Writing client alerts that stand out

I’m baaaaaaaaaack! Yes, it’s been awhile. Thank you for your patience while I’ve been engulfed by other projects and trying to figure out how to get more hours in a day. Turns out I only get the same number as everyone else. What a shame. I was hoping to find the loophole.

So…client alerts. I was conducting a webinar on this topic for some of our business development, marketing and communications professionals the other day and it took me back to six years ago when I first developed the training.

I had been with the firm for about a year when our CMO asked me to review some of our client alerts to see how we could improve them. My first challenge was to figure out who even wrote our client alerts, how they were distributed and how many we sent out each year. As you know, getting your arms around who does what at a firm as large as ours can be a formidable task, especially when you’re new.

My research revealed that mostly lawyers write client alerts and BD and marketing are in charge of distributing them. So I settled myself into a big cushy chair to read a cross-section of alerts from various regions and practice groups to identify patterns. This is what I found:

  • Headlines didn’t grab my attention.
  • News was buried.
  • Opening paragraphs were dense and hard to understand.
  • Many were too long (15-plus pages).
  • Most lacked any kind of practical advice.

That last issue was the biggest problem in my mind. I mean why explain a new legal development to clients without providing tips for what to do about it? That’s like me writing this entire blog post critiquing our client alerts and then saying, “Good luck!” without offering any suggestions on how to improve them.

Yet that’s precisely what so many client alerts do. It’s not just me who’s noticed. Clients and prospects — the very audience we are trying to inform and impress with our knowledge — have taken note as well. One general counsel has gone so far as to write a parody of the client alerts he receives from big law firms to demonstrate how formulaic and unhelpful they can be.

In his parody, featured on the Above the Law legal blog, Aon Chief Counsel Mark Herrmann offers this advice to those interested in writing a client alert he may actually read:

Say something — anything — that isn’t the usual pabulum. Perhaps: “The new law may have an unintended consequence” — and identify it. Or: “This law may interact with another law in an important way.” Or: “An industry association has announced that it will be filing a constitutional challenge to certain provisions in the law. If your corporation is interested in supporting that effort, call X.” But, unless you enjoy being perceived as one of the crowd, please don’t tell us only that “a law was passed; you should obey it; we can help.” Been there; heard that; not impressed.

So, yeah. We need to take a step back and make sure we are giving clients the information they want in an alert. Let’s start by defining what a client alert is and what it’s intended to do. Here’s my take:

What a client alert is: A client alert is a short news bulletin that informs clients of a significant legal development that will affect their business — typically a new law, regulation, policy or major case.

Purpose: The purpose of a client alert is to explain how a legal development will affect clients and what steps they should take as a result of that development. The alert should provide practical information, not a legal analysis.

Based on this definition and purpose, here are my tips for writing clients alerts:

1. Write it like a news story.

When writing a client alert, you are not a lawyer, you are a news reporter. You are telling someone what happened, which means you need to get to the point. Right away. In the first sentence. Forget about the background, defined terms and lengthy name of the new law or policy. Those should come later. I’ll show you why.

Read this opening paragraph of a client alert, and try to identify what the news is.

In July 2008, more than 10 years after the Equal Opportunities Commission (“EOC”) introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“RDO”) was gazetted (published by the government). Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect of the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“Code”), which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Did you find the news? Where is it? Yep, buried in the last sentence.

It took the author 76 words to get to the news that the Race Discrimination Ordinance had taken effect. And let’s look at those 76 words for a second. Do we care that the RDO took effect 10 years after the first consultation paper? Is it important for readers to know that the process of developing the race discrimination law sparked heated debate? And that significant amendments were made to the original draft?

No, not really. Those are background details that can go farther down in the story. If I’m a busy employment lawyer at a company in Hong Kong, I want to know three things:

  • What happened?
  • How does it affect me or my company?
  • What should we do about it?

Instead, you want to start with the news (what happened) like this:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees, even if they didn’t know about the conduct. The only way employers can avoid liability is to demonstrate they have taken practical steps to avoid discrimination and harassment in their hiring and management processes.

Then explain how it affects your audience, like this:

Failing to take steps to comply with the RDO puts your company at risk of litigation. The new ordinance allows job applicants and employees to file race discrimination complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission, which has the power to conduct investigations and facilitate settlements. Grievants can also file claims in district court, which has the power to invalidate contracts that violate the RDO, order you to reinstate or promote an employee and award punitive and exemplary damages.

In this second paragraph, I’m essentially saying, “Hey, employers. If you don’t pay attention to the RDO, these are the potential consequences.” That information is most likely to get their attention and keep them reading to find out what they need to do to comply with the new law.

Also notice how much easier the sentences are to read when they’re not peppered with lots of dates, legalese and defined terms like (“EOC”), (“RDO”) and (“Code”). The date on the alert is sufficient to tell readers when the event happened (assuming you’re writing about it within the same month, which I hope you are), and you should avoid using defined terms in alerts because they’re distracting and unnecessary. An alert is a client communication, not a legal contract.

Using this “get to the point” structure respects your audience’s time. Don’t make them wait 76 words for the news. You risk losing them.

