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April 16, 2008

Helping lawyers to focus on client needs

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the March/April issue of Law Firm Inc

Iris_jones2 When Iris Jones was appointed Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer at Chadbourne & Parke last summer, one of her chief goals was “to help lawyers look behind the curtain and understand what clients really want and need.”

When lawyers talk to potential clients, their natural inclination is to impress people with the depth of the firm’s talent and experience.  But Jones points out that clients are more interested in themselves.  They want to see evidence that their needs are understood, and that the law firm will be able to find the legal approach that best addresses each challenge. 

Since Chadbourne is an AmLaw 100 firm with 400 lawyers from New York to Dubai, winning RFPs (Requests for Proposals) is a critical step in bringing in new business, and that’s where Jones concentrated her efforts in her first few months at the firm. 

She defined a new formal “Business development proposal process” that begins the moment an attorney decides to respond to a particular RFP, and includes several steps to help attorneys see things from the client’s perspective, so they can directly address what clients really want and need. 

When it comes to proposals, she says, some competitors specialize in “killing trees for spiral booklets filled with achievements and bios” as if a law firm consists simply of “order takers, flipping burgers and pushing them out the window.”  At Chadbourne, marketing’s role begins with due diligence seeking insights into what the client really wants from the RFP, and what they expect to see in the winning proposal.  Why is the client asking each question?  Which questions are most urgent? 

Staff members use LexisNexis’ atVantage and other tools to study competitive intelligence.  Some marketing departments just print out these reports and hand them over “for partners to read after dinner.”  At Chadbourne, business developers digest the information, and suggest how lawyers can tie it back to specific requests in each RFP.

To understand how the process really works, consider one of the first proposals Jones worked on at Chadbourne.  When she read the 40 page RFP, “some of the questions were ridiculous… even Zeus couldn’t deliver everything that this client asked for.”  Jones worked her way through this long wish list, to focus lawyers on the few questions that would make the most difference to genuinely meeting the client’s legal needs, and to winning the competition.  Then she did a hard-headed analysis comparing what the client wanted with what Chadbourne could deliver. 

In this particular case, she spotted a potential weakness:  most of the lawyers who specialized in this area were located in the firm’s New York office, but the client was near their London office.  In Jones’s judgment, Chadbourne’s London practice group would not be large enough to satisfy this particular client.  So she recommended a joint venture with another London firm, and the lawyers agreed. 

Apparently, the client did too because Chadbourne made it to the short list of three finalists.  Then the client scheduled an interview.  Jones conducted a dress rehearsal, in which she played the client’s role.  When the lawyers started to sound like lawyers – going on at too great a length about all the possibilities – she encouraged them to find simpler answers that were equally accurate, but more directly responsive to the client’s request.

After the role plays, she made some suggestions.  In once case, she thought that the best thing one particular lawyer could do was agree to be quiet at the meeting.  He didn’t like it, but he did agree, and Chadbourne won the business.

This win and others helped spread the word that Jones’s new approach could bring in new business.  As a result, her department was involved with 3 RFPs in the first month that she started the initiative, 8 in the second, then 22, then 35.

Why are so many law firms marketing the old way, when relatively simple changes can increase their win rate so substantially?  Jones believes that it is because the economic environment has been so strong that almost any approach can win some of the time.  She says that many law firms think, “The money has been flowing in for the last few years, so why change?” If that interpretation is correct, business developers can expect to see some substantial changes now that the legal profession is headed into a recession.

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