Bird Watching Anyone?

Ben Gilad, noted competitive intelligence theorist once wrote something to the effect of "bird watching is a fun hobby, but you shouldn't do it in the middle of a busy highway." Greg's last post about needing investigative reporters on staff is to me a bit like bird watching on a highway. I see the point, even the theoretical beauty, but it also potentially dangerous.  In this case, not to the bird watcher but to me and those in the industry like me - the competitive intelligence practitioner. 

As CI practitioners it our jobs to be the guardrails at the top the cliff, to identify the early warning systems for both the firm (business of law) and clients (the practice of law).  It is our mandate to embed ourselves in practices, to keep the pulse of the firm, monitor the outside world and bring it into the firm to make decision making better, easier, smarter.  It is our jobs to make sure that client interaction happens with the most current and relevant information on hand. 

The scariest, though not entirely surprising part of the post for me, was the notion that firms use a myriad of business development and competitive intelligence resources and tactics to attempt to provide proactive service.  What is scary about that you might ask? The perception that this is not happening, and that there are tools and tactics not people, training programs and processes behind the service.  CI, is still seen, even by prolific law office management as being a set of tools and tactics, rather than a highly skilled group of people.  This is where we have failed our firms.  It is a bit like suggesting that the library as a place is providing information rather than the librarians and other information professionals who work there. How many times have you heard in firms "oh, the library (meaning the people but referencing the place) can get that for you".

The jury is still out on whether CI is in fact a profession or a series of competencies, but one thing is clear, there are firms doing CI just as described in the post. It is not merely about access to databases, data manipulation and current awareness.  There are law firm CI practitioners (be they librarians, BD people or otherwise) who are embedded in practices, providing quarterly analysis, monthly reports and the like.  Just as there are law firm librarians who are great at asking questions - using their reference interview skills to verify fact and figures just as a journalist would do.

I will concede however, that despite our best efforts there is something missing. And it may well be the concept of training, certification or even recognition of a CI as an actual discipline rather than a series of tactics and tools.  This might be where journalism as a known and classic trained discipline can supercede.    There are many consulting firms out there (I won't name names, but send me a note if you want some referrals) who will work with Librarians, Business Development folks, and CI people to set up current awareness portals staffed by real analysts (some even former journalists) on the other end - people - who can provide the extra layer of analysis the Investigative Journalist post envisions.  Many of these same consultancies will work with firms to provide primary research to back up secondary findings, but the thing that is missing is a road map.  The plan if you will, for how to take CI farther in firms, moving it away from market research, data crunching and analysis frameworks towards being the strong, recognized and necessary guardrail it is designed to be.

So while I welcome out of work investigative journalists to join the ranks of law firm support staff along with the librarians, business development people and others being downsized across industries and professions, in true CI fashion, I must as act as the guardrail here and suggest that until firms know where they are going, its best not to get caught watching the birds. [Zena Applebaum]

Bookmark and Share


Greg Lambert said...


I like what you are doing with Competitive Intelligence, and I think every firm should follow your lead. I'm just wondering if the concept of Competitive Intelligence is not getting through to firms (the GC's reaction on how he's not getting proactive advice and counsel seems to point out that his outside counsel doesn't seem to be using CI strategies.)

Perhaps the difference is symantics here? (Although, I'm expecting a comment back from you pointing out that this isn't!)

If I removed the "Reporter" title, and replaced it with "CI Practitioner" but kept all the other concepts in place, would that fit the CI Strategies needed for firms to be in the position of proactive adviser? What unique skill sets would set a CI Practitioner apart from an Investigative Reporter working within a law firm?

Zena Applebaum said...