2. State the news concisely in your headline.

Headlines are one of the most important aspects of any news story because they often determine whether someone will read on. The headline for the alert we’ve been discussing was this:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance and Code of Practice on Employment — Now Fully Operational

The good thing about this headline is that it does state the news about the new ordinance. However, there’s an easier way to say it. Instead of using a wordy phrase like “now fully operational,” why not simply say “takes effect”? Then your headline would be:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance Takes Effect

Now it’s half of the original length. (Note that I also shortened the ordinance name to make the headline even more concise.)

As I explain in my post on how to write catchy headlines, using verbs in your headlines will make them stronger and more likely to pique curiosity. A headline that says “Cross-Border M&A rises 20%” is much more likely to get a reader’s attention than “Trends in Cross-Border M&A.”

The verb “rises” gives the first headline a sense of momentum. It also forces you to say exactly what the cross-border M&A trend is. Providing that detail is more likely to make a reader wonder, 20%? Hmmm…why did it rise 20%? and read on to find out. In headline writing, reader curiosity is your best friend.

3. Provide practical advice

Okay, this is where you get to be lawyers. This is when you use your knowledge and expertise to look at the legal development and put it in perspective for clients. It’s the time to, as Mark Herrmann urges, think about things like whether the new law or policy may have unintended consequences or interact with another law in an important way. As a member of our target audience, Mark gave us some great advice on how to differentiate our alerts from the pack. So let’s follow it.

At the very least, provide some tips about what actions clients should take in response to the development you’re writing about. And make sure they go beyond the standard “consult with legal counsel” or “review your policies to make sure they comply with the new law.”

Those tips are too vague to be of much help. They also fail to show that you’re a creative, innovative thinker who offers clients practical advice that will help them solve their business problems. You’re not going to just tell them what they can hear from anyone else.

4. Use the client alert template

If you want a framework to help you implement these tips, I’d recommend using the client alert template I created to help lawyers and business services professionals write stronger headlines, get to the news quickly and include practical tips. The template (only accessible to Baker McKenzie employees) follows a four-section structure with instructions for what to include in each section. The sections include:

  • Headline
  • Section 1: What’s changed
  • Section 2: What it means for you
  • Section 3: Actions to take
  • Section 4: Read more (optional)

For most alerts, you should only use the first three sections. Only — and I repeat, only — use section 4 when you need to provide additional context about the new law, policy or case for clients who want the nitty gritty details (most don’t). As an alternative, consider ending the alert with something like, “If you’d like further details about this development you can read the law/policy/case here” and link to it. (Bonus tip: don’t say “Click here.” That’s old school.)

In addition to the template, I’ve also created a Quick Start Guide on how to use the template and a sample alert to show you what the finished product looks like when you follow it. You can find these materials on BakerWorld.

Going forward, I highly recommend using the template to write client alerts rather than sitting in a dark room, staring at a blinking cursor with no one else to talk to. If you’re still not convinced that you need help, here’s a testimonial from one lawyer who used the template:

I found the template really helped me to focus my thoughts and get over that initial hump of staring at a blank screen. Because of that, I think the first draft only took me about an hour, whereas usually it is a much longer process. Thank you very much.

So, give the template a try and let me know if it helps you gain more hours in your day. I think I just might have found the loophole.

Lawyer bios: what matters to clients

Keep It Pithy T-shirt

Our new head of proposals has a T-shirt pinned to the bulletin board in her office. It says “Keep it pithy!” in bold black letters. And it’s pink. You can’t miss it.

When I started talking to this associate director about writing I could tell she lives and works by the edict on her T-shirt. She loves active voice, catchy headlines and getting to the point. When providing direction to her team on what to include and not include in the proposals they write to win new business for our law firm, she asks them, “What matters to the client?”

This question is also important to consider when writing lawyer bios, or any bio for that matter, whether it’s yours or someone else’s that you’re drafting for a proposal or the firm’s website.

When writing bios, we often include information that’s significant to us but doesn’t matter to our audience. We may be proud of particular awards or rankings. We may be enamored with articles we’ve written or speeches we’ve given at conferences. We may hold leadership positions within our organization. And these are all good things.

But a little goes a long way when talking about awards, rankings, publications and committees. For one thing, none of these things tell a story. They are facts that, when listed one after the other, read like a laundry list. And who wants to read a laundry list?

For another thing, it can start to sound “braggadocious,” as Donald Trump so famously claimed not to be during last week’s U.S. Presidential Debate. It’s a delicate balance to write a bio that’s impressive yet balanced. One that provides enough information about your expertise while “keeping it pithy!” One that focuses on what matters to the client rather than what’s important to you.

So let’s think about this from the client’s perspective. If you were looking for an employment lawyer to help you resolve a complex HR issue, which of the following would be most important?

a. Where they went to school
b. How long they’ve been practicing
c. What their areas of expertise are
d. What articles they’ve written
e. What speeches they’ve given
f. What clients they’ve worked for
g. What committees they’ve served on
h. What outcomes they’ve achieved for clients

So…?

Well, according to Career Tools, a professional development podcast I listen to, anyone who’s considering hiring you, whether it’s a potential client or potential employer, wants to know two things:

1. What do you do?
2. How well do you do it?

That’s it. End of story.

Why do they want to know this? Because it’s the quickest way to tell whether you have the direct experience to help them solve their problems. As Mark Twain said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Okay, so he wasn’t talking about lawyer bios, but he could have been.

