Largest Clients Ramp Up RFPs


The next RFP is likely to be a big one. RFPs among the largest clients are on the rise. While only 38% of clients plan to issue RFPs through 2019—they are the largest legal spenders. Here’s why this group is moving to RFPs while others silently interview and select their law firms on a less visible basis.

  1. Clients consistently tell BTI they learn one new compelling insight, idea, or suggestion from the process—making the entire, and admittedly, grueling process worth it.

  2. Large clients are experiencing a faster rise in complex matters and increased financial exposure than their smaller spending counterparts.

  3. The number of individuals new to the top legal decision maker role is growing—they want to ensure they are getting the best service and counsel they can.

  4. Clients want law firms who will relish the opportunity to step up to help with the new complexity.

  5. Clients want more consistency from their law firms in terms of client service and levels of aggressiveness—these clients are using law firm pitches as a proxy by asking to meet with partner teams and observing how they do.

  6. Some law firms fall out of favor—often by inaction—RFPs are a politically correct tool to clean house.

  7. Clients always want more from their law firms. When client expectations get ahead of even the high performers, they will start to look around.

Clients plan to issue the most RFPs primarily for litigation, labor, less complex IP and cybersecurity—one of the areas where clients are most eager to learn. The complex work, especially in litigation and M&A, is still awarded with minimal, if any, bidding—and when it is—it’s in quiet and private negotiations with the best performing firms.

Clients Place RFP Winners in the Warm Up Lane

Winning an RFP is the beginning—not the end. Clients add several new firms to their roster and expect to give them medium risk work. Not the big, super complex work just yet. You are now invited to the proving grounds to see if you can you deliver.

But, for existing firms, this is your chance. Firms who get the RFP are always at some degree of risk (unless you wrote the RFP.) Take the RFP process and turn it on its head. Use it to explore goals, assess and manage risk, and treat it like a strategy session, so you can get the highest risk work—and the segment growing fastest.

It’s All in Your Control

You control almost all the reasons clients go to RFP. Here is how you can prevent and/or win the pitch:

  • Be the law firm who delivers the new insights client haven’t heard yet. Remember, this is the number one client benefit of the RFP process. Brainstorm with a group of your partners and ask the partners to brainstorm with clients. This could be the best defense against RFPs.

  • Talk to clients about the changes in the case load. Help clients locate the risks early and often. There are few more powerful tools than talking to clients.

  • Practice, train, and be consistent when you pitch. Clients know only the consistent firms can scale up to solve the big problems.

  • Reread BTI’s Unspoken Criteria Clients Use to Evaluate Your RFP.

We will be discussing clients’ new expectations and needs in our upcoming (and rescheduled) webinar. We will be discussing these issues and much more during our annual webinar BTI Market Outlook and Client Service Review 2019 on January 30, 2019 at noon Eastern Time. Register now as space is filling up fast.


The 17 BTI Business Development Badasses

Business development is turning law firms into hawks and doves. The hawks seek out the clients they want. They invest more time and thought into winning and have a strict go/no go policy for RFPs. The hawks show up more prepared than anyone one else and way more than clients expected. More than competitors expected, too.

13% of law firm leadership partners characterize their firm’s business development as aggressive. This means 87% don’t; they are BD doves. Some doves will turn into hawks. And some will rise above the hawks and become the Business Development Badasses who rule the world of acquiring new business.

We asked more than 150 law firm leadership partners, including the self-proclaimed hawks, who is at the pinnacle of being strategically aggressive—these are the firms to beat to win at business development.

These 17 firms are today’s BTI Business Development Badasses:


•       Davis Polk
•       Dechert
•       Fish & Richardson
•       Fried Frank
•       Honigman
•       Jackson Lewis
•       Jones Day
•       King & Spalding
•       Kirkland & Ellis

•       Latham & Watkins
•       Lowenstein Sandler
•       Mayer Brown
•       Morgan Lewis
•       Paul, Weiss
•       Quinn Emanuel
•       Skadden
•       White & Case

These firms go deep—bringing strategy, knowledge, and resources to bear. They think in terms of proposing teams with the right skills and chemistry. The BTI Business Development Badasses communicate with clients early and often, blatantly ignoring the rules about not contacting clients before the pitch. They follow up with thoughtful, targeted information based on these communications.

The best of this group start an informal dialogue—as if they have already won the client. An approach worth adopting no matter how aggressive you are.

It has never been more difficult to keep existing clients and acquire new clients. And it will only get harder from here. This will make the difference between the hawks, the doves, and the Business Development Badasses so important.


(This research is based on more than 150 independent, individual interviews with leading law firm leadership between June 2017 and January 2018.)

