Area Man Drowns in Deluge of Law Firm Pitches

by Timothy B. Corcoran on June 18, 2009

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Readers of the satirical newspaper The Onion enjoy how the mundane challenges of the everyman are elevated to newsworthy headline-grabbing stories.  “Is Area Man Going to Finish Those Fries” and “Area Man Sorry He’s Late, Got Here As Fast As He Could” are typical examples.  While reading a recent Law.com article I had to double check that I wasn’t actually reading Onion-style satire.

In his career column, author/consultant Frank M. D’Amore addresses a longtime law firm partner’s questions about how to pitch a client.  “I am fully versed in how to pitch my — and my firm’s — specific experience and other typical efforts,” the partner states, but he goes on to ask for advice on what more subtle factors are considered when selecting outside counsel.

When it comes to lawyers’ sales abilities, the bar is at times quite low.  The first challenge is understanding that clients buy to meet their own needs, not because your pitch is so informative.  It would be safe to say that many a law firm partner who has won work primarily by pitching his experience has been lucky enough to talk to potential clients who have a clear need for what he offers. And if he’s attended the right client events, spoken on the right panels, it’s not all that far-fetched to believe that many of the potential clients he’s met have had the same clear need.  But let’s not confuse cause and effect.

Let’s shift our attention to the cell phone representative sitting in a kiosk in a well-trafficked intersection at the local mall.  Consumers who need cell phones typically head to the mall to make their purchase.  Several competing cell phone providers have their own kiosks or storefronts a moment’s walk away, and this proximity serves as a multiplier for potential consumer traffic in the same way that a strip of auto dealers attracts more visitors than the lonely dealer on the edge of town.  Everyone we know has a cell phone, so very few consumers must be convinced of the need.  There are occasional disparities in offerings, such as the iPhone available from exclusive carriers, but for the most part every cell phone provider offers similar features, range of coverage and pricing.  In this context, it’s a bit of a stretch to laud the cell phone representative when at the end of the work day he’s managed to sell quite a few cell phones.  Clearly the cell phone provider must secure a good location and offer compelling devices, but for the individual cell phone representative his greatest contribution to making the sale may be showing up for work.

We should be clear, of course, that cell phones and legal advice are not equivalent commodities, but still the anecdote serves to illustrate that many lawyers who have been successful in recent years have been the beneficiaries of a multi-year run of near unlimited demand for legal services.  Their skills are in demand and therefore there’s little incentive to develop the consultative skills necessary to generate demand or to differentiate their services or to solve a client’s problem.  If the prospective client didn’t bite at the pitch, there’s another one calling tomorrow.  But imagine a scenario where the phone doesn’t ring, where prospective clients are few and far between, where price appears to matters more than experience.  How well does the pitch of yesteryear work in that context?  That context is our present reality, everywhere we turn.

Clients have always selected outside counsel because there is a business need to address, and the law firm’s capabilities, approach, personnel and price meet the client’s demand.  Clients haven’t hired many firms because a roomful of well-dressed partners, including the representative minorities, toss their Ivy League degrees and glossy booklets of bios and deal lists on the table and convince the buyer that “I can’t let this one get away.”  This is not the NBA where a general manager might draft the best player available regardless of need, because he assumes he can jettison an incumbent if the new player is better, or make a profit by trading the new player to a team with a specific need.  Few General Counsel have ever been given a legal budget with instructions to hire the law firm with the best capabilities and experience, with no particular matter in mind but just so that if we need them in the future they’ll be ready.

Which is to say, a “pitch” to a client that is primarily about you, and what you’ve done, and your credentials, is likely to be ineffective in today’s climate.  We all know General Counsel who are inundated with lunch requests, golf outings, game tickets, and so on.  Most don’t mind being asked, they understand law firms need to find new sources of revenue, but they are weary of the same inelegant approach.  In one anecdote, a GC lamented that a Biglaw partner took her to lunch and spent the entire time whining about his reduced book of business.  The partner didn’t ask about the GC’s business, he didn’t boast about his accomplishments, he didn’t even brashly ask for more work.  He just whined.

Careful readers of this blog know the basics but we’ll repeat them until they are ingrained:  It’s critical to know about our client’s business challenges.  From business challenges come legal challenges.  The way to learn about these challenges is to ask.  When clients talk, we listen.  We don’t leap at the first hint of a legal problem and offer to solve it.  We listen to understand the whole context.  We provide customized proposals to meet the client’s needs, which clearly demonstrate how what we offer addresses their business challenges.  We help the client prioritize the challenges by quantifying the cost to the business of the various approaches, including doing nothing.  (The business cost, not the legal budget!)  We incorporate a deep understanding of the client’s appetite for risk, understanding that in business there are often other factors more important than “winning” in the legal sense.  We respect the client’s significant aversion to surprise, so we will conduct the engagement openly and negotiate a fee arrangement which optimizes cost and predictability.

All good things come to an end.  The time of the law firm partner who specializes in narrating his brochure to prospective clients as a mean of generating work at whatever billable rate he demands is over.  Partners who are consultative, who understand their clients’ business, who can demonstrate flexibility in fee arrangements, who operate openly, will find no shortage of work even in this climate.

A lot of the AmLaw 100 firms are idle while AmLaw 200 and midsize firms elsewhere are busy.  Does this mean the smaller firms have this all figured out?  No!  But given the choice between a really expensive lawyer who doesn’t understand my business and an expensive lawyer who doesn’t understand my business, a GC will often quite naturally choose the latter.  But here’s the secret:  a Biglaw partner can win work back from the smaller firms if he takes a consultative approach and adds real value to the client’s business, because the long-run cost to the GC will be lower than the savings generated by endless price-shopping with new providers.

Before we conclude, let’s caution that understanding the client’s needs and meeting them are two different challenges.  In the article, Mr. D’Amore, a former GC himself, correctly scolds the partner who learns of an opportunity, albeit outside of the firm’s expertise, but takes the approach,“We can do anything. Just get the matter in the door, we’ll figure out how to do it.”  I witnessed a near civil war in a global law firm when a European auto manufacturer asked if the firm had experience with a particular issue.  A handful of partners with the help of Marketing constructed an elaborate “Automotive Industry” brochure pretending to portray a depth of experience the firm simply did not have.  Not surprisingly the client didn’t find the firm’s claims credible and selected another firm.  There was a near riot as partners blamed each other for not properly contributing to the storyline.  One marketer was bold enough to suggest that perhaps honesty with the prospective client might have generated more credibility, but such a crazy notion was dismissed.

Winning work in today’s climate is difficult.  The challenge has caused many partners to question themselves.  Obviously the rules have changed, and the mathematical certainties like high demand an inexorable rate increases that were ingredients to a Biglaw partner’s success in the past have become less certain.  There is a way out, and it doesn’t involve becoming a cell phone salesperson.  The skills and abilities that make a good lawyer are exactly the skills needed to understand and solve client problems.  This is no laughing matter.  So let’s put down The Onion and get to it.

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