My answer to the quiz above was h: what outcomes they’ve achieved for clients. Just like I noted in my post about the problem with our firm’s deals lists, our lawyer bios often fail to talk about the one thing that matters to clients: results.

What are your clients’ most common problems? How do you help them solve them? The answers to those questions should be highlighted in your bio like this:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies. One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval.  In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

The first half of the paragraph describes what Teresa does:

As the chair of Baker & McKenzie’s China M&A practice, Teresa Zhang specializes in private and public M&A, both in the Chinese domestic market and cross-border transactions involving Chinese companies.

The second half explains how well she does it:

One of the biggest challenges clients face in these transactions is passing China’s stiff competition requirements and gaining regulatory approval. In the past year alone, Teresa has guided three global companies through the process, using her knowledge of the system to help them gain regulatory approval within the deal time frame.

This paragraph will be of greater interest to potential clients than a laundry list of awards because it does two things:

1. Provides information about what is challenging in Chinese transactions (insight)
2. Explains how Teresa has helped clients overcome the very challenge other clients reading her bio may also face (outcome + relevance)

Now it’s your turn. Read the bio below. As you read, put yourself in the client’s shoes. If you needed to hire an employment litigator to defend your company in a high-stakes lawsuit, which facts would make you most interested in hiring Joe?

Joe Smith is a partner in Baker & McKenzie’s Chicago office. He has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on the entire spectrum of employee benefit and executive compensation matters. Mr. Smith was named by his peers as one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine for both 2014 and 2015. Mr. Smith has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for over five years.

In 2012, Best Lawyers named Mr. Smith “Employment Litigation Lawyer of the Year” for Illinois. He was named one of Chambers USA‘s “Leaders in Their Field” in both 2015 and 2016. Chambers USA has described Mr. Smith as “an employment legend in the Midwest whose expertise has resulted in national acclaim,” and noted that he has been “handling very prominent cases and producing high-quality work.”

The Legal 500 USA has labelled Mr. Smith “exceptional” for employment litigation. He has also been listed as a leading attorney for employment litigation in Illinois Super Lawyers from 2005 to the present. Mr. Smith is Chair of the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee. He is the featured employment litigation columnist for the Benefits Law Journal. In addition, he acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Mr. Smith has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents. Among Mr. Smith’s most notable achievements, he was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories. He also regularly represents clients in federal district and appellate courts across the country.

Phew! It’s a lot, I know. And anything but pithy. So what information makes you want to hire Joe?

a. He has more than 30 years of employment litigation experience.
b. His peers named him one of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois in 2014 and 2015.
c. He has been named one of the “Best Lawyers in America” for five years.
d. He chairs the ABA’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee.
e. He’s a columnist for The Benefits Law Journal.
f. He acts as a court-appointed mediator in employment cases.
g. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and has secured numerous favorable precedents.
h. He was the lead attorney in six class action employment cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Yet again, the best stuff comes at the end, a place readers may not even get to because of the laundry list of awards that came before. My answers to the question above: g and h.

Yes, it’s good to know Joe’s years of experience. Yes, his awards and committees tell you he’s accomplished in his field. But the points that caught my attention were the facts that he’s secured favorable precedents and won six class actions using six different legal theories.

The message to clients: this guy handles high-stakes, complex employment cases (what he does). And he wins (how well he does it).

How would you rewrite Joe’s bio to get to this point more quickly? Here’s my revision:

Joe Smith has over 30 years of employment litigation experience and counsels employers on employee benefit and executive compensation matters. He has defended a number of ERISA plan fiduciaries and secured numerous favorable precedents. Among his most notable achievements, Joe was the lead attorney in six employment class action cases resulting in six consecutive client victories using six different legal theories.

Joe has been recognized by his peers and the legal community with numerous awards and accolades, such as:

  • One of “The Top 100” lawyers in Illinois by Super Lawyers magazine
  • One of the “Best Lawyers in America” every year for five years
  • One of Chambers USA’s “Leaders in Their Field” in 2015 and 2016
  • An “exceptional” employment litigator according to Legal 500 USA

Joe also chairs the American Bar Association’s Employment Litigation Subcommittee, writes an employment litigation column for the Benefits Law Journal and acts as a court-appointed mediator for employment cases in Illinois.

Now we’re talking. The only additions I would make are to specify how many ERISA plan fiduciaries Joe has defended to give the statement greater impact (more than 100?) as well as how many favorable precedents he’s secured (10? 25? 50?) rather than using the vague word numerous.

I would also provide a little more context about the six class action suits — what the main issues were and how he overcame them — to provide greater context that could resonate with other clients. But working with what we’ve got, this is much better than the original.

As for awards, I picked the most recent, most impressive and used bullet points to make them easier to scan. I then wrapped it up with a few more details that reinforce his prominence in the field, but only after providing specific outcomes of his work in the first paragraph.

After these three paragraphs, you can list basic details like education, bar admission dates and include a brief list of representative matters, being sure to include the outcome of those cases.

So there you have it. A new way to approach lawyer bios. Now go forth and focus on outcomes. And keep it short. Don’t make me send you a pink T-shirt.

The art of email: 5 steps to success

Santorini

Last month my husband and I went to Greece for two weeks while my mom stayed in Chicago with our kids. Considering our children are 2 and 4 years old, it was one of the nicest things she has ever done for me aside from giving me life.

