Sweaty palms. Sleepless nights. The urge to hide in the nearest pub. Pitching is rarely a joyful experience but you can – and should – learn how to get better at it. Someone who thrives in the dragon’s den is Eversheds chairman Paul Smith. This year, at the time of writing, he and his firm have masterminded more successful panel pitches than any other UK law firm, securing business from Nokia, Shell, Avis and Eton Corporation, among others. Paul was also behind the legendary DuPont pitch, which secured a $3 billion deal. Here, talking exclusively for the BDLN, Paul Smith reveals the techniques and philosophy behind his pitching prowess.
1) Ditch the notes
For me, Rule No. 1 in pitches is no notes. OK, so you might take in a sheet of paper summarising what you’re going to say but after that, no notes. Why? Because a pitch is about reading body language, deciphering what people want and asking the right questions. Some people in the room will like what you say. Others won’t. You have to work out where each one is coming from. If you plough through a Powerpoint presentation and get bogged down in reams of pre-prepared notes, graphs and charts, you may miss the point. You’ve probably got an hour at most and the idea is to talk to your potential new client.
If you talk at them you won’t unpick what’s in their heads. The sooner you can have a discussion and identify the issues – their issues – the more productive your pitch will be.
You’ve got to judge the mood and energy in the room. I’ve been to pitches where you can sense that eight firms have been in there before you. The room is stale with lawyers’ jargon and heavy with notes. Rather than pile in with your pre-prepared presentation, you need to respond according to the situation. “Have you had a good day? What have you learned so far? What’s been good? What’s been bad? Would you like us to start at a particular place?” Questions like that can create a much-needed fresh dynamic.
2) Go in with a small team
I came out of one pitch recently with my team of three. In reception I saw that the next firm in had brought a team of 14 who were handing each other business cards – some of them didn’t even know each other. A carefully chosen team of three who are comfortable with each other is much more effective than a small army. The chemistry is better and you won’t trip each other up.
3) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse… and research
A day or so before D-Day, the three of us will go through our pitch again, again and again. A pitch is theatre – live performance. First, decide who the ringmaster will be because you need someone who controls and directs proceedings. Also choose what you’re going to say and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until it’s smooth and polished.
The aim is to communicate that you’re organised, and for the pitch to flow like natural conversation. We work especially hard to prepare links. For example, we practise saying something like: “We can offer service X – Bob, you’ve just done something similar for another client so perhaps you can explain what stage you’re at and the challenges you’ve faced…”
We also prepare for killer questions – the really difficult ones – and we agree in advance who will cover particular subjects. It pays, too, to practise dealing with objections – those rare moments when someone you’re pitching to gives you the equivalent of a heckle. I recall one pitch when an American said to me, mid flow: “Paul, I do not buy your bullshit.” Because I’d practised for something like that, my reply was: “OK, fine. I appreciate this isn’t working for you but can I give you one more example to try to get to the heart of what I’m saying?” He agreed, I gave the example, and he finished with: “OK you got me back.”
Another tip: do your research. Some of the more formal pitches use scoring sheets that focus on five or so areas. Try to get hold of a scoring sheet a few days before. Also, ask who’ll be there and what the issues are. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Some people share, others don’t.
4) Do not focus on you
So many firms walk into a pitch and talk about all the wonderful deals they’ve done. Clients are not interested. They don’t want to hear you stroke your own ego or be bombarded by your firm’s credentials.
So don’t fall into the trap of showing off about the recent deal Bertie pulled off in Saudi. That’s not why you’re in the room. You’re pitching because the potential client is under pressure to be more efficient, to save money, to provide a more consistent service, to bring in better technology, or something similar.
Don’t try to prove how wonderful you are. Always focus on the client’s needs. When you’ve worked those out, share useful stories, but not stories that glorify you or your firm. For example: “We did this with client X. It wasn’t easy because this can go wrong but this is how you can fix it…” That’s 10 times more powerful than saying “we are the leading experts in intellectual property law”.
Here’s a story that illustrates my point. One of the first pitches I took part in was to a family business in Yorkshire. The senior partner put the pitch team together: one lawyer from the corporate department, one from the property department and me from litigation. The senior partner introduced us: “This is Stephen. He will tell you about our corporate department. Christopher will tell you about the property department. And Paul will tell you about the litigation department.” The client said: “Would you like to know something about us?” Our senior partner replied: “No, that won’t be necessary.” That afternoon we got the call to say we’d been unsuccessful. Lesson learned.
A final word…
With pitching there’s no magic bullet. No secret that will lead to a 100% success rate. But you can improve your chances and technique. I advise you not to flood the pitch with reams of pre-prepared notes, charts and graphs. It should be a two-way conversation to enable you to get to the root of what the potential client wants and needs. Focusing on you and your firm’s successes is another barrier to this aim. Remember: it’s not about you. The client plays the leading role in this particular production. And as with any theatrical production you need to be prepared. No or very few notes does not mean no prep. Intense rehearsal is a must. Follow this advice and your ‘show’ might just get an encore…
Paul Smith is Chairman of Eversheds. He has pioneered some of the UK’s most game-changing legal deals and has played a major role in transforming Eversheds into one of the UK’s most disruptive and forward-thinking multi national law firms.
Written and edited by the BDLN