Since the first day I walked into a large law firm, I have been amazed at the vast amount of information that is compiled within the four walls of each of these firms.  Even more so, I’m am amazed at the normalization of the data that is compiled.  Each office has a specific designation number; as does each employee; each vendor; each client; each matter; each saved document; so on and so on.  This type of information can and should be the Holy Grail when it comes to building a knowledge tool and a competitive intelligence resource that will leverage existing information against the firm’s future challenges.  Remember, it sure helps to know where you are going, if you know where you’ve already been.

However, it seems that all of this normalization gets siloed into its own little database and becomes so compartmentalized that it looks to be almost impossible for one database of information to link to another.  Each piece of information usually begins as a unique process, such as a conflicts check, and it lives and dies within that space.  Even when we buy expensive third-party projects, like CRM tools, we tend to have issues normalizing the data we import into that resource because we tend to not structure our existing data in a way that allows it to play well with the other data (let alone the new information we are compiling.)
Just off the top of my head, here’s a list of information that firms compile and normalize:
  • Employees (Employee ID)
  • Offices (Office ID)
  • Clients (Client ID)
  • Matters (Matter ID)
  • Matter Type (Matter Type ID)
  • Practice Groups (Practice Group ID)
  • Adverse Parties (Conflict ID)
  • Vendors (Vendor ID)
  • Filed Cases (Docket ID)
  • Courts (Court ID)
  • Documents (Doc ID)
Now, there are probably a few dozen more specific data points that we compile into the multiple systems we use in the every day life of running a law firm.  
Let’s think about the external information that is out there that could also be used as a reference point:
  • Companies (DUNS ID; FEIN;)
  • Attorneys (BAR Number)
  • Individuals (SSN; Drivers License; e-mail)
Then there are more generic, but specific ID information out there:
  • Telephone Numbers
  • Zip Codes
  • Cities
  • States
  • Country
  • URL (
The moral of this story is simple — ask yourself this question before you bring on a new database:

How can I link this new information to my existing information?

If there is no “hook” between the new and the old, then are you really serving the needs of your firm by bringing in this new database?  If you cannot tie an individuals information that is housed in your CRM to any of your existing databases, is the CRM really worth the huge investment (both time and money) you are putting into it??
As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, Knowledge Management, IT, and Competitive Intelligence professionals within the law firm need to create a strategy of making sure that each piece of data compiled can be connected to other pieces of data, regardless of which database that information resides.  If it cannot, then why purchase it?
  • Greg –

    But even those normalized IDs may be split or combined when used for different purposes.

    One client may have multiple designations for billing and origination credit. One matter may have multiple designations to address related suits filed in different jurisdictions.

    Of course these uses come from different areas inside the firm, with different needs for the information.

    I agree with you that systems have to move away from “owning the data” to a more open platform that allows you to use the data with other systems. As you have seen with the more open 2.0 tools, connectivity has wonderful benefits.

  • Hi Greg –

    What you have referred to as a 'hook' for me is integral to viewing various IT tools as part of a system through which information must be able to flow. We are seeing increasingly how open social technologies (like RSS, links, tags and comments) can enable us to make many->many connections between information objects (with your normalised data being prime examples) and ensure that information is kept up-to-date, relevant and valuable. With the (updated) information being notified to people who need to know about it, who in turn contribute to its recycling through the system as they re-use, reference or update it.

  • Hi Greg,

    I agree with all that you have said, however I think that even if you find (or build) the Holy Grail, it is still a challenge to explain how/why to use it.

    Achieving value from CI takes effort.

    Some value can be generated via backend processes (reports, alerts, etc.), however I see another point of value being much more client facing.

    Here's an example: Your firm has a top Environmental atty who stays abreast of industry trends, cases, etc. Your firm also has a Corporate atty who just brought in a new client on a contract engagement.

    If you've got the Grail working, here's what could happen: Backoffice function notifies Corp atty that according to D&B data, his new client is in the business of manufacturing paint (which clearly has an environmental component). [You'd be surprised how many corp attys have no idea what line of business their clients are in!]

    Next, and here's where I see it fall apart, the Corp atty reaches out to the Environmental atty and asks if there is any significant stuff going on in his client's line of business that may prove helpful. Corp atty immediately provides that info to his new client, thus creating instant value in the relationship.

    Also, if you've got a particularly shiny Grail, it would automatically place the new client on the newsletter list for the Environmental group in addition to the Corp newsletter.

    Another way CI is helpful is when "plaintiff fishing" (well, that's what I like to call it). This is a practice lots of antitrust lawyers engage in: there is a point of law that has come up and the atty needs to know if any existing clients would be effected. The points of law are often very specific (clients who purchase chocolate products, for example), so the deeper your knowledge of a client's business, the better you are going to be at identifying them as a potential plaintiff.

    Wow, this got long – sorry!