While we were gone, the kids remained in daycare Monday through Friday, but my mom still had to supervise their morning and evening routines, an exercise in patience that’s not for the faint of heart. I can’t count the number of times I have to tell my 4-year-old son, Owen, to put his shoes on each morning before I look down and actually see them on his feet. It’s a parental reality brilliantly reenacted by comedian Michael McIntyre in this hilarious sketch.

While in Greece, we soaked in the sunshine, feta, wine, and sensation of having uninterrupted conversations. We also read actual books. The islands we visited – Santorini, Milos and Crete – were so beautiful it was like living in a postcard. Yet I also missed our kids. Whenever I’d email my mom asking how they were doing, I would receive responses like:

“Owen seems to like school.”
“Tess is such a happy baby.”
“We are all still alive.”

My mom is someone who will talk your ear off in person, but she writes emails like haikus. Short, to the point, nothing but the facts. Even though her method follows many of the tips I profess in my writing workshops, in this case I wanted more. Anecdotes. Details. A clearer picture of their daily existence woven together with more than five words.

Given the circumstances, I’ll give my mom a break. I mean really, she was busy taking care of our kids so we could relax on a white sand beach. The point is there’s an art to email: not too little information, not too much. How much detail you provide depends on your audience – their needs and wants.

In a professional setting, it’s particularly important to get this balance right because so many of our work interactions occur through email even when the recipient is sitting five feet from our desk. In this age of digital technology, information overload, and shrinking attention spans, my mom’s “less is more” approach has its merits. Like most things in life, however, moderation is best.

Here are five tips for crafting and formatting email to give the recipient what they need to know while leaving out the rest.

1. Put your question or request in the subject line.

The email subject line is essentially your headline, the first opportunity to get someone’s attention. So use it to your advantage. If you have a question, put it directly in the subject line rather than writing “Quick question” or the topic of your question, such as “Upcoming client event.”

For example, when I email a partner requesting an interview for a thought leadership project, I write, “Interview for thought leadership report?” in the subject line. People like questions, particularly ones they can answer quickly.

If the purpose of your email is to make a request, put that request in the subject line, such as, “Thought leadership report – please review by Friday.” I find that putting the action I am requesting with a deadline typically results in better response rates. By receiving clear direction and a deadline right up top, your recipient is more likely to think, I’ll just do this now.

2. Get to the point.

Many of our Firm’s emails are long and unfocused, making it difficult to decipher what the sender wants. Since most of us scan long email, your request (or “call to action” in marketing speak) should be in the first paragraph, if not the second paragraph following brief background information to set up your question or request.

To understand why getting to the point is so important, consider this email sent from BD staff to partners alerting them to an upcoming webinar series:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send. If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

What’s the problem with this email? The requests are buried, making them difficult to identify at first glance. It’s not until towards the end of a long paragraph that we find out what the sender wants, which I’ve underlined in the paragraphs below:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.  We encourage you to forward this invite to clients who might find this webinar of interest. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.  If you would like to know if certain clients already have received this invite to avoid duplication, please contact me.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned, which we are co-hosting with the NA IP practice group.

How could you do a better job of making these requests stand out? Start by shortening wordy phrases like “we are pleased to invite you” and “we encourage you” and deleting extraneous details. By limiting the first paragraph to the most important information about the webinars (who, what, where, when, why), you can get to the point more quickly, like this:

Dear Partners,

You’re invited to the fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series on the first Wednesday of October, November and December. Our Oct. 5 webinar, “China’s Antitrust Regime – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales & Distribution” will feature CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC.

Please forward this invite to clients who may be interested by Sept. 15. To facilitate, we have attached a draft email you can send to clients.

Also, save the dates for:

  • Nov. 2: “Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion”
  • Dec. 7: “Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned”

See how much easier this is to read? You’ve briefly established why you’re writing (I’m inviting you to a webinar series), what the webinars are about (doing business in China), when the webinars are (first Wednesday of October, November and December), and who will be presenting (CF Lui, Bing Ho, and Stephen Harris).

Then you immediately state your call to action with a clear deadline of Sept. 15 instead of leaving it open-ended (most people respond better to deadlines), followed by another call to action (save the dates).

3. Use bold and bullets to highlight your main points.

Strong writing requires not only choosing the right words but also presenting information in a way that is easy to digest. In my revision above, notice that I bolded the requests rather than the webinar titles like the writer did in the original message. That’s because those are the actions I want the partners to take – the most important part of my note. So I save my emphasis for that.

I also used bullet points to list the upcoming webinar dates to make it easy for partners to scan. In the original, those dates are grouped together in one paragraph, increasing the chances they will get lost in a sea of words.

When writing email, your primary tools for creating clarity and emphasis are bold, italics, bullet points, underlining, spacing and different colored fonts. (I’m purposely leaving out all caps BECAUSE YELLING IS IMPOLITE.)

But be sure to use these tools sparingly to highlight only your calls to action or most important points. Avoid getting creative with too many colors or using multiple styles at once. Keep it simple, otherwise you’ll end up with a dizzying mess like this:

Greetings – we are pleased to invite you to the Fall installment of the Eye-on-China webinar series, scheduled on the first Wednesday of October, November and December.  Our October 5th webinar China’s Antitrust Regime Takes Shape – New Rules Impacting M&As, Sales and Distribution features CF Lui and Bing Ho from China, and Stephen Harris from DC. We encourage you to forward this invite to clients. To facilitate, we have drafted a sample email that you might send.

