Current awareness – or, as I like to refer to it, “current understanding” – has been an evolving concept. When I first became involved with Manzama several years ago, we saw it as the online “buzz” regarding law firms, specific law firm personnel and practice areas that a given firm might be heavily invested in. Current understanding meant identifying potential threats so action could be taken and damages averted or minimized. In this respect, it was rather inward looking; a current understanding of the firm and its place in the continuum. Today, it has come to mean learning as much about clients and client industries as possible so the firm is positioned to be wise and valued counsel. However you view the function of current awareness/intelligence, I think there are three (3) macro trends happening in the legal market place that suggest it is here to stay:
- Supply for Legal Services exceeds demand;
- Markets are becoming more micro in nature, requiring a different approach and skill set to capture the lion’s share of revenue in any given practice area or discipline; and,
- Business Development is becoming part of the core skill set of lawyers going forward (firms can no longer rely on one or two rainmakers for the firm or practice area, as this model is to concentrated and risky).
Let’s look at each of these trends separately and discuss where “current awareness” fits into the equation.
Macro Condition #1: Supply Exceeds Demand.
Today, the legal market for services continues to be very competitive and in many cases supply for legal services exceeds demand. This macro condition translates to law firms seeking new ways to be more competitive. We have seen the profession invest in business development tools, coaches, programs, and more firms are becoming engaged in equipping lawyers with better intelligence in and around their clients, prospects, legal issues and emerging markets. The objective here being, for the lawyer to be more informed about their client’s business, as well as more capable of finding ways to engage with the client. Current Awareness is part of the business intelligence solution to help lawyers capture more market share in a competitive market.
Most firms have approached delivering marketing or competitive intelligence in a centralized manner. That is, the resources are located either in KM, Library, Marketing or some combination thereof. Typically, these groups have been tasked with helping drive and distribute content to the lawyers. While this may not be a new function, what is new is the expectation that this information be “actionable,” and it’s in this area that there’s actually a wide discrepancy of skill sets among law firms. I recently attended an AALL Conference where I had the pleasure of listening to some thought leaders in and around “current awareness”; one such person is Jean O’Grady, Director of Research Services & Libraries, DLA Piper. Jean indicated that librarians can no longer be reactive, but need to be proactive with the information they share and to have an “opinion” about this information. This is starting to sound a lot more like a “business analyst” skill set. There’s little doubt firms are going this way. Some law firms are already there with staff members carrying titles such as “Competitive Intelligence Manager,” “Business Analyst” or “Current Awareness Librarian.” The titles all imply more a strategic type of thinking and corresponding expectations. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to these types as “analyst.” These analysts are sitting in the center of the action (or should be), because in their capacity they will be able to direct and drive the right type of information to their clients (which in most cases are their lawyers).
Macro Condition # 2: Micro Markets
Most firms can produce generic evidence of success in core practice areas: litigation, employment, merger and acquisition work, etc. Hence, differentiating has become more difficult. So, firms will either largely specialize (Littler Mendelson, Ogletree, Fish & Richardson) in a practice area or two or they will need to find ways to identify emerging issues/topics within larger practice areas. Current awareness tools applied in broad strokes will not meet the needs of a micro market strategy. Furthermore, information needs to be more timely, on-point and assessed on a relative basis. For example, if I were tracking a broad area of current awareness, say labor & employment developments, I might learn that in the last week there were a number of discussions across blogs discussing the potential implications of the “Fair Credit Reporting Act.” Perhaps discussions involve a modification in the legislation that may extend the reach of this issue to have greater repercussions on the broader market. This is a micro market development.
To identify this development and put it into proper context, someone in the firm has to be able to exercise some judgment and have an understanding why a lawyer supporting a practice area might care. Herein lays the challenge: who makes that judgment call? This is where current awareness tools start to do some of the work for you. By analyzing who is talking about the issue (peer firms, plaintiffs firms whose interest could be adverse to those of your clients if you are on the defense side, etc.) and identifying momentum (e.g., increased litigation), you can start to ascertain risk and exposure or potential thereof to the law firm’s client base…or better yet for potential clients where you’d like to get a foothold. Bottom line – a lawyer that understands which risks may have implications for their clients and is proactive in his/her delivery of that information is in a better position to deliver better client service.
Macro Condition # 3: Business Development a Core Skill Set for All Lawyers.
The routine of a lawyer just doing good legal work and being left alone has all but gone away for the majority of practitioners. Lawyers are being asked to learn business development and firms are investing significant amounts of dollars teaching their lawyers business development skills, whether they leverage internal resources/hires or outsource the effort. This may be the toughest area for lawyers to understand where to focus, and is often not an area of natural interest or inclination. It also requires some shift in thinking for law firms and how they typically have supported and provided market intelligence. Simply put, the mode of “centralized command center” for the intelligence that lawyers need is not scalable, especially if you agree that micro markets are where individuals and teams can best differentiate their services. I always ask my clients, if you ask ten partners what they need in terms of market and competitive intelligence; you are likely to get ten different answers. The challenge: how do you scale to support 800 lawyers with a team of 10?
Now, all this said, I don’t mean to imply that centralized distribution and dissemination is going away; in fact, just the opposite is true. The current awareness tools (if leveraged properly) actually create more opportunities where these keepers of centralized competitive intelligence can be perceived as “revenue generators” vs. part of the cost structure. It’s potentially a great time to be on the KM or Library side of things! However, since the trend is toward deploying a spectrum of use cases for the current awareness function, we need to be prepared to help individual players be empowered to act on his/her own. Obviously, not all lawyers will accept these new responsibilities under the guise of “I am too busy.” However, the savvy ones will know that intelligence drives relationships, and the better, actionable information they have, the more informed they will be…and their clients will appreciate it. Finally, as an administrative team, why limit the options? Empower, support and be flexible.
One last comment on the subject of current awareness–and this has more to do with how do we consume or absorb the information, and in what form. While email continues to remain the primary manner in which lawyers consume information (at least in the context of current awareness), more and more firms are leveraging client matter or practice pages as a vehicle to drive information to their lawyers. The trick is that the lawyer must feel that this information has been curated to the individual or team’s needs; whatever it is the firm is feeding or pushing into its portal or intranet had better align with the needs of that group, otherwise, the platform’s value will be discredited almost immediately.
The bottom line here is: Make the information available to many and in many forms (portals, email, mobile, extranets). Even if it’s the same information, everyone’s point of access might be different, and the timing of when they are likely to pay attention is likely to change. I see firms trending toward using current awareness (often leveraging tools like listening platforms) to drive intelligence not only to internal systems, but to extranets and web sites. Extranets, for example, suffer from adoption because they are often abandoned by the client once the specific task or project the extranet was created for is complete; clients feel there’s no reason for them to return to the law firm extranet…and the next project may require them to “re-learn” your extranet. What if you were able to pipe in information you know your client would benefit from – legal issues, information on competitors (theirs), regulatory developments, curated newsletters, etc.? Wouldn’t this be an excellent way to keep your client engaged, and your firm top of mind? State-of-the-art current awareness tools are making this much easier to do.