Private Law Librarianship
21 Competitive Intelligence – Breaking it Down
Mark Gediman and Juli Stahl
Competitive intelligence research is a type of research unique to private law libraries. It can be used to gather information on potential clients, opposing parties in a litigation, or competitors. These varied applications make it an extremely valuable skill for law librarians to possess.
- Competitive intelligence is the art of researching and analyzing information to develop intelligence enhancing the firm and attorney’s ability to excel at obtaining new client engagements.
- The process utilizes the researcher’s knowledge of available resources, skill in applying the research process, and utilize critical thinking skills to analyze relevant information in an ethical manner.
- The report is delivered in a clear, concise, and strategic format tailored to the needs of the requestor.
Competitive Intelligence Defined
In the legal marketplace, competitive intelligence (CI) is defined as either obtaining information on competitors or obtaining perspective client information. Both types provide attorneys the ability to be competitive in securing new clients. Researchers in the law firm environment provide support to both types of competitive intelligence. This chapter focuses on acquiring clients. The nature of the required information in the subsequent competitive intelligence report are best determined by the one performing the research. The inherent knowledge of research resources combined with the research staff’s professional research skills land squarely in the information professional’s sweet spot.
Competitive intelligence has become increasingly important in the legal industry as competition for clients has intensified in the post-2009 recession marketplace. A key component to successfully winning the business of many clients is impressing the legal team in-house at the company. A meeting of corporate counsel in 2012 provided a roadmap in preparing attorneys when meeting with these prospective clients. In-house counsel expects the firms, and their representatives, to know about them before you meet them, know about their business, know about their competition, know about future trends, and provide examples of how you have helped others with the same problem, and – most importantly – assisting in success with their company and career. The objective of any competitive intelligence report is to provide information to successfully meeting these expectations.
How information in the report comes together depends on the information found in the available resources, the attorney’s needs, the time given to compile the report, and the researcher’s skills. At its finest, a competitive intelligence report tells the story of the company.
Skill Set for Competitive Intelligence
Staff CI positions require a skilled researcher who is not afraid of analyzing the data and is a skilled communicator. Librarians are a good fit for these types of positions. They are proficient researchers; they conduct analysis in their research; and they know their audience. As the recipients of regular research requests from attorneys across all practices, they have a high-level view of the firm’s strategic goals and the unique strengths of each attorney. This allows the researcher to view and analyze the data within this high-level frame of reference. Reports crafted with this in mind are more relevant than generic reports that provide analysis without context.
The librarian’s unique ability to perform Competitive Intelligence tasks arises from their knowledge of daily routine of attorney research. Legal Research Memos are presented in the format of Question Presented, Answer and Discussion. Reviewing and producing work product with this in mind allows important information and analysis to be communicated clearly.
Analysis is also an area of unique expertise for the librarian. When researching, the librarian typically reviews a broad range of data sources and retrieves a large amount of information. Specifics on how this information is handled are discussed in more detail in both the analytics and deliverables sections of this chapter.
There is a plethora of research tools that can be utilized in the search for information on prospective clients. Research departments vary widely in the resources available to perform research. “Naming names” and providing a list of the available options may be what you think you need; it isn’t. Becoming skilled in extracting the needed information from the tools that are part of a firm’s resources is considerably more important. The information to be sourced for the report will follow the roadmap set out by corporate counsel and discussed previously. Additionally, the research goals will be formed by the results of the reference interview discussed subsequently. Realize that not all “premium” resources are appropriate for every circumstance. Evaluate what the market offers, honestly considering the client your firm typically competes to represent and then purchase those services that best align with your needs. Having the right resources is important, and getting funding is rarely easy. Be circumspect and responsible when lobbying for new resources.