Please also save the dates of November 2d for Online Sales in China: Opportunities amidst Regulatory Confusion, and December 7th for Products Originating in China – IP Issues and Lessons Learned.

4. Keep it short.

If your email is more than three or four short paragraphs, then please, pick up the phone. Having a five-minute conversation is more efficient than spending 30 minutes trying to explain your point in an email. This also applies to answering an email that requires a detailed response.

I know it’s scary to hear an actual human voice in this age of texting and instant messaging, but you’ll save so much time by calling the person who emailed you to say, “Hi, I got your email and thought it would be easier to have a quick chat.” Or you can put the ball in their court by responding, “Great question. Call me to discuss.”

Sometimes it’s not feasible to speak individually by phone. You may be sending a group email with details about an important project, firm initiative, or client event. In that case, make sure you leave out details and commentary that aren’t crucial to your main point, such as the extraneous information I’ve highlighted in red in the email below:

Dear EEG Partners,

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on 20th and 21st January. As in previous years, we plan to run client conferences on the Thursday before the meeting begins. We have always received very positive feedback and in some cases, new instructions following past client conferences and I am sure you will agree, they provide an excellent opportunity for Partners from across the region to meet new and existing clients.

Although it still seems like a long way away, past experience suggests that it’s important to start planning early. Therefore I would like to ask you to nominate clients that you believe would benefit from a client conference with EEG Partners from across our region.

Does it matter that you’ve conducted client conferences in the past? Do you need to make a case for how beneficial they are to clients? Should you lecture your audience about the importance of early planning? Is there a shorter way to say “Therefore I would like to ask you”? (How about “please”?)

More importantly, what’s the call to action? And how will taking that action benefit your audience? What’s in it for them?

To provide that information more quickly and succinctly, try something like this instead:

Dear Partners:

Our next EEG Practice Group Meeting will take place in Warsaw on January 20-21. We plan to run client conferences on Thursday before the meeting, giving you and your colleagues the opportunity to meet new and existing clients from across the region.

Please take a moment to nominate clients you think would benefit from a client conference with EEG partners by filling out the form below and returning it to me by Friday, September 23.

Now you’ve got a short opening paragraph that explains why you’re writing (we’re hosting client conferences), what’s in it for them (they’ll meet new and existing clients), followed by your request (please nominate your clients for the conferences).

In this case, I bolded just the deadline because I thought bolding the entire request would be overpowering, as the sentence is pretty long. When you bold the deadline, the reader is more likely to see that date and think, Wait, what do I need to do by Sept. 23? then read the sentence preceding the date to find out.

5. Go to Greece.

Okay, this isn’t exactly a writing tip. But I had to say it. Talk about clarity. You could swim a mile in that ocean and still see the bottom. And it’s a nice break from your inbox.

The perfect pitch: How to write a winning proposal

Yes, Baker & McKenzie is a big global law firm, one of the biggest in fact. And sure we have won numerous awards, many that would make any parent proud. But so have a lot of other global law firms, so what sets us apart? How do we convince new and existing clients to give us their business by going beyond citing the number of offices we have or how many times Chambers has ranked a practice group Band 1?

These are some of the questions I asked Dan Weisberg and Suzanne Struglinski, expert writers on our Firm’s Global Proposal Team, who spend their days working with partners and business development staff to craft the perfect pitch. In FY15, our Firm responded to more than 2,600 requests for proposal (RFPs), with a success rate of 60%.

In this exclusive interview (translation: I begged them to talk to me), Dan and Suzanne share the team’s best tips on proposal writing. Even if you don’t write proposals, their pointers can help you with any type of persuasive writing, whether it’s trying to get funding for a particular project or convince your boss to let you work from home once a week. The secret: Focus on your audience’s needs first.

Me: Let’s start with some basics. Who writes our proposals?

Dan: It’s a partnership between the proposals team and the lead partners, as well as the regional or global practice group and client business development teams. We have a kickoff call with the lawyers and BD staff to go through the RFP questions and decide how we want to answer them. The general questions about things like the Firm’s history, geographic footprint, diversity and inclusion policies, and pro bono work are handled by the proposals team. The more technical questions like, “Explain how you would perform this work for our company,” require a lot of focus from the partners.

Who reads the proposals? Who is your target audience?

Dan: Typically people in the client’s legal, HR or tax departments as well as procurement. The legal department has been traditionally interested in who can give them the best quality work. With the procurement department it’s more about which firms are qualified and, amongst the qualified firms, who can do the work cheapest. Increasingly that’s now important to the legal department too because they need to reduce their budgets and justify their legal spend.

Why is it important to know who your audience is?

Dan: When we know who’s reading the proposal we can tailor our message to what’s important to them. So if what’s important to them is having very experienced partners in Germany, China and France, we can make sure we emphasize that. If what’s important is having things done as cost effectively as possible, we can spend a lot of time talking about how we drive efficiencies by giving a lot of the work to associates, paralegals and staff in our Manila and Belfast offices.

What’s the most important part of the proposal?

