Law: Teaching a tender touch: Firms competing for business are training their lawyers for beauty contests, says Barbara Lantin

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The Independent Online
In the boardroom of a large London firm, four solicitors are attempting to win over an important potential client. It is not going well. The questioning becomes increasingly tough. The team leader is visibly struggling but his colleagues seem unable to help. None of them expected this kind of grilling.

Fortunately, relief is at hand - for this is only a training exercise. Mopping their brows, team and trainer analyse what went wrong and work out how the performance can be brought up to scratch for the actual presentation the following day.

Scenes like this, once confined to the retail sector, are now increasingly common in the law. Tendering for business in open competition with others - unheard of 10 years ago - is routine. Firms are having to face the fact that success or failure can depend not only on what they say at a presentation but the way that they say it.

As Sally Woodward, director of training at Freshfields, puts it: 'We believe preparation is 90 per cent of the battle in terms of working out what the needs of the prospective client are. You can't get there by shooting from the hip and trotting out the usual list of services.'

As a result, medium-to-large practices are spending more time preparing their lawyers for beauty contests. Sometimes the work is done in-house by training staff. In other cases, firms call in one of the growing number of companies specialising in the field.

'Over the past six or seven years solicitors, in common with other professionals, have found that they can no longer rely solely on personal contacts to get work,' says Paul Secher, managing director of EPS, which trains lawyers, among others, in presentation skills. 'They have to learn to pitch to both existing and prospective clients in open competition with other firms. As solicitors rise within the firm, they are required to front the organisation and it is assumed that they will be able to do this. But the fact that somebody is an expert lawyer does not mean he or she can present well to non-lawyers.'

The problem can be tackled in a variety of ways. At Freshfields, for example, all solicitors from trainees upwards receive at least two days' training in communication skills. This is topped up by rehearsals for particular presentations. The firm has guidelines on how to research, prepare and structure both written tenders and oral presentations and is planning to conduct a review 'to see if there is something we should be doing that we are not'.

At Lovell White Durrant basic training is done in-house and consultants may be called in to prepare a team for a particularly important pitch. 'Most of the top legal firms provide a very high-quality service so we have to demonstrate the edge that differentiates us from the rest,' explains Lovell's head of marketing, Jeremy Connell. 'This is where good preparation can help. First we have to look at what we are being asked to tender for, identify the main issues for the client and work out what they need and why they will benefit from using us. Then we rehearse, preferably more than once. You see people's confidence grow. They project their own personalities and are more able to spark the chemistry between client and solicitor that is so important.'

Training for a beauty parade may tackle everything from appearance and style to speech and content. Ill- fitting suits, poor body language and a tendency to swallow the ends of sentences are easily corrected. Formulating the batting order and devising the answers to really punishing questions come later.

Paul Secher says his firm may be called in at any stage, from the invitation to produce a tender document onwards. Obviously, the longer he and his trainers have, the better.

'If it is the first time these particular people have come together as a

team we will talk through how they will approach the pitch before we get to the rehearsal. Who will they be meeting and what do they know about them? Even if one of the prospective client team is an in-house lawyer, there is no point using legal jargon if there are non-lawyers present who will be making the decision. We spend a lot of time on dealing with difficult questions. The team must have credible, authoritative answers to the concerns the clients are likely to have.'

Solicitors do need delicate handling, apparently. The fatal mistake is to approach them as if they were about to sell a vacuum cleaner to a housewife. Peter Thomas of the business psychologists Walpole says that younger solicitors, who have grown up in a more commercially aggressive environment, are often more amenable to presentation skills training than their senior partners.

'Selling is a dirty word for a lot of solicitors,' he says. 'They feel uncomfortable with the idea that they may have to influence a potential client to the point where he makes a purchasing decision. The 'six golden rules for producing results' approach is mechanistic and condescending to clients so our work is about getting solicitors to analyse how they do things at the moment and how that needs to change. We ask them to make the same kinds of judgement about their presentational methods as they do about the quality of the advice they give. Once they are convinced of the value of the training they develop their skills very quickly indeed and soon get a visible payback on the time they have put in.'

It is one matter to employ a presentation skills trainer but another to admit to it, however. Lawyers are still extraordinarily coy about owning up to having outside training in how to pitch for business. When asked how his solicitor clients would respond to the idea of being interviewed by a journalist, Peter Thomas replies: 'They'd be extremely uneasy.'