Beauty parades are not to everyone's taste. You can find enough in-house and private practice lawyers who despise the endless trawl of remarkably similar powerpoint displays to warrant the question of why bother with them at all?
But where a recommendation or referral from a friend or colleague would once suffice, the increasing demands of accountability and the search for value for money by big companies and public sector organisations mean a rigorous process of selection is required. Beauty parades are a good way for in-house counsel to prove that the law firm hired is the best value for money, and has been fairly and properly chosen. It also gives business managers an opportunity to get involved in the selection process.
Susy Jepson, head of group legal for supermarket operator Somerfield, says she prefers to use personal recommendations, but that sometimes there is no alternative to using a beauty parade if you do not know people with the expertise that you are seeking. The last time Somerfield had a beauty parade was at the sensitive time of its merger with Kwik Save. A panel review was seen as a fairer way of choosing lawyers than imposing the Somerfield firms on the merged business. “That's the tactful way one has to proceed when there's a merger,” she says.
Some decry the term 'beauty parade' and prefer to talk about 'the tender process'. Paul Newton, group legal director of Bupa, says: “I avoid talking about them as beauty parades, more as a series of structured meetings.” He believes the term gives the impression of a passive exercise by the client, who sits back while law firms parade themselves, but this is far from the truth. He says that the process is hard work for clients as well as law firms. “I see it as more interactive, an opportunity to get to the bottom of things you have read or heard about a firm, to test what you hear from other sources,” he says.
“It is slightly artificial, but it is not irrelevant to see how a firm deals with an artificial situation”
Paul Newton, Bupa
He says that tenders are generally unpopular with clients and law firms alike. “It is slightly artificial,” he says, “but it is not irrelevant to see how a firm deals with an artificial situation. A beauty parade only takes you so far. It's of limited value, but it's not of no value.”
Others see beauty parades as pretentious, with clients “sitting there like Little Lord Fauntleroys,” as one in-house lawyer puts it. But not all have such a negative view. Helena Samaha, group legal counsel for Virgin Group, has recently held a panel review to find 11 firms for the various needs of the Virgin Group companies. She ran 23 back-to-back presentations in one week. “It was an extremely useful exercise for us,” she says. “We were generally in agreement on 22 out of the 23 firms that presented.”
She says that beauty parades are particularly appropriate for a company such as Virgin Group, which has so many diverse divisions and different needs, and the process allows managers from different companies to meet the law firms they will be working with. But she admits: “It took five months out of my life, which is not the most entertaining way to spend my time.”
Beauty parades have provided a focus for law firm marketers. A firm's success in winning a place on a company's legal panel may depend on the abilities of marketers to present the firm as a brand. If the beauty parade is an attempt to get beneath the surface of what in-house counsel have heard about a firm, it is crucial that an image has been projected which can then be expanded upon in a panel selection process.
From the law firm's point of view, it can also pay to be discerning in deciding which beauty parades to take part in. It is tempting to follow up every tender and there is a feeling that it is simply a matter of chance and perseverance before a place will be won on a company's panel. But this can be a waste of time. Rather than taking the scatter-gun approach, law firms are advised to be selective in choosing which parades to enter.
Industry knowledge is crucial here. Some observers recommend that firms keep frequently updated databases about companies, so that they can readily decide if the company in question needs the services they can offer. It can look good to take part in a lot of panel contests, but not so good if the success rate is low.
And what happens when the beauty parade is a mere formality, and the outcome has already been decided by the client? It is a fairly common experience, but usually only recognisable after the event, so it is probably best not to worry too much about it.
Krista Clausnitzer, marketing manager at Brobeck Hale and Dorr, says that although organisations are always looking to get the best legal expertise, value for money and the way the service is provided are also primary considerations when choosing a law firm. But she adds: “Hourly rates are important, but clients are also interested in the way the legal services are provided and the other value-added services that law firms can provide. Selection criteria often include things such as working relationships with in-house lawyers, ease of access to progress reports and billing information, and other value-added services such as regular newsletters and updates, and provision of client workshops.”
She believes that law firms have to manage their clients properly through the best practices of “client relationship management”, including regularly asking the client how the service could be improved. She says that this should “lessen the possibility of nasty surprises in the outcome of beauty parades”.
In a beauty-parade presentation, there is a fine line between singing the praises of the law firm and telling the client exactly what it needs to know. On the one hand, by talking up the geographical spread of a firm and the variety of practices it offers, the client might be impressed and chance on something it needs. On the other hand, the firm runs the risk of plying them with irrelevant information which they do not need.
Field Fisher Waterhouse's marketing director John Hartle says: “One thing we're very keen to do in beauty parades is make sure that when we are talking about ourselves, it is focused on the client's needs, rather than talking up our own capabilities – if it is not relevant, do not mention it.”
This approach requires a lot of knowledge about what exactly the client is looking for before entering the presentation. And this comes down to knowledge sharing between lawyers and effective research. Hartle says it is useful for legal marketers to think about when they have been on the other side of the beauty parade table, such as when hiring design and advertising agencies. “I've been on the other side of the beauty parade here for marketing agencies. Some focused on the brief, others managed to talk a lot of irrelevant stuff about themselves,” he says.
Vicky MacDonald-Hill, marketing director at Kennedys, says that preparation is the key. “Read the documentation sent to you very thoroughly and ensure you adhere to what is asked for. If you are only asked for two copies of a written tender and no supporting documentation, don't send everything you've got just because you think they should have it.”
She says that there should be a lot of focus on presentation, such as carefully proof-reading documents. She also believes that rehearsals can be useful, especially when they are viewed by external consultants. “This tends to concentrate the mind” she says. Lawyers can watch themselves after being videoed, and correct their faults as a way of gaining confidence in their presentation skills.
Beauty parades are about client power. But law firms have one source of power with which to fight back – knowledge of the clients' motives and business. This is the key tool that firms have in winning beauty parades, the presentational side is generally a matter of marketing technique.
Do as much research about the client as possible so the presentation can be tailored to the client's requirements. Follow the instructions issued by the companies. Paul Newton, group legal director of Bupa, says: “There's nothing more annoying than people who don't read the letter properly. It's amazing, but it happens, and before they've started a law firm will have notched up a big black mark. It's amazing the number of firms that don't read the instructions properly.”