Tools used to provide basic information on the corporate entity can be found for a range of prices and contain information commensurate with pricing. Information for public companies is the easiest to come by, as vendors simply need to mine Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In recent years availability of corporate data for private companies has grown. Any available corporate data is self-reported. Due to the nature of governmental filing requirements for public companies, that data is more reliable. Enron reminded us that even with strict governmental requirements, data can be massaged, and careful analysis and interpretation of the information in those reports is necessary. Private company data is more reliant on the company as there are no standard national or state filing requirements for these entities. To that point, the two states (Delaware and Nevada) with the highest number of companies formed under their laws require companies to provide the least amount of information of all of the states. Corporate research tools can include some or all of the following information: location, phone/fax number, sales, balance sheet, credit rating, number of employees, state of formation, officers, directors, in-house counsel, corporate family relationships, products, brands, industry, competitors, and statement of purpose. As information professionals, we expect information to be up-to-date and error-free. Corporate profiles are rarely that, even for publicly held companies. Critically evaluate the information provided and validate the information, if possible, against at least one other comparable source.
Information Resource Types
These are the most commonly used types of information resources mined by Competitive Intelligence professionals when preparing reports on prospective clients.
Public records are documents or information which are not confidential and are collected as a by-product of some government agency or governmental activity and cover a wide swath of information. Public records are considered a primary resource and are available, in one form or another, through many of the large online legal information vendors. However, laws governing access to public records are specific regarding what can be accessed and why. While the information is public, some is incredibly sensitive and, under the wrong circumstances, can be misused. As a result, researchers are required to confirm the research use falls within permissible uses under those laws before access is granted.
The public records generated by each of the three levels of government – local, state, and federal – are vastly different. Public records are a by-product of governmental activity; not all governmental entities agree on the levels or amount of information they will provide to the public. Simply because the information is public does not mean that the information is accessible directly from the agency that collects and disseminates it. Some information, such as addresses on new moves, is only available through commercial resources. A thorough understanding of the differences in public records and their sources is a valuable skill for CI researchers.
News sources can be incredibly valuable sources for uncovering nuggets of reputable and actionable information. News sources have the potential to provide insight into the operations and needs of a business. The information can, but doesn’t always, provide insight on a business’ structure, officers, representation, special needs (zoning, tax), general counsel, and transactions. Using news to get to the valuable nuggets of information can be tedious. Even with the most tightly crafted search, informational noise such as quarterly earnings calls, stock price notifications, and obituaries have to be filtered out using any one of a number of strategies. The most effective strategies include crafting or creative search strings or utilizing special search exclusion features introduced by commercial vendors. In addition to filtering out textual noise, many commercial research vendors now provide tools to remove duplicate articles from search results.
News is the one area of Competitive Intelligence research that not only can, but should, be mined and delivered to the attorney beyond the delivery of the completed report. News provides ongoing insight into the changes happening to the target client, providing the attorney continuing opportunities to connect with the prospect beyond the initial meeting. Competitive intelligence should not be simply a one-shot and done report, but an ongoing living tool to provide continuing opportunities for attorneys to make a connection with both prospective and existing clients.
Information from court cases is a type of public record that is relatively easy to access. Case information is one of the tools in providing insight on competitor firms and potential clients. The data points listed below provide both context to the CI report and actionable intelligence on the competition for the target’s business. Here are a few examples of the available data:
- The nature-of-suit information can indicate the types of challenges faced by the organization. It can also provide a sense (not definitive by any means) of problems they may be facing due to shortcomings in their transactional representation.
- Mapping out the courts where an organization has cases filed (both for and against) can show how their needs match with the firm’s experience.
- Looking at their representation will show which firms an organization relies on and firms used for specific types of cases and their volume.
- Fee Schedules (motion for attorney fees) are occasionally filed with the court and often include hourly rates for competitor firms.
Nationwide federal court information is available through the PACER platform, a timely, relatively inexpensive source of litigation information. The data is parsed by many providers in a variety of graphs and charts, providing easily understandable analyses of the location, type of case, and previously retained counsel. This eliminates the need for manual tabulation of the data.
State court data availability can vary wildly from court-to-court, even within a state. There is no standard format for state court data. To obtain analytics researchers need to manually tabulate data from state and local courts.