Dan: From a writing perspective, it’s the executive summary. For every proposal we write a one- to two-page executive summary highlighting why they should hire us over the other very good firms out there.

What is your approach to writing executive summaries?

Dan: The best executive summaries hammer on two to three points we know are important to the company either because they told us in the RFP, because we have the relationship to know that information, or because we’ve done a lot of research to understand where this company is going and how the legal department has to help them get there.

Why is it crucial to review materials like the client’s 10-K, annual report and recent press releases before writing the proposal?

Suzanne: It helps us avoid talking too much about Baker. When we know a lot about the client, we can focus on their needs and what we can do for them. If we’re offering a discount or some amazing global team to satisfy that client’s needs, we mention that early on.

What is the biggest challenge you face writing proposals?

Dan: What makes our job both difficult and fun is we compete against a lot of other very good firms, so the key is trying to find interesting ways to differentiate ourselves that resonate with the client.

How do you do that?

Suzanne: I like case studies. Every time I’ve been able to speak with one of our attorneys about how we saved the day in a particular matter or why a particular win was so great and what led to that win, the proposal is light years ahead of the others. I just did a proposal for Walgreens and talked with our real estate attorneys to get examples of similar work they had done. During that conversation I asked, “So what makes us so great at lease management?” Turns out it’s how well the team works together and the internal processes they have in place. So I was able to explain in the proposal that it’s not just that we know the ins and outs of warehouse leases, but that we have the infrastructure to basically automate the process.

How else have you used client information to make a proposal stand out?

Dan: We did a proposal for Merck last year in which we wanted to emphasize that we really understand the company and its issues and risks better than other firms. We did that by identifying their four biggest business and legal issues and found the right partners to write about how other pharmaceutical clients are dealing with those industry pressures. We also mixed in some of the work we’ve already done for Merck in those areas.

Did we win the business?

Dan: Yes.

When you’re reviewing the content from various partners and practice groups to put the final proposal together, what writing mistakes do you commonly see?

Suzanne: Our Firm often uses vague phrases like, “We provide clients with high-quality work” but I like to define what we mean. Is it quick response time, like in a dawn raid when the government is at a client’s door? Is it that the client wants to expand into China and we know the legal and business environment in that market? There’s often a lack of specificity, and the more specific we can be about what the client is trying to achieve and how can help them, the better.

What part of proposals do we still struggle with as a Firm?

Dan: When clients ask us to describe our experience doing certain types of work, we tend to give them a laundry list of deals that doesn’t really say much. We give them four pages of “worked with a global pharmaceutical company on a transaction in Mexico,” and “worked with global pharmaceutical company on a transaction in Canada.” No one’s going to read through all those pages. It would be a lot more effective to give them one or two detailed case studies that explain to the client the value we delivered in that case and how that’s relevant to their issue.

Why is linking our experience directly to the client so important?  

Dan: Whenever we’re able to respond to an RFP by having our partners say, “For this particular project or matter, here are the top five things you need to be thinking about,” that’s what clients find most valuable. If we can get them nodding their heads as they read those five things and have them thinking, “These guys get it,” we’ve gone a long way in differentiating ourselves.

If you could give someone only one or two tips on proposal writing, what would they be?  

Suzanne: Read the RFP. You need to understand who the client is and what they are looking for. The second part is to know what your message is. There are 1,000 different ways we can talk about Baker & McKenzie so we need to identify what we should highlight to win the business from this particular client. Sometimes it’s a combination of things that sets us apart. It’s the fact that we’re global, have the top lawyer who works on XYZ issue, and have been working with the client for 10 years.

What advice would you give partners to make our Firm’s proposals more successful?  

Dan: I would encourage them to think about RFPs as just one part of the client relationship cycle in which they are constantly thinking about our Firm’s relationship with the client, how we can grow our relationship, do work in new areas, and make sure we’re soliciting the client’s feedback and acting on that feedback. By taking this approach we can often win the RFP before it even comes out.

What advice would you give professional staff to make our Firm’s proposals more successful? 

Suzanne: Keep the most current information about your practice group at your fingertips. What are your top awards? What are your top five matters? What innovations has your group implemented to do client work more efficiently? What kind of alternative fee arrangement have you successfully used with clients? How do you partner with other Baker lawyers across practice groups? For your top five deals or matters, you should be able to tell the story of why it was an important deal, especially if it’s something we’ve put out a press release about. Having the most up-to-date language ready to go can really help move the process along quickly.

DanWeisberg
More about Dan:
Before joining Baker & McKenzie as the Senior Manager of Global Proposals for North America four years ago, Dan spent seven years in global business development at Ernst & Young. When he’s not reading RFPs, Dan does crossword puzzles and watches the Mets.

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More about Suzanne: Suzanne is a former newspaper reporter and press secretary who joined Baker & McKenzie’s Global Proposal Team three years ago. Based in our Washington DC office, she’s a news junkie who can’t start her morning without reading the A-section of the Washington Post.

For more tips on proposal writing
, visit the Global Proposal Team’s blog, Pitch Perfect, and read their Little Book of Winning. If you’d like to see their presentation on “Executive Summary Best Practices,” contact Dan or Suzanne for the slide deck.

What’s missing from your Deals List?

