In an ideal world your reputation as a lawyer will be well known, and you’ll land big clients who are knocking down your door trying to move their work to your firm. And you may have landed great clients over the years for this sort of reason. But, like it or not, many companies put law firms through dog-and-pony shows before doling out their work. They do this via a request for proposal (RFP), and while this is commonplace for large clients (who often only invite large firms), it’s increasingly common for smaller clients to issue RFPs. And boutique law practices are finding themselves on invitation lists.
For those of us in smaller practices, the RFP process can seem mysterious, and responding can feel overwhelming. But some very desirable clients use the RFP process to choose outside counsel, and if you’re smart about choosing which RFPs to respond to, you can land some great business. Choose poorly, however, and you could blow a lot of time on a process where you never had a reasonable chance.
Understand Why You Are Getting the RFP
So what are you to make of the RFP that just showed up in your inbox?
First, it helps to know what drives many organizations to use the RFP process. In some cases a company has been doing the work internally through its in-house legal department but has decided that the work is too voluminous or complex to manage completely in-house anymore. In others they’re using an outside firm already but are not happy with the firm’s performance. In some cases the company is price shopping and may not really be excited to leave their current firm but are trying to make sure that the pricing they’re getting accurately reflects the market.
Be very leery of participating in an RFP process where the legal department shopping the work is including the incumbent firm in the process. They may have to go through an RFP process to demonstrate to the higher-ups that they have shopped for the best value, and they’ll land on the firm they’ve probably been happy with all along. Or even if they’re not happy with fees or the level of responsiveness, they’re using the RFP process to essentially threaten their incumbent firm to shape up. And those firms probably will do what it takes to keep the work. The legal departments may, in fact, be looking for ideas on how the competing firms do work more efficiently and effectively and then simply try to get their incumbent firm to adapt those practices rather than rewarding the innovative firms with the work.
How do you find out if an incumbent firm is participating? Most of the RFPs allow invited firms to ask questions. Sometimes those questions must be submitted electronically, and the questions and answers will be shared with the other firms participating. So you may want to be careful about tipping your hand on your unique selling points by asking a question that will reveal to competitors something you intend to include in your RFP that may not be in others. But some clients are less formal than this and will allow an invited firm to just call and chat.
What are some questions you probably want to ask in addition to whether the incumbent firm is participating? Here are a few:
- Who at the company/organization is involved in the decision-making process? If the process is driven by the lawyers, then they’re probably focused more on the reputation of the firms competing. If the procurement team is running the show, then fees and metrics are probably going to matter a lot more.
- What is it that the client values and what were its frustrations with its current or earlier counsel? Were the fees out of line? Was work not being turned around promptly? Were there communications headaches? Were there work product quality issues? How does the client define success? Some clients are unreasonable, and you may not want to participate if the motivations that led to the RFP are unreasonable. Or perhaps you’re a premium firm and are more expensive than most, but the client views your work merely as a commodity and is interested in only paying a low price. Find out this sort of thing early on.
- What is the anticipated volume of work, and what types of matters are being referred? Can you handle that volume, and are you really qualified?
- What is the field of competition like? How many firms are competing? Too many and you might not want to bother. Are the competing firms all from the local area, all from out of town or a mix? This might be important since, in some cases, local firms are being invited more as a public relations move.
What Should You Expect to See in an RFP?
Some RFPs are relatively short and simple. Others can be mind-numbingly detailed and require a firm to spend dozens and dozens of hours preparing a response. One major one we just received came in at nearly 30 pages and was drafted as a contract that the bidding firm is required to sign. The first section contained ministerial details on timeline dates, submission formatting, how the evaluation process will work, etc. It then went into some detail on the specific legal services covered by the RFP and requested bidding firms provide information on everything from biographical details on attorneys and paralegals, malpractice insurance coverage and the bidding firm’s proposed fees.
Had we not seen similar proposals in the past, the document would be pretty intimidating. Fortunately, we have an in-house marketing professional at our firm (see the January/February 2019 entry of this column on why small firms should study adding such a person) who has been creating an internal database of information related to past RFPs, including sample response language since RFPs are often similar. And we now have a database of awards, authored articles, speaking engagements, press clippings and other accolades for our attorneys and the firm as a whole. Having this information handy definitely speeds up the response process.
Getting Invited to the Dance... And if You Lose
As for how to get invited, there’s no obvious answer. A lot of it is based on your firm having an established reputation, which is why the longer your firm’s been around, the more likely you’ll get RFPs, and firms that have visibility in the market will come up when people ask questions on listservs or call around to colleagues. You might get lucky and one of your existing, happy clients will be contacted or see the listserv post. But you’ll help your odds if you and your colleagues are writing for industry publications and attending conferences.
Finally, if you lose, as you very well may, it’s smart to try and contact the client and learn what you can on why the decision was made. Some clients have different rounds of consideration, and you may make it to a final dog-and-pony-show presentation by your firm so you will know you went far in the process. Try to find out what factors they liked about your firm and where you were weak. This information might help you the next time.