On a recent Reinventing Professionals podcast, I spoke with Matthew Prinn, the principal of RFP Advisory Group, a consulting firm that specializes in requests for proposals for the legal industry. Prinn’s firm works with corporate counsel interested in using an RFP to identify and compare law firms, as well as with law firms focused on winning more RFPs. In these highlights from the interview, he and I touch on the rise of the RFP, how technology is changing the process — and ways law firms can stand out and win more work.
Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your background and the genesis of RFP Advisory Group.
Matthew Prinn: For nearly 20 years, I was in legal marketing and business development working for midsize and large law firms. Over the last five to 10 years, I saw an explosion of RFPs being used by buyers of legal services in a more innovative and effective way. Initially, general counsel and legal operations leaders in large law departments were saving money and becoming more efficient, but those same methods trickled down to smaller companies without a large legal operations team. I saw a demand for expertise to help ensure that they are using the right number of law firms, engaging the appropriate firm for each particular matter, and paying a fair price. Whenever it can leverage competitive bids from different law firms, the client will always receive a better price at the end of the day.
Why have requests for proposals become so important?
MP: An RFP has been used in various industries for decades to procure goods and services, though its application in the legal industry has been a challenge because the procurement team typically does not report to legal and related services were often considered a special area of spend. Over the last 10 years, there has been a pushback against that notion, resulting in greater influence from those in legal operations and legal procurement, which often overlap in the RFP process.
Do you expect to see the volume of RFPs increase?
MP: Yes, as a result of technology. RFPs were historically executed through Word documents and the process was very clunky. It required answers to a lot of questions that did not make sense or that were not necessary. It also included too many open-ended questions for which law firms simply attached everything but the kitchen sink to their response, making it very difficult for legal operations and procurement professionals to manage.
With the emergence of new software that allows you to score questions more efficiently on a dashboard, the process has become much easier. In addition, while most RFPs were initially used to develop panels of preferred and pre-approved law firms, companies are now increasingly leveraging RFPs to staff individual matters, such as a complex M&A transaction, to gauge whether a firm’s legal strategy or experience is specific to that work.
Finally, RFPs are simply more effective and result in savings of up to 20% on a given project or as applied to an organization’s annual spend.
How are they being used to negotiate pricing or to convert arrangements from the billable hour to alternative fees?
MP: RFPs are just a platform, but they are driving change. For example, while RFPs have historically included a question about a law firm’s approach to alternative fee arrangements, many simply expressed some willingness to accommodate without submitting a bid. As clients become smarter, they are requiring their law firms to propose a meaningful alternative fee arrangement based on quantifiable budgets. Some even use virtual bidding and administer reverse auctions online. All law firms have the same data and are now judged on whether they pitched the most attractive price.
What are the biggest mistakes law firms are making in responding to RFPs?
MP: Many firms do not have a formal process in place or an impartial representative reviewing the RFP to ensure that it is an opportunity worth pursuing and that the firm can successfully reply. Given the skill required, it might not be effective for the specific lawyer seeking the work to lead the response. We also hear that there is too much “canned” language being used, which makes it very hard for the reviewer to distinguish between firms. As a result, the RFPs that score higher are those that are more tailored, with a specific partner customizing and describing the firm’s legal strategy in contrast to generic language provided by the marketing department.
Also, law firms really need to emphasize their competitive advantages and value proposition. In an RFP, you ultimately want to indicate why a prospective client should hire you.
How can law firms drive revenue with RFPs?
MP: One area in which legal marketers generally have struggled is tracing their value and quantifying a return on investment for the marketing department. Since RFPs can be tracked and measured more effectively than traditional business development, legal marketing departments that collect data, analyze it, and report back to management can help drive revenue. They can identify trends highlighting where the firm is winning RFPs in a specific industry, or how it is scoring better based on a key value proposition or competitor. Having the data to support performance really shows the value of marketing and helps push revenue.
How do you see RFPs and related technology evolving?
MP: We’re seeing video incorporated into RFPs, but video throughout the legal industry is typically slower to evolve in this area. Still, some firms are showcasing their capabilities and diversity in a two- to three-minute clip, which might be a more attractive answer than a plain text brochure. I do not think they all have to be professional video productions. Rather, an individual with basic knowledge of how to use an iPhone can produce a video that may be more persuasive for procurement and operations teams comparing law firms.
Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change, and introduce new technology on his Reinventing Professionals podcast. Listen to Ari’s conversation with Matthew Prinn of RFP Advisory Group here.
More tips relating to the RFP process …
“Intelligence-Gathering Tips for Responding to RFPs” by Matthew Prinn
“It’s Time to Overcome Your Fear of Narrowing Your Focus” by Jay Harrington
“Five Questions to Ask Before Responding to an RFP” by Matthew Prinn
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