The perfect pitch: why pitching skills are at a premium for law firms
High above West 52nd Street on a muggy Midtown afternoon, Marty Lipton picks up my pitch document: an invitation to contribute a chapter in a new M&A book. The most fleeting of glimpses and it's tossed disdainfully back across his desk. "Not interested," barks the biggest rainmaker at the world's most profitable large law firm, Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz. "You've got half an hour – what else do you wanna know?"
Hurriedly reverting to interview mode, my questions focus on Wachtell's evolution, innovation and pre-eminence as a New York transactional powerhouse.
Marty mutates, effortlessly. Laconic and cogent, he distils for me the history of big-ticket M&A and his role in shaping it, delivering the closest thing imaginable to the perfect pitch: a superlative performance matched only by his arch-rival, the late Joe Flom – the man who made Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.
These events happened, of course, some 20 years ago.
Although they may dream of one day forging a reputation in the Lipton league – at 83, he remains a name partner in the firm he co-founded and is an active writer and speaker – the relentless pursuit of the perfect pitch is very much an everyday reality for thousands of partners. Developing their practice critically resides in their ability to sell themselves, their team and their firm via a succession of well-crafted pitches.
The key question, according to Richard Grove, global marketing director at Allen & Overy (A&O), is: "How the hell do you differentiate yourselves?"
Amid such intense pressure, how exactly do partners address Grove's question and perfect their pitch to stand out above the rest?
First, some definitions. A law firm pitch is a competitive formal opportunity to respond to an invitation to tender or a proposal request. They commonly include panel pitches and are increasingly evaluated by dedicated procurement teams of non-lawyers as much as by general counsel.
Second, most pitches have three sequential elements: the pre-pitch process, the pitch document and the client presentation.
Third, pitching has a discrete lexicon, its own jargon, such as 'scoping' and 'win rate', while the narrative of legal marketeers and pitch managers is universally punctuated by the words 'bespoke', 'dialogue', 'rapport' and 'relationships'.
Alongside partners, firms use specialist pitch teams to work strategically and (cue: threadbare cliche) seamlessly, to achieve the best win rate. Talk to these specialists and they will tell you that pitch volumes – formal and informal, proposals, requests for proposals, invitations to tender for getting on panels and for individual pieces of work – have increased dramatically. According to Adam Soames, head of clients and markets at Hogan Lovells: "They have grown exponentially and continue to grow exponentially."
Once seen as an impediment to effective pitching, procurement teams are increasingly praised for their professionalism and sophistication. "I welcome procurement because it adds rigour and structure to the process," says Carol Kennedy (pictured, below), senior pitch manager at DLA Piper.
A more nuanced response comes from Matthew Fuller, director of business development at White & Case: "Procurement makes developing relationships more complex."
Soames counters: "You can have a very constructive relationship with procurement. You've got to embrace them rather than try to avoid them. They can be very influential.
"Procurement can be strategic or tactical. With the strategic approach procurement specialists will engage as part of the ongoing relationship management. With the tactical approach procurement specialists will be brought in to deal with a tender process and then tend to disappear. Clients that do it well take a strategic approach."
Once invited to pitch, a firm's response is multi-layered, beginning with the pre-pitch process: getting to know exactly what the client wants and needs, the role of legal and procurement functions and the selection criteria – aka scoping.
This is also used to establish which other firms are in the frame and to identify precisely what the work involves. "Scoping can give you the edge against the competition," explains Kennedy. "When done effectively you can influence the evaluation and uncover information to hone your proposition."
Gaius Powell, director of business development at Pinsent Masons, advises: "Have scoping calls as much as you can with the client or target ahead of submitting the document. That gives you a greater feel for the nuances: trying to understand what the client wants to achieve commercially."
If it's an existing client, he adds, those discussions can be quite open: "You want a dialogue – not a monologue – and clients want that, too."
At A&O, which made around 9,000 pitches firmwide last year, "it's what you do before the pitch that matters as opposed to the pitch itself", argues Grove. "Every client will have a preconception of the winner so it's enormously important that the relationship management has taken place. We encourage our pitch teams and lawyers to engage the client in the creation of the pitch."
He develops Powell's point: "You should be on the phone to the client and any number of contacts in that client continuously, to the extent that, if you haven't started to irritate them with the number of calls that you've put in, you probably haven't done enough."
Kennedy adds a note of caution: "Relationships are critical when pitching but never be complacent: a good relationship won't guarantee appointment."
Not all pitch invitations are ultimately accepted; only the best cherries are picked. "Reasons for going ahead can vary," says Gareth Pezzack, global head of marketing at Eversheds, "from the no-brainer tenders to existing, valuable clients or where you're trying to break into new work with the client.
