Originally published in Marketing the Law Firm Newsletter, January 2017 (subscription required)

In few areas within a law firm does one see as much diversity as in the Competitive Intelligence (CI) or Business Intelligence (BI) function. The sheer discrepancy in the quality of work product, amount (and type) of dedicated resources and expected output is stark. Similarly, the receptivity to research within AmLaw 200 firms is equally diverse. For some, CI is a central hub from which to extract the most basic of information – company reports, public filings, executive bios. For others, it has evolved to deliver more comprehensive reports of clients’ changing industry dynamics or an overview of market dynamics in a geographic location.

Just a handful of today’s law firms boast a truly sophisticated CI function; one capable of contributing at a high level to the firm’s most vital decisions: where to open a new office, whether a new service offering responds to existing client needs, what are the vulnerabilities in a competitor’s position (and how to capitalize on it), what innovations are capturing client dollars, which strategic priorities demand the greatest investment of resources in the short- and long-term, etc. Yet it is here where CI offers the most promise for the future. Why not make 2017 the year to take your law firm’s CI to the next level? Here’s how:

1.      Where are you in the CI spectrum?

The first step in the process is to do an honest assessment of where your firm lands in the evolution of CI. Just as diverse as the functions themselves is the level of satisfaction with them. Some firms with the most nascent of CI teams garner rave reviews simply because of the novelty of having access to information sources. Others have robust groups offering proactive insights that get dinged for lacking the context or wherewithal to translate information into insight. Understanding the best next step for your firm demands first establishing a clear perspective of the current state of your CI team.

The following framework offers a basic illustration for how a CI function may evolve in a law firm. Rarely is there a straight path from basic to advanced, and many groups tackle a combination of tactical and strategic exercises over the course of their work.

The question becomes, what is the primary nature and focus of your CI team – where do they invest the bulk of their time and efforts today? It is not uncommon to have a so-called strategic group muddled in tactical work. Or, conversely, a tactical team spending a disproportionate amount of their time on “special projects” to support strategic initiatives. Gauge not only the resources spent, but also the team’s skillset and internal client expectations. This is your baseline.

2.      Lay the foundation: Clarify goals and expectations

As part of the self-assessment exercise, you may have unveiled some gaps – discrepancies between what the CI team is delivering and what is expected of them. If so, you’ve got a head start on the next step. Task number two involves: 1) developing clarity around the goals and expectations for the function; and 2) determining if this set of goals and expectations aligns with the firm’s overall strategic priorities. For example, if the firm’s emphasis is on growing opportunities with existing clients, how is the CI team contributing – are they providing insights on changing conditions within client industries; or alerting the firm of competitive moves into key markets or sectors where the firm has strong client penetration? These examples are on the more strategic/proactive ends of the spectrum. Alternatively, is the CI group responding to requests to provide a history of transactions within a sector, a map of current operations at an existing client or a who-knows-whom report on key executives in advance of a client event (more tactical/reactive examples)?

Both of these approaches can have payoffs for your firm. The key is to clarify expectations so that they align with output and resources and set the foundation for the CI team to be successful. For some firms, culture, resource constraints or other factors may demand development of a more reactive, tactical team. This is where most teams start. The group’s ultimate role will be to support others who then translate that information into strategic insights or action steps.

For other firms, data-passionate leadership, a drive to innovate or simply the readiness and willingness to move the CI team along the value curve will dictate different expectations. Go with what works for you and your firm. Ultimately, what your firm gets out of its CI function will be in direct correlation with the alignment between expectations and evolution.

3.      Develop your plan for 2017

Now that you’ve clarified what you and your firm would like to get out of the CI function, as well as the current state of the team, you have all the ingredients to develop an action plan for how to get there. The steps may be incremental, such as adding an executive summary of insights to a well-established comprehensive report template; or ambitious, such as transforming a high-functioning reactive team into a proactive, highly visible contributor. Some factors to consider as you prepare:

  • Self-service v. full service v. “out-service” – which activities on the value spectrum will belong to CI? Are there tools or processes to allow internal constituents to self-serve? And, if so, how does the team encourage and support this service model? How can your team best function given existing resources?
  • Centralization v. optimization - Will your CI activities be centralized or do you plan to draw on resources from across the firm (e.g., library, HR, marketing) to optimize delivery and address varied needs? How can you use leverage to boost output capacity?
  • Talent – do you have the talent in-house to meet your firm’s newly established expectations? Where are the gaps and how do you plan to fill them?
  • Operations and integration – is CI currently integrated with other internal groups in a way that allows them to accomplish goals or more strategic initiatives? Do they have a role in key planning or decision-making activities? Are they structured under the right umbrella?
  • Management v. leadership – do you have the right leaders in place to evolve your CI function? If not, will you designate a person to drive this transformation from within or with a new hire?

Competitive intelligence, in various forms, has existed within law firms for decades. In some ways, though, it is just in the past few years that it has “come into its own.” As more lawyers, leaders and clients become increasingly comfortable with and dependent on data consumption, the role and expectations of CI will continue to expand and evolve. Even now, in 2017, an investment in a thriving CI function can position a law firm ahead of the curve – an innovator with an advantage. Make 2017 your year to get smart.