Perfecting the pitch

How badly do law firms want to win work? Well, insurance practice Weightmans, for one, admits to using professional actors as “extras” when it pitches for business.

National law firm Bevan Ashford is so keen to perfect its presentation skills when pitching for in-house work that it is considering hiring professional actors to coach its lawyers into giving polished performances. If Bevans goes ahead with plans to improve its beauty parade techniques, it will be following in the footsteps of accountants and other professionals – but do such techniques serve the interests of in-house lawyers, who face a bamboozling choice when deciding where to outsource work?

Many private sector companies distrust these beauty parades and question whether they accurately represent a firm's abilities. According to one lawyer, some accountancy firms have “teams of beautiful and entertaining employees who roam the country doing nothing but pitching, and are nowhere to be seen when work actually starts”. Law firms, of course, deny such activities.

Companies typically invite law firms to tender after selecting them from legal directories, hearing about them by word of mouth or asking a management consultant to recommend one. Businesses may also use firms which their in-house lawyers used to worked for.

Tokai Bank Europe, for example, has added Slaughter and May to its list since recruiting legal and compliance department head David Haig last year.

Simon Hodges, company secretary at hotel, casino and health club chain Stakis, says he “doesn't trust” beauty parades, which he scathingly refers to as “an hour's worth of listening to salesmen”.

Stakis outsources about 90 per cent of its work to four firms. Birmingham's Wragge & Co and Glasgow's McGrigor Donald deal with general day-to-day business, while City practice Lovell White Durrant handles corporate acquisitions and Bristol firm Cartwrights specialises in licensing work.

Stakis has used these firms for several years and solicitors have been frequently replaced at its request when it felt uncomfortable with the work being done.

Hodges says he is building a relationship with firms he met last year at The Lawyer's Legal Monte Carlo conference and aims to “go back to them on an on-off basis”.

Stakis hotel managers deal with firms direct and ask lawyers to handle work as if they were part of the in-house department, and to learn about the hotel trade. Stakis even asks them to attend managerial meetings.

Hodges says that this is because lawyers who do not have a full understanding of the business often end up talking at cross purposes with senior management.

Numerous companies refuse to use beauty parades or invite firms to tender for work because they prefer the personal approach. Andrew Redpath director of legal affairs, eastern hemisphere, at Gillette – which uses more than 250 law firms worldwide, including Slaughter and May and Bristows in the UK – says Gillette prefers “stable and evolving” relationships.

However, the company invited pitches from some firms when it expanded into Poland in the early 1990s. After compiling a shortlist, it picked Chicago's Altheimer & Gray for its strong links in the area. It then went on to choose the same firm for outsourced work in Czechoslovakia.

BT, meanwhile, uses an in-house team for most legal work. “Where we do use outside legal services, it is for fairly specialised work, and we would go to firms we have worked with in the past,” says a spokesman.

United Broadcasting & Entertainment head of legal and business affairs, Stephen Rudoff, says he uses “informal” methods to outsource work, such as taking people out to lunch. “People approach us either because we know them already or they are recommended by someone we know,” he says.

Rupert Bondy, associate counsel at SmithKline Beecham, claims to have had few problems with firms that have pitched for work because he is very specific about what he wants from them. He admits there has “occasionally been bad chemistry” and he doesn't accept unsolicited pitches.

He says: “The onus is on the in-house lawyer to strike the pitch correctly and then they will almost invariably feel satisfied they have got the right firm and learnt something from every other firm.

“We make it clear we want the people doing the pitching to do the actual work, and we get them to brainstorm on the subject. We want them to demonstrate some technical expertise, competence and experience in the relevant area, have a 'feel' for our team, show the correct culture and approach, and discuss the financial arrangements.”

Some law firms have found pitching a waste of time.

Reynolds Porter Chamberlain marketing manager Tim Anderson describes a pitch to an NHS trust involving 15 law firms: “The current incumbents were two local firms. One [representative] sat on the left of the trust chief and one sat on the right, cuddling up to him.

“The trust appointed those two firms, and one other. The problem is that public bodies have an obligation to tender but may already have their favourites.”

Anderson recalls another pitch when one of the panel had made his mind up already and sat throughout the whole of Reynolds' presentation “looking grumpy, sitting with his arms folded, and with his whole manner and demeanour against us”.

Anderson points out that pitching is an expensive process that takes a lot of time and can occupy an entire marketing department and a partner for at least a week. “I won't pitch for work where we don't already have some kind of contact with the client,” he says. “All business is people business.”

Bevans marketing manager Sarah Hall says she once spent weeks preparing to pitch to an NHS trust that had disposed of its in-house legal team, only to discover the team had gone to work for a rival firm. “It was obvious who was going to get the work and as a result, we nearly backed out three-quarters of the way through.”

Hall says she tries to arrange meetings with organisations before the pitch but some of them see this as “canvassing”, and many public sector employers, such as the NHS, have strict rules against this.

According to Hall, Bevans usually spends “between one and three weeks” preparing a pitch. She says companies vary a lot in their specifications, with some using set criteria and marking firms out of 10 for each specification, while others take “an intuitive approach and go on a gut feeling”.

Bevans uses marketing consultants to advise on presentation. Hall says: “Consultants will coach us on presenting our speeches and run us through a rehearsal.”

The firm pays such close attention to detail that it finds out what the layout of the venue for the presentation is like in advance and takes account of where people are expected to sit.

Nevertheless, there are often still some surprises. The Bevans team recently turned up to a presentation before an NHS trust “very formal and well prepared” only to discover the trust people were in casual mode with their feet up on the desk.

Hall says Bevans is considering hiring professional actors to help it to be better prepared.

Liverpool insurance firm Weightmans also uses actors, but as role-playing extras during presentations. Weightmans partner in charge of marketing, Ian Evans, says: “We do about 12 major presentations a year, spending 20 fee-earner days preparing with our in-house marketing team and outside consultants.

“They are increasing because commercial clients are using smaller panels and are willing to look at firms outside their normal panels.

“We were one of four firms chosen through a tender process by the Post Office after we responded to an advert it placed, but usually we take part in beauty parades held by companies that we have worked for before.”

Evans warns in-house legal departments that it is “fairly common” for firms to send senior partners to the pitch and then use other people to do the work – although Weightmans does not do this. However, Evans is convinced of the importance of tendering. “Beauty parades are the future of this firm,” he says.

Maynard Leigh, a group of former actors who run a consultancy to help professionals get their message across, already has four City law firm clients. A spokesman says: “We teach professional people theatrical techniques, which can radically improve a presentation, and we also film people making their pitch so that we can analyse their performance on video afterwards.”

It looks like more and more lawyers will be watching themselves on film as they try to strike the perfect pitch.