"You sometimes take a strategic view, knowing that the feedback will be invaluable in terms of developing the relationship and informing future pitches."
To manage the pitch process holistically, says Soames, Hogan Lovells has a decision map to assess pitch opportunities, "because you don't necessarily always know the full scope of what's being asked and what's required. The easiest way of increasing your win rate is to go for more pitches that you know you've got a better chance of winning."
In summary: ask lots of questions, find out as much as you can, assiduously cultivate relationships and critically evaluate each opportunity.
Pitch and sell
Traditionally the centrepiece of the process, the pitch document is now widely regarded as a stepping stone to the presentation. Along the way, it has evolved and fragmented into myriad forms. The variety is enormous, says Fuller. "Project pitches tend to be longer and more complex," he explains. "At the other extreme, it may be a short email with a fee quote. For a capital markets transaction, it's very specific: there is a market price. It will last only a matter of days whereas a project can go on for years."
Length will vary, and is often prescribed by the client, but 10-25 pages are the typical parameters for a standard pitch. Panel pitches usually allow two to three weeks' response time, but "at the extreme in the finance area", says Fuller, "you'll occasionally get told that they want it by the end of the day".
He offers a clear critique: "It's a sales document; all pitches are sales documents. That's the most important thing: we have to show off our wares." His sales mantra – focus on benefits, not features – finds common cause.
But Soames disagrees: "I don't see it as a sales document. I see it as a buying document: buying criteria and selection criteria will vary according to the situation."
At White & Case and at his previous firms, Herbert Smith Freehills and A&O, Fuller has
"noticed that putting in tonnes of credentials doesn't go down well with clients". The two things clients look at, he suggests, are the executive summary, which should be on one page, and the fee proposal: time needs to be invested on those two elements.
"Many firms, I suspect, spend too much time assembling CVs and credentials at the back-end and not focusing on the important things – the key selling messages and benefits to the client," Fuller says.
Grove responds: "I don't see it as a pure numbers game. Our worst nightmare is to find ourselves only competing on price, as it would be for most law firms."
So how critical is price to success? "I'm not sure that proposal documents always win you pitches, but they can lose them for you if you don't answer the questions," says Soames.
Kennedy adds: "The golden rule is: stick with what the client has asked for in terms of format."
Meanwhile, Pezzack points to "the risk you can fall into of regurgitating boilerplate material – especially when timescales are tight".
Like many firms, Eversheds has been adventurous in developing new pitch formats: digital and multimedia. "We have done pitches that include videos of the lead partner," says Pezzack. "They've gone down tremendously well. All the wordsmiths in the world can't convey the same passion and enthusiasm to win a client as a person can on video."
But no matter how alluring a video or aesthetically pleasing a document may be – infographics are popular, especially at A&O – there is no substitute for seeing lawyers in the flesh. "For non-clients, the document is the door opener. But it's not often that the document is the decider; it's the presentation," says Powell.
Fuller explains: "Only a minority of pitches go to a beauty parade; they tend to be the larger and more complex ones."
'Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse'
Preparation may be everything, yet Grove advocates telling stories in the form of testimonials: "I'm not sure it's true to say we train our lawyers, we don't use the word training, we use coaching, and we rehearse."
Partners' presentations are filmed so that they can be advised and coached on their technique. A&O also plays back success stories: partners telling their story to their fellow partners to demonstrate 'from the horse's mouth' that it works.
"We run a lot of internal training and put lawyers on external training," says Fuller. "It's recognised as a key part of the development of their careers. They can't just be good lawyers, they have to have client development skills, as well." Increasingly, White & Case associates are trained alongside partners.
"One of the adages that we use here is: rehearse, rehearse, rehearse," explains Hogan Lovells' Soames. "We see it as vital to make sure that our teams are preparing effectively for pitches."
Pezzack adds: "We push Eversheds lawyers hard to do rehearsals; it's not easy – they don't like it. Rehearsal is about ensuring the content is focused on the client and also trying to build rapport and rehearsing the links between people. Often, where presentations fall apart is in the handovers; presenters can be too focused on getting their own content and delivery right."
Like actors missing their cue.
Adopting the minimalist mantra of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Kennedy suggests that "less is more" in presentations. To achieve this, DLA tries to make rehearsals "as realistic and lifelike as possible. We like to run a number of rehearsals well in advance of the presentation." Often these are virtual, with partners from different offices participating.
The real value in rehearsing, says Powell, is that it helps lawyers go in to the presentation confident and self-assured.
Rehearsals over, the curtain is raised for a one-off performance of somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes. Pezzack believes that the presentation "provides an opportunity to address points missed in the written pitch document".
