We ran a “request for proposal” process several months ago, asking a dozen law firms to make proposals for handling one aspect of our work. We interviewed five finalists, and we chose one winner.

One of the also-rans wrote to complain: “I’m terribly disappointed by the result of your RFP process. My firm is exceptionally talented in this area. We do precisely this same work for many other clients, and those other clients are delighted with our work. We indicated a willingness to be flexible on fees. I just don’t understand why we didn’t win this work.”

Ha! Observe the delusion of personal exceptionalism!

Look: We invited twelve firms to bid for this work. All twelve could (and did) tell us that their firms are exceptionally talented in this area. All twelve also told us that their firms do precisely this same work for many other clients, and those other clients are delighted with the work. Across the board, all twelve firms were willing to be flexible on fees.

When you speak, you all sound the same. And, so far as I know, you might all be telling the truth. I don’t doubt for a second that many of the finest firms in the world do good work and have satisfied clients. So the things that you insist set you apart — you say that you do good work and that your clients like you — don’t set you apart at all. At best, they make you one of the pack, which gives you a one in twelve chance of winning the RFP. This time, you lost.

I’m not sure how a firm can truly distinguish itself in this setting. I think about this a lot, watch what many law firms do, and still don’t see the answer. (If I saw the answer, I might try to bottle it and sell it to the highest bidder. I’d be an awfully alluring guy.)

But I’m sure of one thing: The answer is not to delude yourself about your personal exceptionalism: “All those other guys say that they do great work and their clients love them. But those guys are lying. I alone am speaking the truth. And when those other guys tell you that they alone are speaking the truth, they’re lying about that, too. I alone am different. I AM DIFFERENT!”

Sorry guy; you’re not. Or, if you are, it’s not obvious from this side of your eyeballs. There may be a way to distinguish yourself, but it’s not by saying that you’re distinguishable. Next time, try something else.

(At the end of our RFP process, we received an e-mail from another one of the also-rans. He wrote: “Although we were not selected as your preferred counsel, we very much appreciated the opportunity to present our credentials. If any discrete projects arise for which we may be uniquely qualified, please keep us in mind.” Now that is different.)

Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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