Important law firm decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. Instead, they should be made with a lot of the right information at hand. For most law firm decisions, “the right information” means competitive intelligence.
Competitive intelligence is defined as a systematic and ethical program to collect, analyze and manage information about the external business environment – information that can affect all plans, decisions and operations of a law firm.
Competitive intelligence can be information about organization – such as your customers, potential customers and opponents. It can be information about other law firms – such as joint venture partners, opposing counsel or even potential merger partners. It can be information about specific legal requirements industry or markets.
Competitive intelligence can also be information about many people – such as people you will meet on the field, in the boardroom, in the courtroom (such as opposing counsel or expert witnesses) or in employment interviews.
In any of these settings, knowledge of the company and people is power.
When gathering competitive intelligence, there is a wrong way and a right way to do it. The wrong way is shown by computer hackers like Lisbeth Salander The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As much as we enjoy the book and the movie, and want Lisbeth to succeed, we cannot condone her tactics. This kind of corporate espionage makes for good entertainment, but bad – and unethical – business.
The gathering of competitive intelligence ethics complies with all applicable laws – domestic and international. It is obtained from legitimate online and print sources, in both public and subscription databases. When obtained through interviews (either with employees and customers of targeted competitors or as general field research), the ethical interviewer discloses up front both his identity and the purpose of the interview.
Before starting any competitive research project, it is important that you have a plan. Thanks to the Internet, there is an almost limitless amount of resources out there. You can waste a lot of time and money to find them all. If we know your goals for a particular research project, we can help you focus your resources on the most feasible, valid and reliable sources for your purpose.
Competitive intelligence on companies, competitors and enemies
Some sources of competitive intelligence about companies, competitors and enemies are paid and some are free to the public. Because of the nature of their work, many law firms and law librarians already have access to many paid resources. These include products offered by industry giants LexisNexis and Thomson West.
For industry research, competitive intelligence professionals also like to use a product called Deep, offered by MarketReserch.com. They offer a variety of reports for purchase. The entire report may be expensive but, if you know what you are looking for, you can order only part of the report for less.
And don’t forget. Many of these paid resources are available for you to use for free at your local public library.
Free resources for company research include llrx.com and the Zimmerman Research Guide. In its database, Zimmerman offers links to company information and company personnel. Both of these sites are great places to start if you’re trying to get an overview of the types of research that’s out there.
The Virtual Chase product by Justia.com offers business research as well as county and municipal law resources. Information about the company can be found at Hoovers, Yahoo! Finance, Google Finance, Nexis company information and Valuation Resources.com.
Lots of good research is available from Google. We all know how to do a Google search, but more searches and more refined results are available through Google’s Advanced General Search Page. Google Scholar and Google Advanced Scholar Search offer useful results that have been ‘cleaned’ of casual hits.
Court and government sites – especially the Secretary of State’s office — include public records and a variety of useful information. If you want to know where the company is headed, check the US Patent and Trademark Office Database.
Competitive intelligence profile
When preparing to meet with a potential client, lawyers often ask marketers or librarians to prepare a client profile. Often, this is done just a few hours before the scheduled meeting – and we have to scramble.
Even with very little lead time, you’ll be surprised at how much information you can glean by simply visiting and mining potential clients’ websites. You should also look for company or firm pages on social media sites.
When you have little time to prepare – such as for a proposal or a resulting beauty pageant – then you can delve deeper into the client’s background. Good resources for public companies include SEC filings. Good sources for private companies include the Dun and Bradstreet report.
A good profile refers to some or all (depending on your time and research skills) of these categories:
- Fast facts
- Company Overview
- Business segment
- Business partner
- board of directors
- chief executive
- Major developments
- Customer representative
- Legal issues and litigation
- Case studies
- Patent information
- Marketing strategy
- News article
Armed with this type of information, your attorney and law firm are ready to make good decisions about how to approach potential clients (or others), and how to make a good impression once that contact happens.
Competitive intelligence in people
Sometimes you need information about an individual rather than a company. This person can be a client, potential client, competitor, opposing counsel, potential employee, or potential merger partner. When you know something about the people you’re meeting, you can plan accordingly.
Sometimes, you need other types of information about people. For example, you may need to track down former employees or potential witnesses. When such a person has gone ‘off the grid’ electronically, you may not have much to go on. This is where creativity comes into play.
In one such case, a former executive had been gone from a company for five years. He has a common name, which makes the search more difficult. Someone remembered him saying that he wanted to take over his family’s farm. By using the farm subsidy database and narrowing down the search by general geographic area and the man’s age, we were able to track him down for our client.
Another reason to search for people is to get their contact information for use in a marketing database. Good sources of contact information include telephone directories, professional directories and professional licensing agencies (if you know someone’s profession). Online resources include a search on Yahoo! Many people.
Many of the commercial and general resources mentioned in the “company” research section of this article work well for people.
Competitive intelligence experts often use a site called Jigsaw, which is owned by Salesforce. It is a business-to-business contract database populated by marketers and salespeople across the country. By contributing their contacts, users gain access to the database. It includes 30 million contacts. It is an excellent source of contact information for individuals below the typical c-level executives who appear in most directories.
If you know someone’s location, you can search local and regional media for mentions of their name and activities. Social media — such as Martindale Hubbell, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube — are also good resources. So is blog search. Social media includes contact information, but they also broaden your research with less formal “chats” about people, their activities and the companies they work for.
In gathering information about people, you want to use a wide variety of sources – and you want to be careful to verify any information you find before you act on it. There is a lot of misinformation out there. There are also privacy concerns.
Today, information about companies and individuals is widely available. In fact, you can easily drown in all the data. The trick is to focus your search based on your business goals. With this information in hand, you are in a good position to make good decisions about the future of your law firm – and its work.
This article is based on a Jan. 10, 2012 presentation to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association by Wanda McDavid and Judy Goater of Access Information, a Denver-based firm that provides competitive intelligence to law firms nationwide.