July/August 2019


Wild Pitches: Law Firms Often Miss the Strike Zone

Micah Buchdahl

There are few greater opportunities to generate business than the in-person presentation to prospective clients. We often revel in the chance because it typically means we’ve jumped through a few hoops to get this far in the process. Yet many law firms stumble just when they are getting near the finish line, delivering pitches that are high and inside, low and away, or simply out of the strike zone entirely.

I often have the opportunity to sit down with law firms before the pitch for preparation, practice and dress rehearsals. My most repeated pointers are that you are not drilling down enough with niche examples of substantive matters that directly relate to the audience; that you are saying what impresses you, not what is going to impress them; and that there is too much soft stuff. I might not completely ignore mentioning your Best Lawyers, or Chambers USA ratings, or top lawyers in Chicago, but I’ll blow by that data rather quickly. It is neither unique nor a differentiating factor for an educated, corporate legal team.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch a handful of law firms go through the pitch process to a panel of in-house counsel. The concept was that this was a chance for firms to practice their pitches, with the hopes that the “real” in-house lawyers would have “real” matters for them in the future. The presentations were limited in time, and the panels (like the firms presenting) were looking/pitching practices that ranged from intellectual property to labor and employment, and from corporate transactions to commercial litigation—and even the all-encompassing “general practice” (or, as I hate the oft-used misnomer, “full service”). These firms varied in size from two-person niche boutiques to multi-office, midsized firms with more than 100 lawyers. There were many recurring themes in the pitches and the Q&A sessions that followed. Let me discuss some of them.

Pretty slides don’t win. A number of presenting law firms had professional assistance from PowerPoint designers that made the firms look quite pretty. I don’t recall any of the panelists commenting on how vibrant the colors or images were. If anything, there was a sense that the spit-and-polish look was often a smoke screen for lack of substance. While it never hurts to have slick slides, it’s never going to be a key factor in winning the business. This leads to ...

Substance over form.

If there was one thing often lacking in the faux pitch presentations, it was a solid presentation of concrete, substantive examples of work. Just as “representative matters” are critical on your website, showing examples of successful matters and winning verdicts outweigh almost everything else. If you have to really dig to find something, you probably should not be there in the first place. Another incredibly important caveat to the comparison of what is on your website is ... what is on your website. You hope and probably assume that the audience has checked you out, done due diligence, read a proposal, reviewed your bio and perused the website. It is often pointed out to lawyers that the information on the website did not match or back up what is, or was presented, to them. If you go into great detail about a practice area on a pitch, make sure that practice online is not one of those with three sentences, as opposed to the practice pages with 1,500 words. Not matching up is a killer.

I referenced earlier soft sell components that do not move the needle for you. Besides firm “accolades,” there was often too much focus on things that are now assumed—good technology and mobility, location, cybersecurity (although, at times, it’s a key selling point), collegiality, and the good old “big firm experience/small firm attention” or a variation of the size/attention/price dynamic.

Every audience is different.

Many of us have sat in on panels and programs for years on the popular topic of “what do in-house counsel want?” What are they looking for? What are the key factors? It’s often one of the best-attended sessions at any law conference. What is the Coke guy looking for? What is the Apple gal looking at? There is one definitive conclusion from sitting through dozens, if not hundreds, of these programs: Everybody is different. There are no do-it-this-way answers that cut across the board. Be responsive. Sure. Price sensitive. Of course. Diverse? Most likely. Or, as Adrian says to Rocky, win. So we leave the program having learned the following: be a diverse, responsive, price-sensitive law firm that gets winning results. Of course, you later learn that it was just a dog-and-pony show used to justify retaining (or putting the squeeze on) current counsel; it was just an exercise. But exercise never hurts either.

There is no “I” in “team.”

Many presentations push the team toward the back end of the pitch. Your team may very well be you and perhaps a top-line cohort or two. Maybe it gets really thin when you start looking at bench strength. But many clients want to know what depth lies beyond you. If you have it, you need to tout it. It’s also critical that you make it clear who is going to be doing the work. Many are concerned with bait and switch in terms of the team members whom they will be seeing and interacting with on a daily basis.

It’s not always a fair fight.

Perhaps one of the greatest frustrations of law firms expending a great deal of time, money and energy into a pitch presentation is the realization that they never really had a chance of succeeding. There are legal teams that certainly use the pitch process to show their bosses that they are doing due diligence and being open-minded about selecting outside counsel—with no intention of moving away from their current law firms. Sometimes it is done to give a kick in the butt to those firms—sit up straight, lower those rates and remember you can be replaced. In other situations they already know where they are going to go. I’ve had in-house friends defend the practice by reminding me that it’s never a waste of time to get in front of their corporate legal team because you never know what tomorrow will bring, and it’s always good for them to know who you are. And, yes, there’s some validity in that.

Another major frustration to the law firm preparing a pitch—and this is the same for the request-for-proposal process—is not being sure exactly what you are looking for. If it is wieldy and broad-based or due “yesterday” (and clearly not a time-sensitive matter), consider letting this one go by the wayside. If you’re responding to every pitch opportunity you get, you’re not doing it right.

Throw a strike.

I opened this column by saying that there is nothing better in business development than getting the chance for an in-person, face-to-face presentation of what makes you special, qualified and really good at what you do. Make sure your pitch is right down the middle. Get objective feedback from outside of your firm. There are times where you sense little chance of winning, but it’s worth trying anyway. There is nothing better than having the chance to pitch. 

Micah Buchdahl

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, New Jersey, he is president of HTMLawyers Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. micah@htmlawyers.com