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Observations from the Other Side…

I took part in a law firm round-table event a couple of weeks ago, alongside a GC and Head of Legal services, on the topic of client expectations and procurement. The final question/provocation of the morning was from a very experienced, articulate and engaging law firm CFO:

  • Why does procurement send out 48 page tender documents with questions completely unrelated to the services and give us 2 weeks to respond?
  • Does anyone actually read the responses?
  • Why do they want 3 years’ financial accounts?
  • Is this the best clients can do to choose a legal firm?

Faced with so many legal professionals with so much combined experience, and many murmurs of assent from an international audience, I found myself struggling to give a credible answer…

It’s been just over a year since I joined ‘the other side’ at Validatum®, and over the Easter weekend I’ve been musing about whether my preconceptions were true about law firms, when it comes to not truly understanding the expectations and needs of buyers of legal services (mostly it turns out).

However, having worked with our law firm clients on many of the large public and private sector tenders over the past year, and graphically illustrated by my grilling at the round-table event, I’ve gained another hugely important perspective – buyers could help themselves by helping law firms better understand the buyers’ exact needs and reasoning.

Despite many different forms of Request for Proposal or Invitation to Tender (RFP/ITT), all with their myriad of questions, for the most part firms are still left guessing about what is important to the clients. There is sometimes a statement of the critical success factors or evaluation criteria for that tender, but very few if any of the documents spell out what ‘wow’ would look like. Without this statement of needs, firms are expending huge effort trying to interpret client demands and demonstrate how they can excel in meeting them.

Faced with often behemoth documents, I see firms spending many hours pulling together information on topics ranging from green energy credentials to whether they pay the minimum wage…. And whilst necessary to prove the CSR credentials of an organisation, these questions are costing firms’ huge amounts of time and money in responding to tenders, and detracting from what’s important – proving that they can excel in providing the legal advice and services that their clients need.

To complicate matters even further, clients’ priorities can change from one instruction to another depending on client needs at the time. Cost, experience and service always feature as evaluation criteria but which is dominant and why? Unless the relative importance is clearly stated by the client, firms may over-engineer what is needed (or affordable), leaving both sides disappointed.

Of course, as an ex-buyer I might argue that firms should understand enough about their clients to know what is truly important to them, and if the relationship is embedded enough then that may be true, but what about all the other firms that transact on a more commoditised basis or firms that want to start a relationship and have no history to draw on?

One partner I’ve worked alongside this year likened a recent financial services RFP to buying a car, but without a budget or knowing who it was for… it’s a good analogy. With more detailed information on spend, short, mid and longer term client needs and overall service requirements, they could have produced a more focussed proposal, faster.

Which brings me back to the CFO’s question about RFPs. Of course, clients need to evaluate their legal provider’s financial standing, CSR credentials and diversity policies, but I can’t help thinking there must be other ways for buyers and firms to evaluate each other than through the traditional RFP.

Although Validatum® works exclusively with law firms, we have a very collaborative and co-operative working relationship with the Buying Legal Council, the international trade organisation for legal procurement professionals whose aim is to support professionals tasked with sourcing legal services and managing legal services supplier relationships through advocacy, networking, education, research, and information.

Discussing this blog with Silvia Hodges Silverstein, Executive Director of the Buying Legal Council, we wondered about setting up a joint working group of law firms and clients in the UK and Europe (‘Observations from The Other Side’).

The group would be tasked with the objective of improving the relationship between law firms and legal procurement professionals with an initial focus on how to achieve easier evaluation and more co-operative tendering.

Other such Buying Legal Council working groups exist (view here) but are made up exclusively of buy-side members.

What we’re proposing would be new territory but we can’t think of a better way to close the gap in buyer/law firm understanding discussed in this blog than in working together…

Firm or client-side, if you’d be interested in being involved with the working group in some capacity to jointly improve law firm/procurement relationships, then please email me with expressions of interest. I can’t wait to dispel more preconceptions.

Steph Hogg

Senior Procurement, Bid & Pitch Consultant


M: 0044 (0)7772 761 154