Legal Law

Competitive intelligence is an essential component for better decision making in law firms

Important law firm decisions should never be made in a vacuum. Instead, they must be armed with an abundance of the correct information in hand. For many law firm decisions, “the right information” means competitive intelligence.

Competitive intelligence is defined as a systematic and ethical program to collect, analyze, and manage information about the external business environment, information that can affect all plans, decisions, and operations of a law firm.

Competitive intelligence can be information about organizations – as your customers, potential customers and adversaries. It can be information about other law firms – as collaborators, opposing lawyers or even potential merger partners. It may be information about particular legal needs industries or markets.

Competitive intelligence can also be information about people – such as the people you will meet at a presentation, in the boardroom, in the courtroom (such as opposing counsel or an expert witness), or in a hiring interview.

In any of these scenarios, the knowledge of companies and people is power.

When collecting competitive intelligence, there is a wrong way and a right way to do it. The wrong path is typified by hackers like Lisbeth Salander in The girl with the dragon tattoo. As much as we enjoy the book and the movie, and want Lisbeth to succeed, we cannot tolerate her tactics. This type of corporate espionage is good entertainment, but bad and unethical business.

The ethical collection of competitive intelligence complies with all applicable laws, both national and international. It is obtained from legitimate online and print sources, both in public and subscription databases. When obtained through interviews (either with staff and customers of the target competitor or as general field research), the ethics interviewer reveals both his identity and the purpose of the interview in advance.

Before beginning any competitive research project, it is essential that you have a plan. Thanks to the Internet, there is an almost unlimited amount of resources. You can waste a lot of time and money searching for all of them. Knowing your goals for a particular research project can help you focus your resources on the most likely, valid, and reliable sources for your purpose.

Competitive intelligence on companies, competitors and adversaries

Some sources of competitive intelligence about companies, competitors, and adversaries are paid, and some are free to the public. Due to the nature of their work, many law firms and law librarians already have access to many of the paid resources. These include products offered by industry giants LexisNexis and Thomson West.

For industry research, competitive intelligence professionals also like to use a product called Profound, offered by They offer a wide range of reports for purchase. A full report can be expensive, but if you know exactly what you’re looking for, you can order just a part of a report for a lower fee.

And don’t forget it. Many of these paid resources are available for you to use for free at your local public library.

Free company research resources include and the Zimmerman Research Guide. In its database, Zimmerman’s provides links to both company information and company personnel. Both sites are great places to start if you’re trying to get an overview of the type of research out there.’s Virtual Chase product offers business research as well as city and county law resources. You can find company information at Hoovers, Yahoo! Finance, Google Finance, Nexis company information, and Valuation

A lot of good research is available on Google. We all know how to do a Google search, but there are much more refined searches and results available through Google’s advanced general search page. Google Scholar and Google Advanced Scholar Search offer useful results that have been ‘purged’ of casual results.

Court and government sites, especially the Secretary of State’s office, include public records and a lot of useful information. If you want to know where a company is headed, check out the US Patent and Trademark Office database.

Competitive Intelligence Profiles

When preparing to meet with a potential client, lawyers often ask marketers or librarians to prepare a client profile. Too often this is done just hours before the scheduled meeting, and we have to rush it.

Even with very little lead time, you’d be surprised how much information you can get just by visiting and mining the prospect’s website. You should also look for company pages or signatures on social networking sites.

When you have a little more time to prepare, such as a proposal or the resulting beauty pageant, you can dig deeper into the client’s background. Good sources for public companies include SEC filings. Good sources for private companies include the Dun and Bradstreet reports.

A good profile addresses some or all (depending on your time and research skills) of these categories:

  • Fast facts
  • company overview
  • business segments
  • products and services
  • business partners
  • Board of Directors
  • key executives
  • key developments
  • customer representative
  • Legal issues and litigation
  • rentals
  • case studies
  • patent information
  • marketing strategy
  • Competitors
  • Sources
  • news articles

Armed with this kind of information, your lawyers and law firm are well equipped to make good decisions about how to approach a potential client (or anyone else) and how to make a good impression once contact is made.

Competitive intelligence about people

Sometimes information is needed about an individual rather than a company. This person could be a customer, prospective client, competitor, opposing attorney, prospective employee, or potential merger partner. When you know something about the person you are meeting with, you can plan accordingly.

Sometimes you need other types of information about people. For example, you may need to locate a former employee or a potential witness. When such a person has gone ‘out’ electronically, they may not have much to go on. This is where creativity comes into play.

In one such case, a former executive had been gone from a company for five years. He had a common name, which made the search even more difficult. Someone remembered him saying that he wanted to take over his family’s farm. By using the farm subsidy database and narrowing the search by general geographic area and the man’s age, we were able to locate him for our client.

Another reason to search for people is to acquire their contact information for use in a marketing database. Good sources of contact information include telephone directories, professional directories, and professional licensing agencies (if you know a person’s profession). Online sources include a search on Yahoo! People.

Many of the business and general resources mentioned in the “company” research section of this article work just as well for individuals.

Competitive intelligence experts often use a site called Jigsaw, owned by Salesforce. It’s a database of business-to-business contracts populated by marketers and salespeople from across the country. By contributing their contacts, users gain access to the database. Includes 30 million contacts. It’s an especially good source for contact information for people below the usual C-level executives listed in most directories.

If you know the location of a person, you can search local and regional media for mentions of their names and activities. Social networks such as Martindale Hubbell, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Twitter and YouTube are also good resources. So are blog searches. Social media includes contact information, but also extends your research with less formal “chat” about people, their activities, and the companies they work for.

When collecting information about people, you want to use a wide variety of sources, and you want to be very careful to validate any information you find before acting on it. There is a lot of misinformation out there. There are also privacy concerns.

Today, information about companies and individuals is widely available. In fact, you could easily draw all the data. The trick is to focus your search in light of your business goals. With this information in hand, you are well positioned to make good decisions about the future of your law firm and your work.

This article is based on a January article. 10 2012 presentation to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Making Association by Wanda McDavid and Judy Goater of Access Information, a Denver-based firm that provides competitive intelligence for law firms across the country.

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