My experience is that pitching is indeed on the rise but that most lawyers just hate it and that very few firms succeed in producing consistently high quality proposals. Many have even outsourced it entirely to the marketing departments.
A while ago, a colleague sent me a copy of an article that appeared in the Dutch magazine Mr. In the article several Dutch law firms comment on the ever more popular technique to use request for proposals (‘pitches') to select law firms and how they deal with it.
Besides the somewhat mathematically puzzling conclusion that law firms in The Netherlands seem to win the large majority of the pitches they participate in, the article also contains some remarkable phrases: "Pitching forces you to listen very carefully to the needs of the client and look at yourself in the mirror." And: "All the firms conduct a thorough evaluation of every pitch they participate in." Or: "At the debriefing, negative experiences are shared with everyone." And this one: "Everybody seems to agree that pitching is a fun and exciting process to which lawyers contribute with a lot of enthusiasm."
I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the journalist lives on Mars or whether he was the victim of a tiny little bit of window-dressing. Anyway, my experience is that pitching is indeed on the rise but that most lawyers just hate it and that very few firms succeed in producing consistently high quality proposals. Many have even outsourced it entirely to the marketing departments.
The glooming reality is one of despairing marketing managers, working late, struggling to produce an urgent pitch that has sit on the desk of the lawyer for two weeks and for which they hardly received any input, leaving them with no other choice but to generate the next dreary, where-have-I-seen-this-one-before proposal. Yes, some of the firms have reached decent levels, mainly because they have top quality marketing people, fully supported by the partnership. But the average pitch is just below standards (as are, by the way, many requests for proposals and selection processes…).
Why is it that lawyers manage unique occasions to impress potential clients so poorly? There are lawyers, blessed with a loyal client portfolio, who just don't find this sort of activity intellectually stimulating and who admit that they are not good at it. But they are a small minority. Two other maggot-like scoundrels principally gnaw at the quality of pitching: the system and testosterone.
It's the system, stupid!
Today's law firms are not made for pitching. Pitches generally arrive on the desk of the rainmakers who don't really need them. Preparing pitches fall in the time management bag where similar items such as ‘appraisal interviews', ‘transaction debriefings', ‘giving feedback to associates' and ‘spending time with my family' are waiting for Godot. That bag is labelled ‘Important, but there is always something more urgent and more billable'. By the time pitches really get urgent, they become the marketing department's problem.
If ‘the system' is not really favouring ‘preparing pitches', what to say about ‘evaluating and debriefing pitches'. Which lawyer wants to spend lawyer time, the only resource on earth scarcer than oil, to evaluate a thing of the past that was ill prepared in the first place? As long as non-billable remains ‘non-billable' and not ‘investment time' and as long as firms have not sorted out how to structure that investment time, evaluating pitches will remain lip-service.
"Law firms are temples of testosterone"
This quote of the century is not mine, unfortunately. It comes from Ben F. Johnson III, Alston & Bird's managing partner for a decade. In the article Humble Lawyers: The Key to Pleasing Clients,he points out that "lawyers who pride themselves how tough they are" are making a fatal mistake, preventing them to deliver service that is of the highest possible level.
I would take that reasoning one step further: testosterone-overdoses are not only detrimental to client service; they are one of the most important obstacles to excellence in general. And pitching in particular. Why? Because pitching is about winning and losing, the favourite playing field of testosterone.
In the testosterone universe:
- ‘Having to participate in pitching' means: "my reputation and expertise are not enough to win the client."
- ‘Having to participate in pitching for an existing client' means: "I have messed up."
- ‘Carefully preparing a pitch' means again: "I am afraid my reputation and expertise are not enough to win the client."
- ‘Asking other partners or the marketing department to help in preparing the pitch' means: "I am not able to win business on my own".
- ‘Thoroughly evaluating lost pitches' means: "there might be good reason why I lost the pitch".
- ‘Thoroughly evaluating successful pitches' means: "this win comes unexpected."
Finding the right strategy, tactics and tone in a pitch requires empathy, curiosity and healthy doses of modesty. The more a firm is ego-driven, the less performing it will be in generating great proposals. As long as the rainmakers don't take it serious, no one will.
Pitching is not rocket-science. It is fairly easy to train pitching skills, it is not that complicated to set up a decent pitching process or to install best practices. But as so often, skills and processes mean nothing if the values and the culture of the firm are not aligned. Good firms train lawyers in pitching and support them with pitching processes. Great firms build environments that stimulate and motivate those skilled and well supported lawyers.