Unspoken Criteria Clients Use to Evaluate Your RFP


Clients are becoming much more skilled in evaluating law firms. They are on the lookout for clues as to what they will get once they hire a firm. Top legal decision makers see so many pitches and presentations they have now developed a clear set of criteria—some of which they share—and some not.

Lack of sharing is neither a trick nor negligence—its client preferences which have become ingrained in their thinking. Clients think about some especially important requirements so often they believe the proposing firms know what these unspoken requirements are.

Other unstated criteria are not yet fully developed but clients know them when they see them—these are the most dangerous—because clients still have an expectation you will meet these unstated criteria.

Our continuing in-depth interviews with top legal decision makers and influencers reveal the following unstated criteria law firms are expected to meet:

  • Talk about client working styles and preference. Law firms are asking clients about their working styles especially around communication, managing to tight timelines, and the types of outreach clients find helpful. One top legal officer of a global consumer products company said, “These questions show they know there may be moments of urgency and plan for it. These firms have been there. I think it’s great they ask what it’s like to work with us—it’s a gutsy question.”
  • Asking clients about their experiences with AFAs. Even though clients report most law firms are still AFA averse—they expect you to not only be conversant in AFAs—but they want you to lead the discussion. AFA-savvy law firms are asking clients about their experiences with AFAs and making suggestions to help their potential client gain more value.
  • Willingness to go off script. Clients want advisors and are bringing up current problems and issues to see how law firms respond. Clients look for firms who share opinions, ideas, and discussion—and avoid the firms who hesitate, or worse, decline. “If they can’t speak about something I think is in their wheelhouse, I get more than a little unnerved,” says a top legal executive at a very large bank.
  • Online dashboards to manage budgets, progress, and store documents. These add so much value to clients, as one GC puts it, “The firms without a dashboard get put at the bottom of the pile.”

The winning law firms prepare and train for each of these unannounced criteria. They practice the pitch, list out the questions they might be asked, and go in knowing they’ll get unexpected questions. And, the winning firms are already thinking about what clients may be adding to the unspoken criteria list moving forward.


Getting the Lucrative Work Before it Goes to RFP

Bet-the-Company and complex matters are permeating the marketplace, and clients aren't inclined to go out to RFP. The Mad Clientist walks you through exactly how firms get access to this work.

You can view the video below, or on YouTube directly here:

You can also find more details on the client development referenced in the above video here: Client Development: The Key to Dramatic Growth.

We’ll be releasing videos here on The Mad Clientist blog every Tuesday. Subscribe today (in the box at the upper right of your screen) and be sure you don't miss a single one.

The Worst of the Worst Pitches

The last we checked RFPs issued by clients were at an all-time high. This means a peak in presentations by law firms. A small number were truly excellent—blowing clients away and gaining new work for these law firms. Clients describe most as between acceptable and numbing. But, these potential clients saw a number of law firms embarrass themselves. You can understand why based on the experiences these top legal decision makers shared with BTI:

“In the middle of the presentation a slide appeared out of nowhere; it took me a minute to get oriented, but the slide showed the view of a football field—which they then told me is from the firm’s box. They told me at least one playoff game would come with these seats if I hired them.”

— General Counsel, Large Healthcare System

“They (the law firm) showed us another client’s actual work product.”

— Chief Legal Officer, Large Financial Services Firm

“On one of the first few slides they made reference to our company being ‘founded many years ago.’ They couldn’t look this up? Is this the thoroughness I should expect in litigation?”

— Division Head, Global Professional Services Powerhouse

“They started naming the judges they play golf with.”

— General Counsel, Rapidly Growing High Tech Company

“Somebody came in with 12 white men, when most of my people at the time were women and minorities. Obviously they hadn’t done their homework. I asked if we could get a more diverse team. The asked me if I wanted to win or be diverse. I told them: this is something you say to each other after you leave. Not to me.”

— EVP, Very Large Manufacturing Company

“As they were presenting, I was following along looking at their proposal; they announced a fee which was substantially higher than the fee in the proposal. I immediately asked why there was a difference, to which they responded, there was no difference. I elected not to pursue the issue.”

— VP and General Counsel, Global Industrial Equipment Company

Giving a bad pitch is dangerously easy. Success demands you not only understand core needs, but also understand the culture and chemistry of your potential client. As we discuss when identifying the law firms with the Most Marketing Mojo, the winning firms over-prepare and over-understand. In addition, the pitches going badly remind us of the safety and wisdom in talking about nothing but clients and their needs—before, during, and after the pitch.  


Client RFPs Hit 15-Year High

More clients are using more RFPs to hire law firms than any point in the last 15 years.