Transactional materials are materials used by organizations in day-to-day operations and include contracts, legal opinion memoranda, merger and acquisition documents, shelf registrations, and employment agreements. These documents can be created by outside counsel. Connecting transactional activities to the firm involved in drafting the documents can provide additional insight into the competition for a prospect’s business. Several commercial vendors provide access to this data through proprietary deal information as well as mining filings with the SEC.
Data on transactions can include parties involved in the transaction, the amount of the deal, legal and financial advisors on the deal, deal notification date, deal closing date, and – if the transaction was a merger/acquisition – identification of the buyer/seller and the surviving corporate entity. Information on corporate transactions, such as mergers, acquisitions, and financing agreements, are data points for which there is no comprehensive resource. Providers tout their “proprietary” data stream for this information to entice firms into subscribing. However, no one source is comprehensive. The value of the transaction, or deal, information to a competitive intelligence report is relative to the levels and types of transactional work done by the attorney/firm. Choosing a transactional research tool is another time when stewardship of funds is important. While having transactional data is certainly useful and provides another dimension to the report, if the attorney or client team does not practice in that area, the data can be noise. In these instances, a general corporate research tool that incorporates deal data into the basic offering is a viable alternative to spending money on that information.
Analytics in a Competitive Intelligence report can be as simple as verifying information or as complex as determining the relationships between corporate entities and individuals. Developing analytics is an integral part of the CI process and, based on the needs of the patron, inform the structure and content of the final product; the deliverable.
The process of finding and integrating the data into a report is determined by what best advances the story told by the individual researcher in his/her report. As you are researching and compiling the report, keep in mind that the ultimate goal is to tell the story of the company. Who they are, what they contribute, why they exist, and how they relate to their industry and society are critical components to that story. A few key tips to consider when telling the prospect’s story: research is not linear, a report is not a data dump, corroborate your data, analytics have many forms, use illustrations to make the story more easily intelligible, and finally, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Research is not linear. As the data is compiled and processed, informational holes appear, and questions arise. A good researcher goes back looking for information to plug those holes and answer the questions. Researchers are like sponges; we absorb information and can make connections based on seemingly unimportant factoids as the story takes shape. This one facet is a critical reason why the researcher should be compiling the report and not handing a “pile o’ papers” (See: Data Dump Below) to someone else to write the report.
A competitive intelligence report is not a data dump. Rather, it is a guide to ensure the report contains meaningful and actionable information. This means that any information going into the report should be there for a reason. Do you really need to list ALL the products, by name, in the report, or will a general listing of types and brands be sufficient? Yes, a form of the corporate financials is a really good idea if you get something that is manageable and you provide a brief narrative on the important points (if there are any) but make sure the actionable information is called out.
Every fact and point in the report needs to be corroborated, triangulated, or vetted based on the source of information. Invariably information comes to light that could be invaluable information to present in the report that cannot be corroborated. The decision to include, or not, the information should be based on the patron, the information, and the relative importance of the information. It is always going to be a case-by-case basis and left to the person compiling the report. If the decision to include the information is made, be sure to include some form of a statement noting that the information’s veracity could not be confirmed.
Including analysis in a report is, at first, the most intimidating piece of crafting a competitive intelligence report. Analytics can include the overt narrative points in the report or executive summary that connect dots, draw conclusions, and posit solutions.
Not all reports will include this type of analysis. Not all companies will have dots that need to be connected, conclusions that need to be drawn, or solutions that need to be posited.
The advanced analytical skills needed to craft complex Competitive Intelligence reports will develop with time and experience. Make no mistake, basic levels of analytics make up the foundation of every report. . They are as important as overt analytics and form the foundation of every CI report.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: REPORT TEMPLATE
Template Report at the following link: https://www.aallnet.org/pllipsis/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2018/01/YAWT-TIPSHEET-COLORS.pdf
Parsing through the facts to provide an up-to-date picture of the company directly affects the value of the report. Examples of basic analytics include:
- determining the correct location when faced with multiple corporate addresses
- identifying corporate structure when subsidiary lists differ
- determining whether common termination dates of officers is significant
Filling in holes in information and providing context for events are critical and routine analytical events. They aren’t as flashy as the stand-alone analytics. Complete corporate information is critical to providing a solid, well-developed report. This data is part and parcel of what research professionals do as a matter of course in performing research.