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Take a minute and look at your resume or CV. Maybe you haven’t updated it in a while and don’t even know where it is. But find it, dig it out, and look at it. Take a few minutes to read about yourself. Who you are, where you’ve worked, what positions you’ve held, and what you’ve done. Notice anything missing?

Maybe not. That’s okay, keep scratching your head.

Now pretend you aren’t you. Pretend you are a potential employer or client looking at your resume and considering whether to hire you. Now what do you notice? Anything you want to know about this person that isn’t there?

Probably. Because here’s the thing.  You can ask 10 people and they’ll tell you 10 different ways to write your resume. You can worry about which font to use, how wide the margins should be, and whether to make it one page or two. But what potential employers and clients really want to know about you boils down to two things:

  1. What have you done?
  2. How well did you do it?

I’m sure you’ve got plenty of information about number one. You’ve listed your duties and responsibilities underneath each job. But what about number two? I’ll bet you a hundred dollars you’ve been so busy describing what you’ve done that you haven’t included what’s most important:

Results.

As in, what have you accomplished?

I see the same mistake in our firm’s Deals and Representative Matters lists. All of our practice groups keep lists of the major transactions and legal matters they’ve worked on to demonstrate their experience to potential clients. We showcase these lists in our brochures, proposals, award submissions, and lawyer CVs.

These lists are important because they provide concrete examples of our work, facts to back up claims about how great we are, and reasons for legal directories like Chambers and Legal 500 to give our practice groups high rankings. They are also a major part of our pitches for new business. The problem is they typically read like this:

  • Represented Sony Corporation in numerous administrative proceedings on
    anti-counterfeiting activities in Russia.
  • Advised BAT Rossiya, a major tobacco producer, on different labor issues and legal aspects of interacting with trade unions.
  • Advised Yapi ve Kredi Bank of Turkey on the establishment and initial issuance under their US$1.2 billion future-flow securitization program backed by diversified payment rights.

What’s missing from these descriptions?

You’ve got it…results. And by results I mean, what was the outcome of the deal or matter? How did our representation or advice benefit the client? Writing a Deals or Representative Matters list without including results is like driving halfway down the street. It’s a good start, but you’re not there yet.

To identify the result, try using what I like to call the “So what?” test. For every deal or representative matter on your list, ask yourself, “So what?” like this:

ISSUE OUTCOME
Represented Sony Corporation in numerous administrative proceedings on anti-counterfeiting activities in Russia. So what? Did we win? What benefits did we achieve for Sony?
Advised BAT Rossiya, a major tobacco producer, on different labor issues and legal aspects of interacting with trade unions. So what? How did this help BAT Rossiya?
Advising Yapi ve Kredi Bank of Turkey on the establishment and initial issuance under their US$1.15 billion future-flow securitization program. So what? How did this help Yapi ve Kredi Bank?

Once you have your answers, put the issues and the outcomes together as I did in a brochure I wrote for our Global Corporate Compliance Group excerpted below. I’ve highlighted the outcome part of the description for each matter in blue.

 RESULTS

No FCPA charges
Conducted an internal investigation, helped terminate non-compliant employees and revised product distribution agreements for a Fortune 500 IT company under investigation for public procurement fraud and bribery in Brazil. As a result of the client’s implementation of our remediation plan, the DOJ decided not to file charges.

Successful joint venture
Conducted FCPA and trade sanctions due diligence, drafted protective contractual language and developed compliance policies and procedures that enabled a US public company to proceed with its joint venture with a Chinese state-owned enterprise. We also trained the joint venture partner’s Chinese legal and business teams on US anti-corruption and trade sanction law to prevent future liability.

Quick, credible investigation
Collected 3.5 million documents and interviewed 120 witnesses in the US, Australia, the Middle East and Asia in a large-scale internal investigation of a Fortune 100 metals company facing FCPA charges. Our ability to execute the investigative plan quickly and earn the trust of US enforcement officials with our thoroughness and transparency saved the client significant time and resources.

Notice that instead of using the title “Representative Matters” or “Related Matters” like our firm typically does, I simply call this list “Results” because that’s what potential clients want to know most. I also summarize the outcome in the subheadings, not just in the descriptions.

Rather than using the name of the case, client, or issue like we usually do, I use the subheadings “No FCPA charges,” “Successful joint venture,” and “Quick, credible investigation” to get the client’s attention and reinforce that we’re about outcome, not just process.

This might seem like a lot of work, and in some ways it is. Taking these descriptions a step further requires some effort. That’s why I would encourage you to refrain from listing 10, 20, and even 30 deals in your CVs or client materials and instead focus on five to 10 and make them really good.

Taking the extra step of including outcomes in your Deals and Representative Matters lists will make you stand out from competitors because so few professional services firms do it. It seems so obvious once you see the benefits, yet for some reason it’s not our natural approach. Just like when drafting our resumes, we get so busy talking about ourselves that we quickly forget who we’re writing for and what they would want to know.

Now that you know the secret, you have no excuse. It’s time to start turning those Deals and Representative Matters lists into Results lists. And remember, “So what?”

LinkedIn: How to make your profile stand out

I’ll never forget the day I received a friend request from my 85-year-old grandma on Facebook. Grandma has always been a technophile, but now a social media maven too? Sure enough, there she was smiling at me from her profile picture, with her wire-rimmed glasses, leopard-print blazer and perfectly coiffed hair.

