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How Responding to RFPs Fits Within Your Business Development Plan

By Carmelite M. Bertaut and Cheryl A. LeeVan

For many of us, the receipt of a Request for Proposal (RFP) adds a level of stress and anxiety to our already busy workdays. But it doesn’t have to trigger that reaction. With a certain investment in planning and organization, the receipt of an RFP can be a positive business development opportunity to establish or deepen connections with key decision makers in corporate law departments and government agencies; recognize current trends and emerging issues within your field; and ensure that your personal credentials and qualifications are up-to-date.


It is helpful to view responding to an RFP in three stages. The first stage involves those best practices to establish and maintain in advance of receipt of an actual RFP. The second stage is the preparation of the actual proposal in response to an RFP. And the third stage, which is often overlooked, is to follow up with the requesting entity.


In the first stage, it is essential to create and maintain a standardized set of credentials, qualifications, and case write-ups. Depending on the size of your firm or practice, parameters for both content and format can be helpful. This ensures, for example, that all attorneys who worked on the same case have the same description within their biographies or credentials package. Maintaining this database will avoid having to reformat qualifications and other background material during the actual preparation of a proposal. A central repository to collect and organize this information can be invaluable and will speed up the preparation of the response. A fairly painless way to keep legal experience current is to ask one attorney to draft a case write-up for the central repository whenever any sizeable or unique matter is concluded. The write-up will be completed when the information is fresh and will avoid chasing down lawyers to draft write-ups for particular RFPs. The closing-out procedure also should include updating attorney biographies to reflect their personal involvement in the matter.


Also within this first stage, it is critical to develop a process for what happens when an attorney or the firm receives an RFP. Depending on the size of the firm and practice, the key person who will be charged with responding is often an individual within the firm’s marketing group. The marketing representative can coordinate the firm’s effort among interested attorneys in the firm and essentially shepherd the proposal through submission. The process can be highly standardized or informal, but the key point is that a process has been established.


In addition to specific expertise in particular areas of law, which are addressed in the qualifications and credentials write-ups, RFPs often encompass requests for information that more broadly addresses the firm’s operating and technology capabilities. These might include the ability to use particular e-billing systems or compatibility with particular software tools or technologies. Having a resource within the firm who is conversant about the firm’s capabilities can be invaluable during this stage. Another emerging trend is that some RFPs request information about respondents’ pro-bono and community involvement and diversity. To answer these specific requests may require drawing on several various individuals or groups within your firm, including your human resources group. Again, if these types of information are collected routinely, the information on-hand is likely to be accurate and current so that it can be leveraged into a proposal. Thus, maintaining this information is a critical step in advance of any RFP.


The second stage is the preparation and submission of the proposal. As discussed, having a point person assigned to shepherd the proposal through to submission is critical. Next, review the RFP carefully to ensure timely compliance with technical requirements and deadlines.


During this stage, consider whether approaching the entity who issued the RFP is possible and advisable. If a government agency is the requesting entity, it is likely that no individual discussions can occur, but questions can be addressed during a bidder’s conference. If a corporate law department has issued the RFP, it may be possible to ask questions of individuals within the department. With respect to any outreach, a word of caution is appropriate if you are working with an entity with which you don’t have an existing relationship or an understanding of its culture. While in most instances, the follow-up to the requesting entity is critical to addressing gaps or ambiguities in the RFP and generally will result in an improved proposal; in some instances, informal contact may be viewed as prejudicial to others responding to the proposal. When in doubt, use the direct approach and only contact the individual who is designated as the RFP contact to determine the amount of permitted interaction.


Learning more about the requesting entity’s legal needs and its current providers of legal services can also contribute to your proposal. Sources for this information include Martindale Hubbell; local court suit checks, and other media sources to learn about the entity's expected legal needs. If discussion is permitted with the requesting entity, it may be useful to try to draw out this information as well.


RFPs vary in the amount of information they provide with respect to size of the matters as to which they seek representation and the range of fees that the requesting entity is willing to pay. However, regardless of the amount of information provided, another critical step in the second stage is to consider whether the likely range of fees will pass your firm's internal hurdles for profitability. Your own flexibility and willingness to consider alternative billing approaches are often essential and should be directly stated in the proposal. If after considering the profitability of the representation you conclude that it is not sufficiently profitable, consider any other benefits of obtaining the referral and evaluate again. At this point, it might be most efficient to consider passing on those RFPs that don’t make good business sense. If a decision is made to proceed with the proposal despite the predicted (un)profitability, it is important to manage expectations within the firm that this proposal, if accepted, would be an investment that would hopefully lead to increased and more lucrative opportunities with the requesting entity.


Incorporating credentials, qualifications, and case write-ups from the central repository ensures standardized content and format in the proposal. Depending on the extent of availability of your firm’s “branding” materials, you might be able to maintain the same look and feel as other materials created by your firm. However, compliance with the technical requirements of the RFP is paramount. Responses to RFPs can be rejected because they did not conform to the technical requirements of the RFP.


Once the proposal is assembled, a small, experienced team should critically review it just prior to final sign off on the RFP checklist. Once this is completed, all that remains in the second stage is to submit timely.


As previously mentioned, the third stage is one that is often overlooked. This stage involves following up with the requesting entity after submittal of your proposal and notification of its decision. If you follow these steps, there is no guarantee that your proposals will be successful, but you will be able to better contain the time and internal expense in responding to RFPs such that a failure to “win” will not be so costly. And your ultimate response will likely be more thorough and polished.


If the outcome is positive: congratulations! But if not, consider following up with the entity. Depending on how disappointed you are in the outcome, it might be best to wait a short period of time before reaching out to the general counsel or corporate law department decision maker so you are in the best position to receive their feedback. This is not you trying to persuade them that they made the wrong decision; rather, this is you trying to gain a better understanding of the basis of their decision. It is helpful for you to understand what made the winning proposal stand out, what elements of your proposal were viewed positively, and what elements of your proposal were not as strong. In procurements involving government or public agencies, it is sometimes even possible to obtain copies of the other proposals that were submitted. The objectives in this stage are to improve upon the next proposal you submit and to try to deepen any contacts with the requesting entity. And don't be discouraged; after all, someone within the organization thought enough of you to ask you to apply.


You want to increase your chances for the next time and ensure that any subsequent contact with the organization is positively and effectively received, such that you and your firm remain “top of mind” with key decision makers and buyers of legal service.


While responding to an RFP does require extra unplanned work in a typically compressed schedule, it can be a complimentary adjunct to you and your firm’s business development strategy.


Keywords: RFP, business development


Carmelite M. Bertaut is special counsel to Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, LLC in New Orleans. Cheryl A. LeeVan is a managing director in Navigant Consulting Inc.’s Chicago office.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of the The Woman Advocate.


 

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