Competitive Intelligence in law firms happens. I know it does because for almost ten years, I have been doing it. And still, it seems CI in law firms is a mystery, an enigma to those in the legal community as much as in the CI community. I am writing this post as I fly home from the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP)’s annual meeting. The meeting was superb, one of the best conferences I have attended recently. The energy levels were high, people were engaged, conversations spilled out of conference rooms and networking events were packed. And yet, when people asked me what type of organization I worked for, I got questions like “law firms have CI?” or “how do law firms do CI?” No ever questions my colleagues in the pharmaceutical, consumer goods, defense or food services industries, so why me? Or rather, why still me?
On one panel discussion I sat in on, which looked at the first 100 days of a CI program, Mark Greene, Chief Business Development Officer at Waller, suggested that advertising in law firms is relatively new – its only been around for 35 years, as compared to the other industries. So, arguably, the need to be “competitive” and the need for intelligence to do may also be new or newish. It seems a plausible rationale, but given that next month, the ARK Group will be hosting a one-day conference on CI in Law Firms (check it out if you will be in the NY area, it is usually a great conference). And at its annual meeting in July, the Special Libraries Association (SLA),’s Competitive Intelligence Division will be running a session specifically about the Evolving Role of Competitive Intelligence in Law Firms, I think the industry-in-its-infancy argument is tired.
When I walked to exhibit hall and talked to vendors, very few service providers outside of data providers such as S&P Capital IQ had law firm clients. Shift Central, and InfoNgen were two of the few intelligence product vendors in the room with existing law firm clients. Aurora WDC was one of the only primary research and consulting firms who were willing to engage in a needs analysis for the industry and recognize the needs of the CI industry in legal.
There seems to be a significant disconnect between what service providers and professional associations are making available, and what the industry needs. Why? What makes legal different? When it comes down to it – I can identify three areas that make law firms significantly different enough that vendors are at a loss for an approach and CI people such as myself may have a bumpier ride in influencing the decisions at firms.
1. Despite several huge national and International firms in existence, the industry is still relatively small and insular. So companies such as Bloomberg Law and AmLaw which do cater to the industry, won’t have a presence at bigger trade shows such as SCIP. That being said, I believe most CI service providers are wiling to work with CI practitioners to tailor solutions. This puts the onus on the CI practitioner however to figure out what he/she needs and then work with a selected vendor to make it happen. Not always a preferable approach.
2. The management structure of law firms is, despite many firm’s attempts otherwise, is still primarily a partnership structure with multiple bottom lines and conflicting priorities. Even where CI sits within the organization can be a challenge. The operations and budget of Marketing, Library, Business Development, and/or Knowledge Management within firms will vary widely, making the “home” of CI susceptible to even more scrutiny. The only way for the law firm CI practitioner to deal with this challenge in my mind, is to work slowly, gain small wins and manage expectations.
3. Finally, the third difference and difficulty I see for law firm CI practitioners is the notion that CI in law firms supports both the practice and the business of law. This is a very fundamental difference between what we do and what practitioners in other industries do. And, this is a challenge that those outside of the industry may not understand. It is a subtle difference but one that makes all the difference. Law firm CI is different in that we need to focus on not just the business but also what is happening from a legislative and regulatory point of view. This presents a unique challenge, which when coupled with the other two points above, makes legal CI seem like a daunting task for the practitioner and an industry not obviously ready for outsourced or assisted CI.
So what do we do in the face of these differences? We carry on. Now more than ever, I am inspired to put legal CI on the proverbial map. I feel confident that what the legal industry is doing in CI fighting above its weight in terms of its sophistication and tactical approach. Despite the challenges and the not-so-obvious-existence, CI in law firms is alive and well, if possibly under-served. Time will tell, but I am willing to bet it won’t take long before the CI community in law firms is setting bar the for everyone else.