The pandemic might have put paid to award ceremonies, but it hasn’t stopped the organisers from going ahead with online versions. Even the Golden Globes went ahead this year with TV and film stars dialling in from the comfort of their own homes; many in full designer outfits, some in pyjamas.

I was a little sceptical about online award ceremonies but having attended the Next 100 Years’ Inspirational Women in Law Awards towards the end of 2020, I found myself enjoying the experience and listening to the stories and insights of some outstanding female lawyers, including Cherie Blair QC who won the Lifetime Achievement Award.

With the COVID-19 vaccine programme rolling out, there is just an outside chance that the legal profession will be able to come together again later this year to hand out well deserved gongs.

So, as the prospect of celebrating in style begins to look like a real possibility, would-be winners and nominees might be wondering how to put their best foot forward and create a winning entry.

But is it worth entering awards and, if so, which ones? What are the benefits from a legal PR perspective and what makes for a winning entry?

Is it worth it?

Catherine Calder, joint CEO of Serjeants’ Inn, certainly thinks so. Serjeants’ Inn has been the recipient of 23 awards over the last three years: ‘Awards are a bit of fun. And – provided you choose the right ones – they are good for business too. We all want to work with the best, whether as a client or a member of the set or its staff team, and there’s something about an award-win which really cuts through as a shorthand for excellence.’

Catherine stresses: ‘It’s about the work behind the award. We want to highlight how much our barristers put in to work with the solicitor to steer and support the client through crucial cases.’

Legal marketing specialist Eileen Donaghey agrees: There are huge benefits from winning an award or even being listed as a finalist. It can help bring the team together, give a sense of unity from an internal perspective as well as influencing how the team or chambers is viewed in the legal industry and adding an extra piece of endorsement for new clients.

‘Clients like to know that the counsel they are using are award-winning. It can sometimes be a deciding factor and it certainly does add an extra edge over competitors.’

So, what makes a winning entry?

Plan for success: I’ve been approached on several occasions to draft an award entry with 48 hours to go before the deadline and have had to politely decline. Award-winning submissions take time to research and collate the right information.

It will depend on the award criteria and word length, but my advice is to leave at least two to three weeks to prepare your entry, and expect to produce a couple of drafts before the finished article is crafted.

Just doing your job isn’t enough: Awards judges are looking for a standout piece of work or initiative. Judges are frequently faced with award entries that, while solid, amount to nothing more than doing the day job.

Interrogate the criteria: For the best chances of success, you really need to study the criteria. Treat it a bit like an exam question. Remember, it’s not what you want the judges to know, but what the judges have asked you to show them.

Before you submit the award, go back and reread the criteria and make sure you have answered everything the judges have asked for and that you have met all the requirements.

Include proof points: State tangible examples of what the entrant or organisation has achieved. Perhaps your expertise led to winning a case that changed a specific area of law or triggered a change in government policy. If so, explain how.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a lawyer tell me their chambers or firm is innovative, but when pressed further they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Award entries are not for telling a story about how great you are, they are for showing it and you can only do that with proof points. Think show and glow not sell and tell.

For example, say: X has represented families in seven Article 2 inquests over the past 18 months. They achieved six conclusions where either neglect and/or significant failures were identified, and a Prevention of Future Deaths Report was issued following all seven inquests.

Rather than: X has built up an innovative specialism in Article 2 inquests, representing many clients successfully.

Referees are all-important: Third party referees who will vouch for an entrant’s good work are crucial. So, whether it’s a client, a referrer or another independent voice, including their viewpoint will make all the difference. And even though it might be time consuming, don’t just ask your referee for a testimonial. Talk to them and write something for them to approve. People often get stumped if they’re asked to write something and tend to write the same glib thing, failing to convey the true impact a piece of work or an individual has had on them. However, by talking to someone you will often create a far richer picture.

Be brutal: Why say something in 100 words when 50 will do? Often, award entries have a word limit, but remember it’s not a target. Be concise and clear. Doing so will actually enable you to say more.

Also, avoid repetition. They’re just wasted words and means you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to demonstrate why you should win the award.

Read the fine print: Award organisers will be clear about the format they want to receive the award submission in, what the word length is, whether they accept supporting criteria and in what form. Failing to adhere may mean your award doesn’t even make it as far as the judging panel. And don’t forget the deadline. Some award organisers might allow small deadline extensions by a few days, but why leave it to chance? See my earlier point about planning for success.

Proofread, proofread and proofread again: We all know that when we’ve worked on something for a while and seen various drafts, we can become immune to the content. Always get at least one other person to read your entry for typos and to ensure that it conveys what you intended.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is: Be warned – awards can be lucrative and there are companies that claim to give out accolades on merit but will contact swathes of firms offering ‘winner’ status to whichever firm or individual is happy to pay for the privilege. These are best avoided. Don’t confuse these with awards that sometimes will ask for a small registration fee or donation to a charity. The golden rule here is that if you haven’t submitted an entry but are asked for payment in return for receiving an award, walk away!

Award entries are an important part of the legal PR mix. It’s a great way to build your brand reputation among clients, referrers, potential recruits and your own people. Good luck!