More simply, suggests Grove, it's all about making them like you. This echoes Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman: "The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want."
Back to Grove. "The presentation should not feel like a presentation, it should feel like a dialogue with the client," he says.
Powell agrees: "The best presentations are where there is dialogue. The less they are an interview and the more they're a conversation, the better. It often comes down to trust."
Kennedy cites another sales mantra: people buy from people they trust.
Grove tells an instructive tale in terms of how to approach a presentation: "We did an enormously helpful exercise. We asked our partners: to what extent do you believe you should be advising your client on their strategic business issues? There was some reluctance to do that; they were focused on the matter.
"We then asked our clients the same question: do you expect your advisers to provide nontechnical legal advice relating to your strategic business issues? To which the answer was almost unanimously: yes.
"There was a sea change in attitude once we played that back to partners. It wasn't just us reading the book of best practice; it was hard evidence."
Pitches are won or lost but, win or lose, feedback matters. "Feedback is gold dust," says Kennedy. "Debriefs are learning opportunities and the outputs can be leveraged to drive continual improvements. It's equally important to find out what we did well after a win as what we didn't after a loss."
Pezzack agrees that feedback is "hugely important". It helps Eversheds "continue to push forward our best practice and inform future pitching strategy".
To try and get "wholly accurate and honest feedback", he believes it is better that the pitch manager does the debrief rather than the lead partner. "Sometimes it is price, but at other times price is used as a reason to avoid any further discussion. Often with a bit of probing you can discover other aspects."
In many firms, feedback information is gathered and centrally analysed to look at trends, such as whether pitches are lost on price or relationships.
While business development staff may play a key role in the organisation and preparation for pitches, much of the presentation still comes down to the partners - and associates - on the team. So how have their opinions changed over time?
Phil Sanderson, a private equity partner at Ropes & Gray's London office and former practice head at Travers Smith, says: "The old fashioned view is that selling is a dirty word. That law is a profession and is above sales. But selling quality and sage advice is part of the pitch. The best businesses know what they're selling and how to sell it; the best salesmen in our profession know what they're selling and how it's delivered. The very best do that and exude the ‘why us'.
At Macfarlanes, the firm regularly brings in external trainers to polish the skills of those pitching on particularly significant matters. Partners and associates will be given training, with the firm taking a practice makes perfect approach before fielding a carefully constructed team, all of whom are given the opportunity to speak.
Senior partner Charles Martin says: "The basic rules are to get as much information as possible about who else is pitching and what the client really wants - you need to use every means at your disposal to understand who the decision makers are and why you're on the list."
"You can invest a huge amount of time and money in training and getting it right. The more effort and thought you put into the preparation, the better your chances of winning the pitch. The question then is, given the enormous investment of time and money, have you got in place appropriate procedures to ensure that there really is a good fit in terms of the client, the job, the terms on offer and points of compelling differentiation between you and the other firms pitching. Be realistic and objective. It can be a big investment just to pitch."
But assuming all the preparation has been done perfectly and that the work would be a good fit for the firm, can any lawyer be taught how to sell themselves, their team and their firm? Here opinion is divided.
"There are salesmen and salesmen," says Sanderson. "Some who are good enough and some who are uber good. Some people just naturally sell and it isn't taught and those are likely to go on to be the most successful partners.
"You can teach networking and carry out practice pitches but you can't teach flair. You can't teach someone how to deliver extraordinary returns out of nowhere. You just need a culture which nurtures enough people in the firm with that magic dust."
Martin is more generous: "A lot of this is not rocket science. It's about diligent preparation. The skills you need to pitch are not the same as more traditional rainmaking skills. Pitching is a more narrow skillset - a lot of it is about being organised. And anything you can do to differentiate what you do is increasingly important at the non-commoditised end; thoughtfulness, originality, personality - these things matter."
Pitching: the future
So what is the future of pitching? Grove predicts: "There will be a greater degree of what I call 'best of breed' pitching, fragmentation: clients will have a requirement, which can then be sliced up into a number of different disciplines or sub-disciplines.
"That then leads you on to something we will see a lot more of: the requirement for project management on the front-end. Not only will firms need to provide a degree of project management in large and complex matters, but they will also, in some cases, be required to project manage several contributors to the service required by the client."
Soames takes a different tack: "There is a divergence in approaches. On the one hand, you are seeing an increasingly creative, bespoke approach to pitches and presentations. On the other, you've got a backdrop of clients wanting to manage the processes much more tightly, which shuts down creativity, so we will see an increasing prevalence of the template, standardised approach."
Whichever dominates, effective pitching will remain integral to every partner's skillset. A final mantra? Practice makes perfect.
Originally posted on LegalWeek.