Standing alone as numbers, information has little meaning, is monotonous, and appears irrelevant to the story. Introduce the same numbers as graphs or charts, comparing relevant data sets; suddenly you have a story and provide a quickly visible analysis of those numerical data sets. Tables and numbers can be easily turned into graphs and charts using pivot tables. Pivot tables are fairly simple and a plethora of YouTube “how-to” instructional videos can easily be found. Commercial vendors eager to compete in the burgeoning analytics surge are making more date available as charts and graphs at the point of retrieval. Other online services, such as credit scores, now report proprietary numbers as graphics. These seemingly random numbers now have easily visible context.
The classic SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, is a great way to organize your information and conclusions in a quick easy-to-read format. This type of chart can be used to analyze your competitors, the industry, or your firm. After you create a SWOT chart for both your firm and the competitor, plot the information using a Venn diagram to visually communicate the areas you differ and the areas that you are similar. This gives an added dimension to the competitor report and visually shows how your firm stacks up to the competition.
The researched data is now sitting on your computer and you’ve drawn some interesting conclusions. Now comes the big challenge: communicating this to your audience. Putting together a report is a delicate balancing act between providing enough and too much information and communicating your conclusions concisely.
Let’s take this step-by-step, beginning with this caveat: Beware the Data Dump!
What is a data dump? A data dump sends all the information discovered by your research to the requestor without filter or analysis. This usually results in a stack of documents that, when printed, rivals the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa (in this case, a Leaning Tower of Paper). Your requestor would be required to spend time he or she doesn’t have reading this material. It won’t happen. Nothing will turn off the requestor more than seeing this stack of documents (or multiple email attachments). In fact, you probably won’t be asked for another report.
Before you start, it’s important to determine the purpose, time constraints, and context surrounding the request. The tables following this section can assist in providing guidance on the length, content and format of a report based on its purpose and time constraints. Generally, time constraints beat purpose when selecting report format and length. The context of a report will intuitively shape the report from the requesting party or practice group’s perspective. Context ensures the report meets the requestor’s needs and dictates the data collected and information presented in the report. Respecting context ensures that the report is useful and targeted. Contextual factors affecting a report can include the type of work being solicited to the skillset of the attorney responding to the solicitation.
Simpler reports with quick turnaround times are going to require much less research and written analysis. Longer reports offer the opportunity to present the research and analytics in a format that balances the need to communicate your conclusions while still giving your audience access to the underlying information. There are as many variations to these reports as there are people preparing them. We’ll take a look at the process of preparing a report step-by-step, with some discussion as we go along of the important factors that should be considered.
Keep the report as concise as possible. Prominently place and clearly state important analytical conclusions within the report. Communicate the results clearly, concisely, and interestingly to grab and hold the reader’s attention. An unread report is not only a waste of time and effort, it’s also a lost opportunity for the researcher and potentially the firm.
Time is a precious commodity; including an executive summary respects your client’s time. Think of the executive summary as a written “elevator speech.” Include information they need to know and could be communicated in a two-minute elevator ride.
The executive summary can have different labels. I prefer to call the first page of my report “Things You Should Know” and use colorful graphics to draw the reader’s attention. The items that go in this section are the conclusions drawn from the research. It may be a series of bullet points along the lines of:
- Opportunity: XYZ Company has been hit with 5 harassment suits over the past year and a half.
