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?
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.
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.
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.