How to Transition from the Proposal to Engagement: Some Practical Tips For Solos


A request for proposal (RFP) is a solicitation, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals.[1] It is submitted early in the procurement cycle, either at the preliminary study, or procurement stage. ~ Wikipedia

The Proposal Route for Solos

“Okay, you say: all well-and-good, but what does all this have to do with me, a sole practitioner trying to make my way?”  The answer: A lot!  For, in essence, established firms, and some lawyers making an initial splash, are marketing their services–communicating their expertise to garner business.  To be sure, in a similar vein, it is critical for those starting out, whether as GPs or ‘specialists’, to get the word out as to how then can you can help potential–even current–clients meet challenges and successfully deal with opportunities.

In this regard, you have a leg-up, if you specialize in an area of the law, such as intellectual property, corporate law, securities, tax, environmental law, etc.  Indeed, many small, boutique firms have gone that route.  However, that doesn’t mean that, starting out as a GP, you’re left out in the cold.  You may have to start small” with the obvious goal of building your practice.  Proposals are an important way to do it.

As to proposals, the well-known gold-standard firms are on the “list” to receive RFPs. At the same time, you can take a page from their book and add proposals to your marketing arsenal (although you don’t may not call it as such).  Consider the attributes of “winning” competitive proposals that pull in new business.  Following are some tried-and-true guidelines that you can adapt to your situation as to current clients and as to well-thought-out initiatives to expand the client base.

A Proposal by Any Other Name: How to Go About It

As indicated , proposals are just one way to increase billable (or project) hours.  They are, in essence, a formalized marketing tool.  With regard to scale, you can just-as-easily start small; indeed, you may well have no choice.  At the same time, don’t wait for the phone to ring.  Make the client or prospective client want you.

For example, you prepared a buy-sell agreement for a client.  Surely, you have an opening to try to expand your role. Study the business and “make a proposal” in the broadest sense of the word.  Business issues fall into neat compartments that apply to many sole proprietorships, partnerships, or close corporations.  As for my own experience,  some years ago, I prepared a will for a client.  But that work was, in a sense, in a vacuum.  I broached the subject of an estate plan and was told, “We’ll get to it.”  On my own, I got to work on an estate plan, incorporating business and personal considerations. They loved the draft. And “bought it.” That led to a template for similar-situated clients.   Portions of the document formed the core of my proposal. Soon enough, I was off-and-running.  Some other tips:

  • Be Selective.  In making the marketing and sales pitch, try to ensure the work will be strategic and profitable, and that you are available to do the work.
  • Include an Issue Statement.  An RFP response requires a statement of the issue.  If you want to expand your business with a specific client, you may also include pertinent history relating to the client’s problem, its past relationship with the firm (if applicable), industry data, and immediately identifiable ramifications of the client’s situation.
  • Do Your Homework.  Research the company’s website and other publicly available information resources.  Find out about its goals, culture, challenges, and legal needs. In this regard, be up-front with the client as to information you would like to have to prepare a proposal.
  • Benefits vs. Features.  After statement of the issue, your presentation should include a discussion of the benefits to the client of retaining you for the matter or transaction.  The key question: What is it that distinguishes your firm as exceptionally qualified to solve the problems or take advantage of the opportunities you have identified.
  • Write in a Compelling Manner.  Proposals should contain interesting material that grabs the reader’s attention.  Approach the document from the prospect’s viewpoint.
  • Be Concise.  Today’s decision-makers want information that is clear, concise, and requires a minimum of reading time.  Get right to the point, deleting repetitive data, and be logical in sequencing.
  • Use Straighforward, Easily Readable Language.  Avoid legalese.  English should not be a second language for lawyers.
  • Go Easy on the bio.  The biography is not an essay.  Get to the heart of your qualifications quickly.  Leave out your swim team kudos or that you like to read medieval French literature, dance the jitterbug, or are proficient in finger-painting.  Ugh.  Some prestigious firms include biographies of everyone remotely connected to work on the proposal.  As we told the partners, the organization issuing the RFP knows the firm is highly regarded.  Can the puffery and move on to the key issues.
  • Solving the Client’s Problems.  As noted just above, once again, clients want to learn much more from your proposal than your qualifications.  They want you to propose solutions.  Saying it another way, the issue isn’t about you and your capabilities; it’s about a solution for the prospect that reflects an understanding of its business issues.  Firms with winning proposals solve a problem or create an opportunity more easily or cheaply than prospects could themselves.  Show how your qualifications translate into targeted information for the client.  In other words, write from the perspective of the client or prospective client.  Stellar qualifications will help to get you in the door.  That’s only the beginning.  You then have to “sell” your idea.  Nothing new here.
  • Develop a Service Plan.  Based on client information, work up a feedback and communication schedule.  What added values you offer, such as a technology plan, which the client will appreciate, and even prize?
  • Proposals are Marketing Documents, Not Briefs.  But that applies to the approach, not format.  Gloss, glitz, and flowery language don’t go very far; in fact, they often turn the reader off.  The firms that use the best paper often do the worst work.  Remember: The purchasers of legal services are very sophisticated.
  • Be Creative.  Some lawyers are rigid and inflexible.  They are not comfortable being creative.  But being creative is what often gets many lawyers the job.
  • Fit the Billing Rate to the Proposal at Hand.  Billing rates are reasonable or not, based on the service provided.  Whether specific rates are a problem depends, to a large extent, on how much the prospect’s problems can be solved by a lawyer or firm.  A high billing rate may be ok if you’re the only diamond among so many carats, billing rates are not an issue, and you’ll get the job.  On the other hand, if your competition does the same kind of work, you may have to bid more on price, and/or come up with a creative fee plan, perhaps not tied to the hourly rate.  (Obviously, this situation, primarily refers to competitive bidding. (I expanded on the key premise to offer some perspective.)

Relationships often mean everything.  If you’ve done business before and they’re coming back to you, mine this for all it’s worth.

And, perhaps, most important, be proactive, not reactive.  As noted, don’t wait for your clients to contact you.  Take the proverbial bull by the horns and get in touch with them with a proposal, a plan, which merits their consideration.  Do what you can to “make it happen.”  Good luck!

CaveatSome years ago, I prepared proposals for a major law firm in line with its marketing initiatives.  In the familiar lingo, each was in response to a “Request for Proposal (commonly referred to as an RFP).  In other words, a company, investment firm, a government agency, etc. requests a response from a number of law firms to perform legal work. Some might refer to the process as a “competition.”  In this rarified atmosphere, medium- and large-size law firms put their best –foot-forward to garner new business, with many of the engagements running into the millions of dollars.  While I spearheaded the effort, senior partners, other attorneys, and marketing and communications staff all had input.  Indeed, a team effort was a “must” since many RFPs required a prompt response. Many-an-evening, I burned the midnight oil.

The firm I worked for did very well, landing many prime contracts. A key to its success was developing a formula–a template, if you will–adapted  to the requirements of the RFP–to zero in on meeting the prospective (or current) clients’ needs.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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