I found the story in today’s Legal Intelligencer on Law Firm Competitive Intelligence interesting. 
I noticed a few points (yes I know, surprising isn’t it?) after reading this that I think bear a bit of discussion.  Here are my perspectives, which are based on 20 years as a CI professional as well as the Co-chair of the CI Caucus of the American Association of Law Libraries.

First of all, CI in law firms is not dumpster diving or spying.  Anthony Pellicano did not practice CI.  The art of CI (and yes, I consider it to be an art form) is to find available information, analyze it based on the strategic and cultural context of the firm and provide conclusions that enable the firm to be successful operationally as well as in acquiring new business.  Since this context can vary between firms and from moment-to-moment, the same information can have different meanings in different circumstances.  It’s up to the CI professional to provide the interpretation.  Information can be obtained in many legal ways, ways that don’t require wiretapping or reconstructing shredded information from the trash.  It is, first and foremost, an ethically driven process.  In fact, the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) emphasizes the ethical nature of CI here.

Second, CI in law firms is not new.  As I said at the beginning, I am proud to have been a CI professional for about 20 years, 14 of them in the law firm environment.  In 2006, an article discussing CI in law firms was written and published in the National Law Journal by my colleague Jan Rivers.  The over 300 members of the Competitive Intelligence Caucus also indicates that this is much more established in the legal industry than is commonly thought, at least as indicated by the Legal Intelligencer article.

Third, CI is often confused with Business Development or the acquiring of new business.  However, this definition ignores the most important part of CI, the competitive in Competitive Intelligence.  CI is the part that focuses on identifying your competition and determining how best to position the firm to compete with them.  Without this piece, the firm cannot ultimately be successful in acquiring new business.  As ably pointed out in the Legal Intelligencer article by my colleague Zena Applebaum, CI in Law Firms became more important in 2008 when it started to become obvious with firms that they needed to compete to survive.

There were also concerns expressed in the article about the quality of the legal industry data available.  The fact that this was expressed concerns me.  In my experience, the data quality isn’t any different from the data relied on by corporate decision makers.  As I mentioned above, the CI professional’s role is to evaluate and interpret the available data.  All data, regardless of quality, can provide useful indicators and should not be written off.  Robust and useful CI is not dependent on data quality.  Rather, it is dependent on analysis and interpretation.

CI in law firms is an established part of the operation of the law firm business.  As in most business, the importance of knowing your competition and industry at more than an anecdotal level has made CI integral to this business.