CI as a discipline is relatively new for law firms. We know this, several firms are doing it and doing it well - chime in those of you that I KNOW are out there...
As for the reporter title vs. CI Practitioner, I just threw the question out to my team and they came back with the following two differences: 1) Reporters, as we understand the profession (please correct us if we are wrong) are about getting at the truth - stories are based in fact not trajectory or intuition. CI at some level has to be about taking that intuitive leap b/c facts can't accurately tell the future. Which leads to 2) that being that CI is proactive, not reactive or reporting in the middle of an event, CI is about getting in front of information. Journalism can and does do this at times but for CI, reporting after the fact is not actionable. I would add a third comment here and that is that CI is ultimately a business function. It is about making money, mitigating risk and thereby saving money and about being as competitive in the market place as you can be. Journalism in an ideal world is not. It is not so much a skill set, but a way of thinking about information and analysis.
For any firms that are not doing CI and want to, or would like to know how they can do it better, drop me a line. I'm always happy to chat.

Greg Lambert said...


Thanks for the clarification, and specific differences. I think I've been hanging out with too many vendors like Law.com and ALM reporters, and it was these types of legal specific reporters that I was thinking of… only having them specifically work with Practice Groups to prep them for meeting clients' needs to be aware of risk trends going on in their industry. In my anecdote above (where the GC is wanting proactive information), it seems that if any of the outside counsel firms have CI, it doesn't seem to be changing the approach of the attorneys doing legal work for this company. Perhaps this is a good example for CI Practitioners to use to show why they are a valuable piece of the business pie.

Emily C. Rushing said...

Couldn't agree more with Zena (sorry, Greg...) Also would add a general comment on law firm CI and client service.
CI practitioners in law firms are often grouped in with non-billable functions and, in this capacity, might focus on providing firm management and partners with business intelligence/advice that is not viewed as relevant or valuable to the external client. These activities include targeting lists or company/executive briefings meant to help our partners identify opportunities or develop a sales strategy.
I think what Greg proposes, and what many CI practitioners are working with their firms to provide is external facing intelligence. Not just whispering in our attorneys' ears but standing next to our attorneys, facing the client, and saying "We have the resources to predict trends that affect your business and our attorneys have the legal smarts to help you beat your competition."
Many attorneys would never think to have staff involved in client service, but librarians do it all the time so why is this different for CI practitioners? I speculate that it has to do with our lawyers understanding of and trust in the CI process and deliverable. We must educate our lawyers on advancing their client service beyond traditional legal service and into becoming trusted business/legal advisors. I believe that leveraging CI to external clients is a way for attorneys to move towards that relationship with their clients.

Zena Applebaum said...

Surely, there are some vendors out there who are selling into the space that might want to comment on what they are seeing in Legal CI.

Adam Carlson said...

I am a vendor but on the information security front. After reading this post and comments, I'm wondering if information security is something on the CI radar that has come up as a potential business need/competitive edge in law firms? Or perhaps you have observed a growing demand from some clients for increased security has resulted in some CI analysis.

The reason I ask is because it seems as if we are at the start of some type of industry shift towards increased security (some BigLaw going for ISO27001 and ILTA's LegalSec initiative). The big question is how much of a shift are we looking at. The answer to that question should be very much driven by the business needs of the law firms.

Much like CI, information security is about risk management and the people making risk management decisions (not the specific tools or anti-virus software you use). The most important components of efficient risk management are smart people who understand the business and its needs and can develop business-focused information security objectives.

Some questions that should be asked/answered in an infosec strategic roadmap:

Can/will security be an advertised competitive edge over other law firms?

How do the types of clients impact a firm's information security investments?

How do you assign a dollar value to client data when making cost-benefit analysis? (or do you use some other method for weighing options?)

How do we balance the security risks of some tools against the efficiency gains of their use?

These are all very strategic questions and there are tools which can help with whatever decision is made. The hard part is coming up with the right decision for an individual law firm.

Having said all of that, is this something that CI professionals would be interested in? It has been difficult finding the right mix of strategic and operational knowledge to wade through these issues.

I'd love your input on whether this is an area CI professionals would like to explore further. We on the security side could definitely use help with someone representing the law firms strategic perspective and it sounds like that is a core competency of the CI professional as you describe it.


© 2014, All Rights Reserved.