Is competitive intelligence spy games or market research?

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As far as any of them will tell, law firms haven’t converted any of their conference rooms to “war rooms” filled with people looking to bring down the firm across the street. But keeping tabs on the competitive landscape is something law firms are increasingly attempting to do — and each one seems to approach it differently.

Similar to the early stages of law firm marketing departments, in which firms were still experimenting with missions and staffing, competitive intelligence processes in law firms are still in a relatively nascent stage in which even the definition of competitive intelligence is something upon which firms don’t agree.

For some, competitive intelligence is tracking what your competitors are doing. For most, it is a blend of business, market and competitive intelligence, with an eye toward tracking other firms, current and prospective clients, geographic and industry sectors, and the firm’s own internal data.

The department where competitive intelligence employees are based ranges from the business development team, marketing group, library services, knowledge management and, in very few instances, a specific strategy group that works with firm management on larger-scale issues.

The focus of intelligence gathering is largely on tactical one-off issues, such as learning more about a client prospect before a pitch. But as competitive intelligence functions in law firms evolve, consultants in this space say the goal is to reach the strategy stage in which competitive intelligence analysts are assisting firm management in making long-range decisions, such as mergers and office openings.

While firms are all over the map when it comes to implementing competitive intelligence functions, one area where many firms do align is on what they focus the least of their intelligence-gathering efforts: other law firms.

Boston-based Foley Hoag’s director of marketing and business development, Jasmine Trillos-Decarie, said there is more of a role now for competitive intelligence in law firms than ever before given the only way to increase market share in this business climate is to take it from other firms.

“But pure competitive intelligence — I’m not sure you will ever see law firms have war rooms talking about taking down a product line or industry group another firm offers or target another firm to take them down like [might occur] in corporate America,” Ms. Trillos-Decarie said.

She noted she hoped that wouldn’t happen or else the law would no longer be a true professional services industry.

Zena Applebaum is director of competitive intelligence at Toronto-based Bennett Jones. She said the demand for competitive intelligence roles is “crazy” right now. She said firm leadership is recognizing they need a competitive advantage. Ms. Applebaum said in some respects, it’s giving a title to something that has been going on in firms for decades.

After the market crash of 2008, when every firm “was watching what was happening in everyone’s backyard, it was like ‘maybe we should do this in some kind of systemic way,’ ” Ms. Applebaum said.

In some respects, certain data on private law firms are very difficult to track — such as firm M&A data — but in other ways, there is more information about law firms available now than ever before.

“The info where you used to feel like a spy, it’s on the Web now,” said Clare Block, director of business development at Saul Ewing.

Duane Morris’ chief marketing officer, Mark Messing, said gathering data on a client prospect will involve looking at the competition, but more importantly it focuses on the client’s industry and competitive landscape.

“Because there is so much writing on the law firm industry and because it is covered so intensely, I don’t think we’re in the dark about what other firms’ vulnerabilities, strengths, weaknesses and their overall profiles are,” Mr. Messing said, adding his efforts are much more devoted to the clients than the competition.

Competitive intelligence consultant Ann Lee Gibson said firms need to go to school on what competitive intelligence is and what it isn’t.

“It is not more and more information, it is better and better insights about the competitive space,” Ms. Gibson said. It isn’t just about clients, it’s about everything that affects the space in which law firms and the clients operate, she said.


Gina Passarella can be contacted at 1-215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI. To read more articles like this, visit www.thelegalintelligencer.com.

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