How to win a STEP Private Client Award 2020/21

Entries are open for the STEP Private Client Awards 2020/21 from 3 February until 30 April. The Awards are widely acknowledged as being the premier event in the private client industry calendar. Winning an Award is a very clear and recognised hallmark of excellence.

How then, do you go about winning an Award? Mary Duke, TEP, Chair of the Presiding Judges, gives us her top tips based on her personal experience as a nominee, winner, judge and now as Chair of the Judging Panel.

You have to be in it to win it

There can sometimes be a perception that the Awards are only for larger firms or for the usual London suspects. However, the judges have clear instructions to make allowance for smaller entrants and to take cultural differences into account when considering international entries. Last year’s entrants and winners were the most international yet. Entries from all sizes and types of firm are therefore welcome. Strong entries will always attract attention from the judges, regardless of their size or regional origins.

Enter the right category

It is a constant surprise to the judges how many firms enter the wrong category. One submission even began with the bold statement: ‘We are a leading [another category entirely] firm…’. Read the category criteria carefully, and if you think the judges might have difficulty understanding why you are applying for a particular category, help them by explaining your business better.

Put yourself in the mind of the judges

My number-one tip, when writing your submission, is to imagine yourself as one of the judges.

Be aware that most of the judges will not know most of the applicants. If they do, then all the better – judges are encouraged to bring their personal knowledge to the process – but for the most part, judges will be relying heavily on the submission. So even if you think you are the best-known firm in the world, make your submission count.

Understand the judging process

There are three phases to the judging process.  

  1. The Shortlist Phase – First, submissions for the legal categories often receive a high number of entrants resulting in the category being split into large and mid-size firm groups. This is why entrants in these categories are asked to submit the number of fee earners in their team and in the firm. The definition of fee earners can be viewed on the FAQs page of the website.
    Then the categories are assigned to judging groups and each judge will have to review up to 100 submissions, each of up to 1,100 words. Judges have to submit a scorecard against the category’s criteria and write a narrative (minimum 50 words) to support their outcome for each entrant. That is 220,000 words of reading, 1,000 scores to give out, and at least 10,000 words to write. It is an incredible amount of work.
  2. The Panel of Experts – After the shortlist is announced, the entrants for each category are submitted to a panel of experts. These individuals are chosen for their ability to provide independent and knowledgeable insights into the entrants and the field of their work. (But they are not direct competitors in the category.) A list of the panel of experts is available on the awards site. The reports of the Panel of Experts are considered as recommendations only and do not constitute a formal vote.
  3. The finalist stage – The finalists’ entries and the panel of experts’ recommendations are provided to the full panel of judges for this critical decision phase. Prior to meeting for final deliberations, each judge is required to submit their own report on each individual submission indicating which entrant they believe should win the category. The judges then meet to deliberate and make a final decision for each award.

This is a thoughtful and transparent process involving a good deal of debate and discussion. At times, the discussion results in judges shifting their views. There is no consideration of how many tables a firm might purchase at the awards dinner or the size of the contribution an entrant may have made to the officially supported charity. In fact, there is no way for the judges to know these things based on the timing of the decision process. Likewise, there is no consideration given to whether a firm won in the preceding year. Judges with conflicts or whose firm has entered a submission are recused from related categories.

Answer the questions

It is the first rule of exam-technique we should all have learned at school, but every year I am amazed at submissions that fail to answer the question. There are five criteria for each award. Each of the criteria is weighted equally and we score each on a scale of one to five. So answer each of the questions individually. Don’t allocate too much space to one category to the disadvantage of another.

Further, make sure that you clearly answer each of the criteria in turn. Don’t use jargon or abbreviations that are not in common usage. Remember, the panel of judges is made up of a diverse group of practitioners from differing fields of expertise. 

The most important thing to avoid is a long single narrative. Even if it addresses all the criteria, judges aren’t going to thank you for having to read it several times in order to extract and mark each one. Make the judges’ lives easier and they are likely to mark you more highly.

Don’t waste word-count

You have 1,100 words. Make them all count. So many submissions waste words. Précis rigorously. Then do so again.

Clear, succinct language is appreciated. 

Avoid the marketing spiel!

You will be judged by fellow senior industry professionals who can spot puffery and hyperbole from a long way off.

Most of the work in our industry is advisory. The ability to communicate clearly with clients is crucial to this. So, demonstrate your ability to give clear advice, with a clear and well-written submission. If your marketing team is superb, then by all means use them. The judges’ experience, though, is that submissions written by those at the coal-face often read more convincingly.

Pay attention to spelling and grammar and beware unnecessary adverbs and superlatives.

Big numbers (and names) are irrelevant

Many submissions make great play of the financial value of their clients or cases. Others seek reflected glory in acting for big names. Yet both of these have almost no effect on the judges. Tell us what makes your case unusual, complex or novel. Don’t simply name-drop celebrity connections.

Provide evidence; don’t merely assert

Most criteria ask you to ‘demonstrate’ or ‘provide evidence’. Yet many submissions assert things – ‘We are the leading firm providing a superlative level of client-service and exceptional satisfaction’ – without any evidence to back this up.

What will go down well is an evidence-based entry that gives clear examples of what the firm has done over the past year to make it stand out from the crowd.

Entries should be particularly careful about unguarded assertions. ‘We are the only firm that can…’ or ‘We are the largest firm which…’ are particularly dangerous assertions – especially where some of the judges might work for a competitor and dispute whether this is true.

Tell us something unusual

A good answer for each of the criteria might get you shortlisted. But if you want to win, you will need to stand out.

Tell the judges something different, something unusual, something genuinely innovative. Think forward to the awards ceremony and the announcement of the winner. When the celebrity-host says: ‘The judges were particularly impressed by…’, what one facet of your submission will the judges have chosen?

Be consistent

The judges are both curious and cynical in equal measure. They will check what you say in your submission against what you say on your website and other sources of information. Glaring inconsistencies tend to result in entries receiving short shrift.

Remember the Awards are ‘ … of the Year’

Your firm will obviously be very good at what it does, but the Awards are intended to highlight those that have achieved particular success over the past year. Make sure you are rigorous in only referring to evidence from 1 May 2019 to 30 April 2020. General statements about historic successes will waste words and not score any marks.

….and finally, good luck!

The judges look forward to having a bigger job this year, with many well-written submissions to choose from!

Mary Duke, TEP, is an independent advisor to families

You can find out more and enter the Awards at www.steppca.org