a leap and say that they often miss the mark with clients.

A truly effective proposal involves a team of people with a mix of skills and experience. Lawyers are the technicians and also often have direct experience with the client decision makers. The marketers have another set of skills, including the ability to build an overarching strategy, cut out overly technical language, identify competitive advantages, and incorporate client feedback and overall market trends. This mix of skills can bring about amazing results.

What are the Obstacles to Change?

In order to change the proposal process, we need to overcome the following:

  1. Lawyers are not incentivized to spend significant time developing proposals.

  2. It’s so much easier for the marketing team in the short term to do a quick “Save As” on a previous proposal and crank out the next one without too many changes to the format or content.

  3. Law firms often take any opportunity that they can get and haven’t yet figured out when it makes sense to say “no.”

  4. An adversarial relationship between partners and marketing staff often leads marketers to do what is asked without asking questions or making suggestions.

  5. The lawyers who receive requests for proposals are often hesitant to talk to the potential client about how to respond (and how quickly), so they default to what they’ve always done in the past.

Below I've tried to come up with some hacks to disrupt the current proposal process. Think of these suggestions as things to try, not definitive solutions. Building an effective proposal process is complex in large organizations, and it will take a lot of trial and error to get it right.

Multi-disciplinary Proposal Teams

Every proposal team should have a mix of professionals, including a partner, associate, business development professional, researcher and communications/design person. This team should meet regularly and not only develop materials in response to a request, but also problems-solve proactively together. Think of this team as your proposal think tank.

Case Studies

There is a great deal of proof that in the final stages of the sales process, case studies can be very effective. With a multi-disciplinary team, these could be fairly straight forward to develop and more effective than pages-long deal lists and Chambers rankings. Check out a case study related to my work here.

Listen More

Marketers need to take the time to understand why lawyers don’t like the materials we develop, and lawyers would increase their chances of success, if they listed to marketer’s suggestions on content strategy, format and design.

Best Practices – Sharing is Caring

Sharing materials and best practices within global law firm marketing teams should be routine. Business generation is the lifeblood of all marketing and business development teams, and everyone on the team, regardless of their role, should be aware of what specifically is working and what isn’t working.

Rational Thinking (and Conversations) about the Timeframe

Going back to my earlier example, did it make sense to throw something together and get it out the door in two hours? It’s very difficult to answer this question, but I can tell you that we did not get the work in that situation. Maybe if we had taken the time to speak with the client at length about what they were looking for rather than sending them a document, we would have ended up with a different result? If you have two hours, it’s generally going to look like your proposal took two hours, and that is rarely the right way to go. Being in business for myself has really changed my perspective on proposals. Proposals take me a really long time, several hours and sometimes a few days! Lucky for me, I don’t have the added complexity of incorporating the experience of a global organization or responding to a Fortune 500 company (maybe someday!). I try to talk to my potential clients about what they want, and my proposals are a roadmap for how we’ll work together. I need time to reflect and get inside my client’s head to do that. I set my proposal deadlines with my clients. I haven’t yet encountered a situation where it wasn’t okay to ask for at least a few days. The marketing team needs to coach partners on how to have these conversations with their clients and prospects.

What has worked for your firm? I’d love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, check out my post on creating and vetting your prospect list before you send that proposal!

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