56% of corporate counsel issued RFPs for law firms in 2015, up from 45% in 2014. We now face a majority of clients using RFPs to hire new law firms. The increase is due directly to the rock-like drop in client service performance clients are experiencing.

We are witnessing a combination of more demanding corporate counsel responding to new pressures from management, and a new generation of corporate counsel simply having different expectations of their law firms.

These clients hope not only to meet new law firms but also get new ideas. The key issue for law firms is twofold:

1.  Stop the onslaught of competitors who are being invited into your client base
2.  Make sure you win the clients you really need to hold on to

Stopping the Onslaught of Competitors

You can take immediate steps to stop the onslaught—or at least slow it down. This is when talking to your client tips the scales in your favor.

Ask clients about their RFP plans—you face a better than 50% chance your client is headed towards an RFP. Even if your client isn’t planning to issue an RFP—develop an unsolicited new proposal chock full of new ideas. Think you are already delivering your absolute best approach—ask your client for feedback on what you can improve and how they would like to see things differently—use this as a core part of your proposal. Probe clients for the business issues they are being asked about—how management want your client to contribute. You just can’t learn this insight on your own.

In addition to the client feedback—search for the business implications of the key issues your clients face. You can ask your clients about business pressures and concerns, review their business plans, read every word of every SEC filing—twice. You will find one or more business issues your corporate counsel client faces.

Start with all you know about your clients—add to it, build on it—create a new and better approach.

Plan to present your proposal (solicited or not) in a discussion format. Ask clients for their input and counsel. Working to craft the proposal with your client not only customizes your effort but offers you insights others simply will not have. Advantage you.

Winning the Clients You Really Need To

Your second challenge will be to allocate resources to ensure existing clients come first. Sounds easy—but, the RFPs will not come in a logical sequence. Inevitably, your client’s RFP will come in right after a giant prospect with whom your firm does little work. The only tools to correct for the inopportune timing of RFPs is to approach your clients before they issue an RFP and steel-edged discipline when non-client RFPs pop up.

Success will require more energy, more focus and more investment in each RFP to win. Use your RFP Go/No Go checklist, brush up on crafting a killer proposal, developing a more strategic and effective proposal strategy, and understanding why the RFP process is neither fair nor objective to help you win the work.

We are witnessing the highest level of RFP activity in the last 15 years—and the stakes for each firm are higher than ever before.


15 Best Opportunities and Trends for 2016

It’s a special time of year for The Mad Clientist as he clears his desk and combs through each of the 319 in-depth, independent interviews with corporate counsel BTI wrapped up in October of 2015. The goal: find the best opportunities for law firms in 2016.

15 opportunities to drive growth in 2016 stand out:  

1.          The number of companies with bet-the-company litigation tripled.

2.          Cybersecurity is growing at 3 times the market rate.

3.          More clients expect outside counsel to understand their business.

4.          Corporate counsel reverse course and are now sending more work to law firms.

5.          Health care companies plan to increase spending in 10 legal segments—the most of any industry.

6.          Top legal decision makers believe law firms are becoming less flexible in handling unexpected changes in their matters.

7.          Telecom companies plan to increase spending across 8 legal segments.

8.          Corporate counsel report a decline in value overall.

9.          Complex litigation has been reborn after 3 years of dormancy.

10.      More companies will be using RFPs to hire new law firms.

11.      IP clients look for law firms they can use for both prosecution and litigation.

12.      Almost 20% of General Counsel are new to their role within the last 3 years—and just starting to make serious strategic changes.

13.      Middle market M&A continues to grow from already high levels of activity.

14.      Class action is officially in growth mode.

15.      Clients are adding new law firms to their panels after cutting them to a 15-year low.

You can find opportunities in practices, industries and changes in outside counsel management strategies—truly equal opportunities across the board for law firms. We recommend you map these opportunities against practice development plans to spot the ones best suited to your firm. You can move forward even without this strategic formality—inform partners so they can chase the opportunities most likely to yield the best results in 2016.

You can view our annual BTI Market Outlook and Client Service Review Webinar, which covered this topic and much more here. 


The 5 Law Firms with the Most Marketing Mojo

5 law firms stand out as the firms no one wants to pitch against. The 135 law firm marketing leaders BTI interviewed single out these 5 firms as bringing more marketing mojo than everyone else:

  • Jones Day
  • Kirkland & Ellis
  • Latham & Watkins
  • Littler Mendelson
  • Morgan Lewis

We can’t help but note these 5 firms are perennial top performers on The BTI Client Service 30. This underscores the advantages of delivering superior client service consistently over time. The analysis also offers a glimpse into how law firms view each other’s brand. Firm-to-firm branding impacts the ability to attract talent as well as clients.

