Part II of the Competitive Intelligence Series
In this second installment of our four-part competitive intelligence (CI) series, we look at one of the basic CI functions: company research. Clients prefer law firms that educate themselves in their clients’ businesses. This is true for potential clients as well as established ones.
It helps to think of a company report as a story. It is the story of this company: its needs, its wants, its difficulties, its personalities, its history. The story is not exhaustive. Your attorneys don’t need to know everything, just what is important to the current situation. Once your attorneys know and understand that story, they can find ways to fit themselves into it.
Parts of the Story
Every research project begins with a reference interview. This is a conversation between the researcher and requestor that defines the research parameters. Often, this is a simple “find me information on Company X.” Why was this information requested? If it is for a pitch, what is the matter at hand? News and litigation information can be tailored accordingly. Who are your attorneys meeting with? Biographical information can be included in the report. Are other firms in the mix? The research can look at their histories with the client.
It helps to have a standard report template, so that everyone knows what to expect and the reference interview can be more efficient. Almost all reports will have a general overview of the company (e.g., size, industry, age, basic description). This can come from a combination of the company website, news and company information sources (e.g., Hoover’s, Bloomberg). Public companies are more forthcoming than private ones, but private ones can share a great deal, especially if they are on the hunt for investors. If nothing else, the Secretary of State for the company’s state of incorporation will list the registered agent, date of registration and mailing address for the company.
When researching public companies, look for SEC filings. These will often be posted on the company website. The 10-K (annual report) and 10-Q (quarterly report) filings are particularly useful. In addition to financial information, these reports include business structure, product lines and legal issues. Most public companies will accompany the release of these reports with presentations or conference calls with analysts. In these calls, the officers go into detail on where they think the company is headed and how they plan to get there. Like SEC filings, transcripts for these calls are often archived on company websites. A surprising amount of independent company analysis can also be found for free, either from news articles or investor sites. These can give you perspectives sometimes overlooked in the company-provided information.
A company 10-K will usually include short biographies on the company officers, but it’s better to retrieve that information from more frequently updated sources, such as the company website, company press releases and LinkedIn. LexisNexis and Westlaw have sources such as the Directory of Corporate Counsel and West Legal Directory, which provide profiles of company legal departments. If you don’t have access to these sources, try state bar association member directories, which are often found on their websites. Many directories will allow you to search by company/firm or address.
Recent news will also tell you much about a company. Free sources include Google News and FeeFieFoeFirm.com, which is for law firms discussing their clients. LexisNexis and Westlaw both have extensive news databases that you can access for a fee. If you are retrieving a large number of articles, search just a handful of trusted publications or limit your search to just the headline or lead paragraph. Ignore minor stock changes, and concentrate on company strategy, executive changes and legal troubles.
The most important part of any report is the executive summary. Think back to those initial questions. Answer them as succinctly as possible (I recommend bullets). Place these highlights at the beginning of the report and in the cover email to the attorney. If the attorney reads nothing else, they at least know the most pertinent information. This is just the bare bones, of course. The full report contains the rest of the story.
Ben Brighoff is the competitive intelligence manager for Jenner & Block LLP and is serving as the co-chair of LMA’s 2017 Competitive/Market Intelligence Shared Interest Group. Ben resides in Chicago.