In the land of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king

August 27, 2013

5273Over 80% of Managing Partners in a survey at the 2013 Managing Partner Retreat sponsored by Thomson Reuters placed Business Development as their #1 priority.

One of the key functions of a robust Business Development plan in a law firm is Competitive Intelligence.  Wikipedia defines “competitive intelligence” (C.I.) as the action of gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence about products, customers, competitors and the business environment needed to support decisions for an organization”.  Business Development teams or libraries typically provide this intelligence.

Regardless of how thorough and elegant looking a C.I.  report, attorneys universally challenge almost everything they receive from the research team.  Author David Maister writes; “ Lawyers are expert loophole finders, trained to find counterexamples of or exceptions to any proposition”.  What law firm marketer or researcher has not felt the wrath of; “This doesn’t look right to me”, “I can tell there are things missing” type of rant.

C.I.  research is the art and science of working with imperfect data.  In the legal C.I. world this normally translates to information not available at all, or at a price too costly to justify.  For example in C.I. research for litigation, a common objective is to understand which attorneys / law firms are doing what type of work for which companies.  The CI challenge is that not all dockets are electronically available. The information across jurisdictions can vary and the cost to manually locate, retrieve and analyze is hard to justify.  Tools like Monitor Suite  that automatically aggregate and segment the data speed up the process, but they cannot create data that does not exist nor can they correct inaccurate data which is inherent in dockets since they are filled out and filed by humans. Whether manual or automated the end result is an incomplete data set for which we must make some inferences.

However, in the practice of law involving research in statutes, regulations and case law, precision and 100% accuracy is key and there is no room for “statistical inference”.  This is trained into every attorney from day one of law school.

So, what can a Business Development team do to minimize the blowback of what the attorney perceives as incomplete information?  Here are three best practices from firms I work with:

  1. Expectation setting – If they know and understand the limitations up front they are far less likely to be unhappy than if they discover the gap on their own. I know explaining that data is not perfect or not available is low on the fun listen, but getting in front of the issue is always the best solution.
  2. Deliver Intelligence, not Data – A best practice I see in experienced Business Developers is to summarize the key points in the report for the reader. I know this seems very common sense, but too often raw data is delivered as a finished product. A well analyzed and detailed summary, with comments are what changes the delivery from “data” into “intelligence”.
  3. Standardization – One off / ad-hoc projects are time consuming and more likely to miss information that actually is available. A 10 AM call for a report needed at lunch the same day is high risk regardless of the content or simplicity.  Consider a “Menu” type approach. Make a list of the most common requests you receive.  Create a column to name the report, a column to explain the content as well as any limitations to what you can provide in the report.  Last create a column with a realistic delivery time.  Run a sample of each report and put in a binder and distribute to your attorneys. Include comments in the sample report of what is being delivered.

This is an internal branding effort to sell this capability to your attorneys. This will not stop all ad-hoc requests and fire-drill timelines. But it does create improvement and teams using them are making great strides in reputation within the firm.

Until attorney’s can accept that Competitive Intelligence is all about being imprecisely accurate, the struggle will continue.  As my friend Max Justice, Marketing Partner at Parker Poe in Charlotte, NC quips: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.