You can boost your firm's marketing mojo (and market share) by taking a more uniform approach to business development. Think of the business development life cycle instead of only the pitch—what happens before and after the pitch is equal to if not more important than the pitch itself. The marketing mojo firms show strong discipline in approach, look and feel, strategy and messaging. These firms work towards specific goals and targets and believe strongly in the go/no go decision.

Finally, clients will tell you these 5 firms stand out for educating clients on key and relevant issues before, during and after the pitch. This implies aggressive pre-pitch and post-pitch attention—something few firms admit to having as a part of their business development process. The business development started long before the client planned a pitch—a big part of marketing mojo is the ability to see the work coming before anyone else thinks about it. 


One More Way Law Firms Fumble Best Business Development Opportunities

Just over 2/3 of clients tell us the best new ideas they see coming from law firms happen during an RFP process. Somewhere among the sea of bland boilerplate submissions lies one scintillating idea, suggestion or nugget. One firm invested the time and energy to simply blow their potential client away.

This begs an immediate question: why wait until an RFP to strut your stuff? Why don’t corporate counsel get their best ideas from their primary law firms who are in doing the work?

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Crafting a Killer Proposal

You’ve learned how proposals get no respect or love—hurting your chances of getting new business, and how to strategically select the RFPs which do merit your love with BTI’s RFP Go/ No Go checklist. After reviewing the checklist and deciding a proposal is worthy of a response, all you need now is a killer proposal, especially for those strategic must-wins.

The killer proposal begins with your client: Your proposal isn’t about you. It’s about your clients.

An Artisan Approach—At Least for the First Paragraph

Start the very first paragraph—the very first sentence—with your clients’ name and their problem, issue and/or situation. Prove you understand what your client is trying to accomplish. Few things are more important than articulating you know exactly what you are getting into—and understand your (potential) client.

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Your RFP Go/No Go Checklist for Winning the Best Work

Last week’s blog post was a call to action for law firms to reframe thinking about RFPs from lost soul of business development to bastion of opportunity to win work. All it takes is some love and respect—and a touch of strategy.

Businesses thrive on making targeted, clear decisions. Strategic dabbling just doesn’t work. The same approach is true when reviewing and assessing RFPs. Not every opportunity is created equal. Other professional services firms (the Big 4, management consultants, financial services) live and die by using clear and decisive criteria when deciding which RFPs merit a response—and which do not. These organizations generate more business, develop more long-term clients, and drive improved performance by using formal, objective criteria to assess each opportunity. And live by it.

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Dragged Kicking and Screaming to the Perfect RFP

Law firms work 4 times harder than 5 years ago to get a new dollar of business. This trend makes the following statements we’ve heard about chasing proposals and pitches all the more frightening:

“This company is so big you don’t really need to have an existing relationship with them to get the work.”

“He just accepted my LinkedIn invitation—I think that’s a really good sign.”

“I practice law. Writing proposals and bids aren’t part of my job.”

“We don’t bother responding to RFPs; it’s a waste of time. The only way to develop business is to network.”

“Our marketing and business development department has a standard response for RFPs—I’m not sure why we don’t send it out to all potential clients.”


Proposals, pitches, and pursuing new opportunities get no respect. 

For the most part, law firms drag partners kicking and screaming into the bid process or take a cookie cutter approach to their RFP responses. Very little strategic thinking or effort is put into the process. This attitude results in a paltry 31% win rate for law firms.

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The 3 Rules of the 80 Percenters

The typical firm wins just 1 out of 3 RFPs or pitches they participate in; a less than inspiring 31%.

When it comes to RFP and pitch win rates, the playing field is divided. On the low end of the scale is a group of firms with win rates hovering around 12%; on the other end is a select group of firms boasting win rates of 80%. 

What do the 80 percenters know—and do—that the 12 percenters overlook?

Pitching and the RFP process are an inevitable part of business development, but the key lies in approach.

The 12 percenters are proud of the number of proposals they issue and their quick, efficient responses. These firms rarely meet an RFP they don’t like and chalk up success rates to ‘you win some; you lose some.’

The 80 percenters avoid RFPs like the plague. Instead of spending valuable time and resources on a numbers game, these firms strategically develop their leads with clients.

Their approach to pitches and RFPs is calculated and direct.

The 3 Rules of the 80 Percenters:

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The Mad Clientist’s Maxims: The RFP Process is Neither Fair nor Objective

The only people who dislike RFPs more than you are your clients.

To some, the RFP can serve as a beacon of hope to win new business—driving adrenaline levels and competitiveness sky-high. To others, the RFP is a wake-up call—a signal your client relationship is at risk because you are no longer winning work on a sole-source basis. Regardless of the motivation, the RFP is your chance (in some instances your last chance) to make a mark with clients.

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