The bad ones (tales from tenders part II)

Last week’s post on law firm responses to RFPs (requests for proposal) drew good numbers and prompted some interesting discussion (it’s here if you missed it). I promised I’d follow up the horror stories with some thoughts on what makes both a good and a bad response.

Senior corporate counsel Kevin Ratmiester looked forward to spending his weekend reviewing law firm tender documents

Moving from the terrible to the merely unimpressive, there are some fairly common boo-boos (at least in my book they are boo-boos) that show up time and time again. None of them are fatal, but at the same time they can take the sheen off a response and given the hard work that goes into these documents, it seems a shame not to pick up maximum points!

The first is inconsistency between sections. This is most common when the sections cover different practice areas or different offices (for example on a global pitch) of a law firm. When drafting documents for clients, lawyers are very skilled at ensuring consistency of language and making sure the document reads well. With RFP response often there are sections which have very clearly got different authors and have taken totally different approaches to a common question, giving the document a really disjointed feel, and giving the impression that the two teams don’t really talk to each other. This one is pretty easily remedied and a response that gets it right feels much more aligned and cohesive, which is I suspect what most clients would want from their advisors.

The second common one, is peppering a response with a huge amount of examples which are only slightly relevant, if at all. Let me be clear, very similar work for either similar clients or marquee clients are very instructive and helpful in demonstrating that the law firm has real experience, but too often the examples are not well chosen or their relevance not fully explained. This leads to a high “so what?” factor, particularly by the non-lawyer members of evaluation panels.

One of the real challenges for law firms in these processes is the need to stand out. Many RFP responses are just, well, a bit bland. I don’t have any real silver bullets to explain how to avoid this, but the really good responses (which I’ll look at next week) manage to convey both a real sense of effort with the document, and a genuine hunger for the work. The less impressive ones feel like they’ve just come out of the RFP response sausage factory. For example, a tender I recently ran asked for a firm’s competitive advantage for particular type of work. One response (from an incumbent law firm) answered this simply by saying “we work for you so we know your business”. Well, that’s great, and it may well be true, but the fact that the company I was working with was running a tender process suggests that they were looking at their options for a reason, suggesting this existing knowledge may not be enough? It left me wondering if this was their only source of competitive advantage (and let’s be honest it’s not the hardest barrier to entry to overcome), and if so how they ever won any new business!

Conveying enthusiasm and setting the firm apart from its competitors is difficult; so perhaps a useful step is to get someone in the firm not connected with the tender to read through objectively and see how compelling the document is before it goes out of the door to try and assess how well the team have done specifically in making a distinctive, compelling document.

A personal preference I’ll share with you (and I know other in-house lawyers do take a different view here) is that I’m not a fan of over-reliance on directory awards and quotes. While these type of rankings and verbatims can provide some much needed third party validation, having been on the end of directory research many times both in law firms and as a client reference, the quality of the researchers can vary hugely in my experience, and I wouldn’t necessarily put too much weight on a host of glowing quotes.

Perhaps more useful are client references and direct client quotes. There have been a couple of occasions where I have asked for references and a firm has declined to provide them, which doesn’t send off a strong message, even if the reasons for declining are sound. An engaging, and honest reference (particularly one who will talk honestly about the law firm’s weaknesses as well as their strengths) can do the law firm the power of good, and I would encourage law firms to grow their base of champions who will fulfil this role. Generally speaking, people who have received a really good service from a law firm will be happy to talk about it, and while of course conscious of the need to respect the time of these advocates, I often find these discussions (whichever role I am playing) can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, length. Less is more.


Less is more.

Now the client needs to take some responsibility here, but bear in mind that an evaluation panel will often include senior execs who may not have shaped the process and may only have a marginal interest in proceedings even though they may be important contributors to the decision making process (see Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling for a classic discussion of buyer roles). This people are likely to have neither the time or the inclination to wade through five or six thirty page documents, so do try and keep it readable and concise, or if you are bound by the process to provide a lot of detail, write in such a way as to convey the key points early and clearly (Chip and Dan Heath talk about how to do this in “Made to Stick“).

So next time will be the good guys – some general approaches (without of course compromising and confidences or giving away trade secrets) that press the right buttons. In the meantime, good luck with your tenders.

3 thoughts on “The bad ones (tales from tenders part II)

  1. ganeshmuthiah

    Working on RFR itself is tiring because lots of thinking involved from organisation itself, wonder how the tender processing outsource can make a living in such a competitive environment where customer demand for customization or always something from the box.

    I find your post interesting.

    1. Intelligent Challenge Post author

      Thanks for the comment. You raise an interesting point about outsourcing tender responses – one way I’ve seen this used effectively is an organisation outsourcing the mechanical part of the exercise – pulling together content, getting the look and feel in place, proofreading etc, which then frees the organisation up to focus on the real value added parts of the tender response. That said, at the moment this type of middle office outsourcing is really in its infancy within Western law firms, but I think it is an area that will begin to be adopted much more quickly over the coming months


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