- The harassment suits began soon after a merger was completed
- Areas we can help: Employment advisory services, Investigatory services, Litigation services
- Useful Experience: Partner Smith and Partner Jones helped client A through a similar situation last year
Managing expectations is about clearly communicating the depth of report that can be provided in a specified amount to time. CI programs strive to be responsive and develop a reputation for providing exceptional service. Communicate report capabilities realistically. It’s important for the consumers of the information to clearly understand the direct relationship between turnaround time, purpose, and the format of the deliverable reports. The relationship between the depth, type and quality of the report is important to keep in mind (See Table1)
Reports by Time Constraint
|Short Term (about 1 hour)||Data Dump: Very little or no analysis||Prepackaged Reports*
|Same Day||Email or short memo: Minimal analysis with broad conclusions||Prepackaged Reports*
Brief in-house format covering predefined limited information
|Long Term (3-7 Days)||Briefing Pack: Key analysis and findings||Detailed, in-depth report
Graphs and Charts where appropriate
Legal Work Analysis, both inside the firm and by other firms
Important news relevant to the practice mix of the firm and the strengths of the attorney pitching the work.
*Examples include: West Litigation Monitor Suite, Lexis Context, Lex Machina, Hoovers, or Bloomberg Analytics
The reason for the report determines which content is included. It is the stated purpose of the report that prevents the use of the same specific template for all requests. Simply put, different purposes call for different reports (See Table 2).
Report by Purpose
|Purpose||Report Format||Types of Information|
|Lunch Meeting||Single Page||Company News
Which firms do they use?
|Formal Pitch Meeting||Detailed Information and Analysis||Company profile
Which firms do they use?
|RFP Response||Detailed Information and Analysis||Profiles of Interviewers & executives
Company’s legal challenges
Scope of RFP and how the firm aligns with it
Relevant Company news
|Lateral Evaluation*||Detailed Information and Analysis||Practice Mix
Representative cases (if applicable)
Articles (both written by and about)
|Internal RFPs*||Detailed Information and Analysis||Clients
Cases filed against
Principals background check
*Supporting documents should be included in these reports for on-demand reference.
Examining the tables together demonstrates the importance of conducting a thorough intake interview (also known as the reference interview by librarians. The turnaround time and the purpose are just as important as the research subject. These tables do not stand alone. It’s necessary to know what the categories are from both tables in the original request.
The reference interview model is essential for handling this type of request. Four core questions to ask the requestor to obtain information necessary for this report are:
- Who is the meeting with?
- What type of work is being pitched to the prospective client? (i.e., Employment Litigation, Environmental Remediation Advice, or Transactional)?
- What information is most important for this meeting?
- Are there time constraints, is a tear sheet product adequate for their needs?
Frustration with delivery times and formats could cause the CI service to fail. This is why it’s important for requestors of the information to clearly understand the direct relationship between turnaround time, purpose, and the format of the deliverable reports. The depth, type, and quality of the report are directly affected by when it is needed, as shown in Table 1. The purpose of the report determines what content is included (Table 2). This prevents the use of the same specific template for all requests, as different purposes require custom reports. Templates are useful for reports, but locking in specific types of data can be a challenge. Taken together, these tables show the importance of the reference interview. The required information should also be captured by the intake form. The turnaround time and the purpose are just as important as the research subject.
Reports can be developed using either a template or a free form. Both have positive and negative aspects. Report templates are unique to each firm and are guarded as proprietary; rarely shared to outsiders. Most firms develop a series of templates to meet the needs of specific types of reports (see table 2 above). Templates typically provide an outline within which a report is crafted, providing reminders of the information to be included and the order in which it is reported. Free form reports are a flowing narrative dictated by the research results, requiring more narrative from the specialist crafting the report. Building a CI report with a template is recommended for those new to the craft.
Template reports are uniform and provide reminders for the researcher of the information to be included in the report. Report formats are firm specific. Many firms consider templates proprietary and the firm’s intellectual property. A template format offers the requestor a consistent place to refer to for specific information. Patrons know the information is not found at the designated place it isn’t because it was forgotten. Templates are simply guidelines and, to the skilled CI specialist, can be molded to fit the full complement of data and information necessary for a comprehensive quality report. Beware, however, not to be complacent and limit the report to the strict boundaries of the template. The report should reflect your research and vice versa. A link to a sample template can be found below in the “Concepts in Action” section.
