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Firms look to intelligence to gain a competitive edge

|Written By Jim Middlemiss

Banks do it. Airlines, too. So why not law firms? The “it” is competitive intelligence (CI), the new buzzword blowing through legal marketing circles.

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Managing partners and their marketing experts heard all about it at the San Diego Managing Partner’s Forum in late January.

CI has been kicking around for years in many industries, particularly consumer goods, but it’s only been in the last few years that law firms have been talking about it.

“Competitive intelligence is part of marketing. Since marketing is pretty young in the legal industry, you can see that CI is still young,” says Asaph Benun, manager of business information for McCarthy Tétrault LLP, who is responsible for CI at his firm.

Jan Rivers, competitive intelligence liaison with the global law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP, which has a Toronto office, agrees that at the moment the legal industry is “not doing true CI. It’s baby steps.”

Rivers, who worked in CI for Arthur Andersen before its post-Enron demise, notes that CI is only now finding its way into the legal world in a formal fashion and is “becoming this major movement.”

Benun says it’s important to understand what CI is and isn’t. What it’s not, he says, is “about cloak and dagger. My job is essentially to build a structure using internal and external resources and data to allow management to make evidence-based decisions.

“You’re trying to know your market and sometimes you want to be a bit better than having some anecdotal information here and there. You want to have things ingrained in a more structured way that allows you to make more informed decisions.”

So what’s driving the need for better CI in the legal profession? Competition, says Doug Hoover, director, strategic marketing at Thomson West in Minneapolis, which is rolling out a suite of CI tools for law firms along with its sister firm Thomson Carswell in Toronto.

He notes that law firms are in a tough battle for market share. In the U.S., for example, law firm growth is slowing and there is greater consolidation. As well, corporations are introducing cost reduction strategies and many are paring back their roster of lawyers and consolidating work with fewer firms. Similar trends are evident in Canada.

So law firms are turning to CI to get an edge. A recent survey found that 89 per cent of law firms predicted that their demand for market intelligence will increase in the next two years, but only 27 per cent of firms have a distinct budget for CI. About 60 per cent of firms engage in some form of CI research each week.

CI can be used for everything from law firm merger analysis to recruiting, key client planning, and new client development. It can be used to improve client service, respond to RFPs, and help firms make the short list.

“It’s all about specific clients, about understanding trends in their industry - trends the clients themselves may not be aware of,” Hoover explains.

CI currently is most frequently used by firms to engage in competitive analysis, analysis involving a firm’s strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats (SWOT), customer segmenting, and assessing customer worth or value to a firm.

What’s driving CI’s growth is the increasing amount of data that’s available and technology tools that can be used to massage it and slice and dice it.

For example, Thomson has developed a four-module monitoring system that covers trends in litigation, intellectual property, deals, and law firms. The litigation module allows firms to analyze emerging litigation trends and activity in key industries, while the deal monitor tracks capital market activities and helps law firms see what companies are in acquisition mode and relationships between corporations and underwriters.

Mark Rousseau, general manager of client development at Thomson Carswell in Toronto, says it contributes to the package, adding Canadian components based on information it consolidates and aggregates. “You can analyze anything about a public deal. You have the ability to step back and look at emerging trends.”

Hoover cites an example of one U.S. firm, which was targeting an airline in its region. It crunched data about spending on labour and employment litigation in the airline industry and compared that to the company’s spending. It easily landed a meeting to talk about how the law firm could help the airline improve it numbers. He says companies don’t have the ability to do that type of analysis.

By analyzing litigation and deal trends and players, firms can map out their future and ramp up in areas that are weak, and by growing and identifying lawyers who they may want to recruit.

But much of this is still in its infancy and it’s not clear how successful law firms will be at implementing it.

Even now, Rivers notes, there’s no agreement on where the tasks should lie in a law firm. Some firms put the responsibility with the library information group, while others put it under marketing. Also adding to the challenge, Rivers says, is the fact that “a law firm partnership is run differently than a corporation,” which can make it tougher to get the firm to move in unison.

One marketing wag questions how successful law firms can be in using CI to their advantage.

“They’re too disorganized,” he says. “They don’t know their own strategy. It requires a great deal of co-ordination and effort by all employees.”

Nonetheless, firms are moving forward. The San Diego forum saw examples of numerous ads placed by law firms looking for people with CI skills and the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (www.scip.org) is providing a code of ethics and training to assist individuals who want to learn more.

Success will depend on a range of many factors, but some of the key pitfalls include:

•    not tying it to the firm’s overall strategy;

•    using bad sources of information;

•    expecting immediate results; and

•    failing to commit the right amount or type of resources.

Despite the challenges, CI proponents say it’s here to stay.

“It’s one of the fastest growing areas of interest in law firms,” says Rousseau.


Jim Middlemiss is editor of Canadian Lawyer magazine.

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