competitive intelligence
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Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a series on how law firms approach and utilize competitive intelligence.

In a profession that relies heavily on precedence, research of all forms has long driven even the business decisions of law firms. But in the past few years that function has morphed from one of printing out reams of information into one that involves targeted business analysis that often requires a leap of faith rather than following the doctrine of stare decisis.

Law firms are creating formalized competitive intelligence positions and departments. And that has meant finding the rare person, or in most cases group of people, who have the skill sets to gather, synthesize and analyze data with the ability to present it to a lawyer in a way that distills the data into a manageable, easy read and provides insights or suggested action plans.

“The most important thing from my perspective is to make our work actionable,” Duane Morris Chief Marketing Officer Mark Messing said. “Before, there was a tendency by people, many who were ex-librarians, to be faithful compilers of telephone books.”

In an era where information is available by the terabyte, the real skill is in understanding what is important, what that information means, and what to do with it.

“The deliverable here isn’t volume, it is insight,” Messing said. “A page full of bullets with conclusory insights is infinitely more valuable than Xeroxing a 10-K.”

Duane Morris’ formal competitive intelligence function is housed in its marketing systems unit and is led by a business intelligence analyst. That person’s job, Messing said, is to cull intelligence from secondary sources that the firm purchases or that are publicly available on certain industries, markets or clients.

“They are responsible for turning out products that actually move the ball forward,” Messing said of the competitive intelligence team. “They are not academic studies.”

The firm’s business development professionals often do intelligence-gathering as part of their day jobs of helping with client pitches and developing practice strategy, he said.

At Fox Rothschild, there are five researchers in the firm’s library services team and five people within the business and competitive intelligence team. One of those people was recently elevated to the director of business and competitive intelligence and reports to Catherine Monte, the firm’s chief knowledge officer.

The 10 research analysts work with the firm in a variety of ways. And perhaps the return on investment of an intelligence unit couldn’t be more apparent than at Fox Rothschild, where in the last year the firm’s clients have actually hired the team to compile industry reports for the clients.

“This is a value add [the lawyers] can pitch to clients,” Monte said.

Internally, Monte’s team works with the business development team’s “Make Fox Rain” initiative, sitting in on those meetings to find research opportunities to help with business generation. They also work with management on more strategic initiatives, such as whether it makes sense to expand into a new market. They meet with office and practice group leadership to determine areas where the firm could expand its relationships with existing clients or industries. And in addition, the team works with the firm’s chief operating officer to benchmark itself and its relationships with clients.

It’s the internal data processing that has also become more refined within firms over the past few years. Many firms are classifying their clients based on North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes. Fox Rothschild took it a step further to come up with its own industry codes given many attorneys aren’t familiar with the NAICS and SIC codes.

At Cozen O’Connor, the library and marketing teams work together to compile competitive intelligence. Jill Poretta, manager of library services, said her team gathers the info and the marketing team, led by Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Haas, makes it presentable.

Poretta said the bulk of the group’s work is focused on client-specific research, but sometimes will include the need for continued monitoring of a situation. In that case, she said, the firm uses NAICS and SIC codes to monitor trends in an industry.

And in the last year, Cozen O’Connor streamlined its process for attorneys to request competitive intelligence, creating a checklist for lawyers to delineate specifically what type of information they are seeking.

“So in the past, we’d do everything and give 500 pages of data,” Poretta said. “Now we can tailor the report with a summary page overview with the attachments of supporting documents.”

Drinker Biddle & Reath is in the process of filling out its increasingly focused competitive-intelligence function. In the last year, a marketer who enjoyed the research piece of responding to RFPs moved into the role of manager of competitive intelligence, reporting to Chief Value Officer Kristin Sudholz.

The team is in the process of developing a client dashboard that will pull together information about each client, including financial information related to the firm’s work with the client, who has worked on the client’s matters, recent news about the client and its industry and what other firms are handling that client’s matters, Sudholz said.

“It’s more targeted. It’s more on point,” Sudholz said of the firm’s competitive intelligence function. “Pitches aren’t the lawyer saying, ‘I’d like to do work with X company, can you introduce me,’ without finding out if they really need that work.”

For Saul Ewing’s director of business development, Clare Block, competitive intelligence has simply become an integrated component of the business development process.

It used to be that competitive intelligence was focused on only high-value targets, but now, Block said, it’s just a matter of doing business.

“So business development managers use competitive intelligence as one more tool in their arsenal,” she said. “It’s not just gathering the data anymore. It’s gathering it, interpreting it and educating the attorney.”

For Baker & Hostetler, a firm new to the Pennsylvania legal market, the competitive intelligence function has been formalized and grown within the firm’s business development and marketing arm over the past two years, Chief Marketing Officer David Southern said.

A competitive intelligence manager leads a team of four other analysts that have bolstered a more traditional research function the firm had had in the business development department.

“There’s just a lot more focus and a lot more value that is perceived as a result,” Southern said.

Each analyst has a focus on an industry sector and the team spends the bulk of its time focused on gaining insights into current and prospective clients.

“The thing that drives this whole operation more than anything else is that our lawyers understand very, very well that the most important thing they can do in terms of building their client relations is to really understand thoroughly their clients’ needs,” Southern said.

For some firms, formalizing the competitive intelligence function in one department or through one person is not ideal.

“One-size-fits-all doesn’t work for law firms,” Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney Chief Business Development Officer Randy P. Vulakovich said.

The expertise within a law firm is often dispersed across departments with certain people familiar with a specific practice area or industry, he said.

“So to have one person that is a competitive intelligence person, it can be helpful, but it’s not helpful in all circumstances,” Vulakovich said.

Buchanan Ingersoll does have a dedicated researcher on staff who has a business and marketing background and can present research in a usable format, Vulakovich said. That researcher is the go-to person for learning about a specific market or issue, he said. The firm’s library researchers take the lead on researching different areas of the law or a company’s legal filings in an area. That information is passed to the marketing department to mold it into a presentable format.

Vulakovich said competitive intelligence comes from a number of different places and he is going to go to the best person in the firm for the information he needs.

Law firms have to balance between having a competitive intelligence generalist versus people embedded in certain practice areas who may not be able to connect the dots across departments or issues.

“I can be mediocre at everything or great at something,” Vulakovich said. “So we are trying to find people great at serving lawyers in pockets. It’s a delicate balance.”

With the bulk of competitive intelligence within law firms geared toward gaining market share from current or prospective clients, all the intelligence analysis in the world may be no substitute for talking with the clients themselves.

“The best source of understanding what the client would be interested in is obviously that client,” Messing said, noting nothing can substitute conversations with clients through client surveys or other means.

“That will be infinitely more interesting and yield better solutions than secondary sources,” Messing said.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.