Freeform reports are for more experienced specialists with developed writing skills and are exceptionally adaptable and can be organized in the manner the specialist believes best communicates the information. Free form is an extremely flexible method and does not place restrictions on research process. At their best, a free form report tells the target’s story in a succinct, logical flow of information and carrying the requestor through the report. It is critical to maintain the coherence and flow of the report lest the reader gets confused.
The ultimate report format combines the best of these forms, both the predictability of the template and the flexibility of the free form report. This can be done by organizing the report into broad categories (i.e., Executive Summary, Analysis, Executives, Financials, and News), carrying from report to report. This formatting retains the flexibility to add new information within these categories giving the requestor the comfort of a familiar product and including unique content.
Lastly, here are some tips to make a report stand out:
- Make sure to indicate on the report who prepared it and when.
- This ensures that anyone using the report months later will know the age of the information in it. And the attorneys know who to go to when they need it updated.
- Deliver the report as a read-only pdf, which protects the information from being inadvertently changed. Bookmarks and links internal to the document can be added to make the report easy to navigate.
- Use color charts in the body of the report.
- Make the cover page eye-catching with images related to the subject of the report making it easier to identify later on.
When producing large in-depth reports, be sure to make your executive summary interesting and brief. A successful report will be able to communicate insightful analysis quickly and intuitively. The key is to make it intuitive and relevant to the reader. Keeping the print to a minimum and communicate the important information through charts will make your reports impactful and widely read.
In this chapter we’ve provided background on the information and processes that are possible elements and tools that combine to provide the means to delivering a well- crafted CI report. Keep in mind that just because you can do these things, doesn’t mean you should. Include only ethically source information. Include only credible information. If you find you must include unverified information be sure to mark it as such. Stay on point including information that is relevant to the story, and make sure to connect the dots if the relevance is vague. Not all research is going to result in information that lends itself to separate exposition. Don’t force analysis if there isn’t anything to analyze. Pictures can be an important part of the story, not all statistics show a clear story and can become the exact noise we try to avoid. Think critically about how the report is crafted, the needs of the patron, and the best way to communicate the information to the patron.
- Applebaum, Zena “Competitive Intelligence and Your Library:10 Best Practices For Starting (or growing) A CI Function For Small and Medium Firms” AALL Spectrum Sept/Oct 2016 https://www.aallnet.org/wp-content/uploads/_mediavault/2017/12/Vol-21-No-1-Competitive-Intelligence-And-Your-Library.pdf (AALL Members only download)
- Gomer, Justin & Jackson Hille. An Essential Guide to SWOT Analysis, FormSwift (July 14, ,2015) http://mci.ei.columbia.edu/files/2012/12/An-Essential-Guide-to-SWOT-Analysis.pdf
- Miles, Kevin. Practical Competitive Intelligence: Business Continuity CI Background Report, Spectrum, pg58 (July / Aug 2020) https://www.aallnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/SPECTRUM_CI-Business-Continuity-CI-Background-Reports.pdf
- Miles, Kevin. Practical Competitive Intelligence: Special Purpose CI Reports, Spectrum, pg. 46 (Mar/Apr 2020) https://www.aallnet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/SPECTRUM_Practical-CI-Special-Purpose-CI-Reports.pdf
- Raashc, Janet Ellen, “Use Competitive Intelligence to Make Better Business Decisions.” Orange County Attorney 1 Nov 2014 http://attorneyjournaloc.com/blog/2014/11/01/competitive-intelligence-is-an-essential-component-of-better-law-firm-decision-making/
- Shunk, Marcie Borgal “The Rise of Next Generation CI” Legal Executive Institute 22 January 2019 http://www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com/practice-innovations-january-next-generation-ci/
- Whitmore, Christopher “Competitive Intelligence in Law Firms; How Can You Begin?” Lexis Nexis News Room: Legal Business. 16 Feb 2010 https://www.lexisnexis.com/legalnewsroom/legal-business/b/marketing/posts/competitive-intelligence-in-law-firms-how-can-you-begin