What did this experience teach me? That the whole world is online. I say this because some people still think having a good LinkedIn profile only matters if you are job searching. Not so. LinkedIn is the professional equivalent of Facebook, with fewer crazy cat videos. And its popularity is growing.

In a 2015 digital and content survey of U.S. in-house counsel, 70 percent said they use LinkedIn to connect with outside counsel, up from 56 percent in 2014. Nearly 40 percent of those in-house counsel said they use LinkedIn to research outside counsel. That’s why it’s worth investing a few hours perfecting your profile. It may be the first impression you make. Here are 10 tips to help you make the most of that impression.

1. Complete your profile

Picture2Fill out as much of your profile as possible. The more information you include, the more
connections you’ll make. This means listing all your former and current employers in the Experience section, your undergraduate and graduate schools under Education and all the organizations you belong to. The more information you provide, the more ways people from different parts of your life can find and connect with you.

2. Create a custom URL

Betsy URLWhen you create a profile, LinkedIn will automatically generate a URL for you. But it will be lengthy with numerous letters and numbers. Instead, change it to your first and last name so you have a clean URL to use elsewhere, such as in your email signature or on your business card. If your name is taken, try adding a middle initial or your middle name. No matter when you created your profile, you can edit your URL at anytime.

3. Upload a professional photo

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IMG_0804
YES

Your profile is seven times more likely to be viewed if you have a photo, according to research from LinkedIn. People like to put a face with a name. So upload a professional headshot, not one from your Caribbean cruise or one in which it looks like your date was cut out. And to avoid looking like a 1950s film star, make sure it’s in color, not black and white.

4. Write a descriptive headline 

Picture6When you are setting up your profile, LinkedIn will ask you to create a professional “headline” that will appear beneath your name. Many people put “Lawyer at Baker & McKenzie” or “Attorney at Baker & McKenzie.” I would encourage you to be more specific by using your title and including the type of law you practice, such as “Baker & McKenzie Associate advising on IT law” or “Employment Partner at Baker & McKenzie.” If your title is self explanatory, then just use that unless you want to earn bonus points by adding your professional objective such as, “Marketing Manager who helps corporations build award-winning brands.”

5. Use first person

Me-myself-and-I[2]A LinkedIn profile is more personal than a bio or CV, so you should use first person in your summary, experience and any other sections you include. This is social media; it’s as odd to use third person on LinkedIn as it would be to use it on Facebook. So embrace the almighty “I,” as in “I’m an associate at Baker & McKenzie who advises clients on private equity law.” You should also use complete sentences rather than CV speak. For example, say, “I am a business development manager who helps our banking practice groups win clients” rather than “Business development manager who helps the banking practice group win clients.”

6. Create a summary

Picture2Many people only list their jobs in the Experience section and leave the summary field blank. That’s a mistake. The summary is your opportunity to introduce yourself. Think of it as your elevator pitch. Who are you as a professional? What do you have to offer? What are your greatest accomplishments? In one or two paragraphs, sum up the answers to these questions to provide a snapshot of your career.

7. Describe your experience

experienceThe trick to filling out the Experience section is providing just the right amount of information, not too little and not too much. Some people only list their titles and employers without any explanation. Others describe each job in excruciating detail. The best balance is listing all of your recent jobs with one-paragraph descriptions of each. When writing these descriptions, strive to go beyond explaining what you do by including why you do what you do. For example, most people write something like, “I advise multinational companies on mergers and acquisitions.” To take it a step further, provide an explanation for why you advise multinationals on mergers and acquisitions, such as, “I advise multinational companies on mergers and acquisitions to help them expand their global footprints, improve efficiency and acquire new talent and product lines.”

8. Take advantage of additional sections

sectionsLinkedIn offers a number of additional sections you can use to make your profile more complete. If you do pro bono or volunteer work, you can list those projects in the Volunteer Experience section. If you or your practice group has won awards,  be sure to include them in the Honors & Awards section. You can also list the organizations you belong to, as well as the languages you speak. The more information you provide about yourself, the more complete the professional picture you provide for viewers and the more connections you will make.

9. Get recommendations

Getting recommendations is important because they allow other people to speak for your work. They are essentially your online references. Recommendations are different from endorsements because they require that those who recommend you write a brief summary of their experience working with you, not just click a button that says they endorse you for a certain skill. You should strive to have at least five recommendations from a variety of people who have known you at various points in your career. If you’re new to the job market, get recommendations from your college professors, fellow students or those you worked with during internships.

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10. Update your profile every three months

Picture1Now that you’ve created a strong profile, make sure to update it any time you have more news to share about your career training and accomplishments, such as new awards, promotions, educational achievements, and important projects or deals. We all get busy and forget to do these routine tasks, so it may help to put a reminder on your calendar every three months to prompt yourself.

By implementing these 10 tips, you’ll have a polished, professional profile that is guaranteed to stand out from the rest. For additional guidance on how to use LinkedIn’s more advanced features, such as sharing content, adding publications and joining industry groups, view the LinkedIn PowerPoint presentation and user guides that Global Web Marketing Manager Alyssa Miller and I have posted on BakerWorld. It’s easy to build and maintain a strong online presence once you get the hang of it. Rest assured, if my grandma can master social media, so can you.

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