An article, posted on in the legal technology section, written by Shannon Sankstone, “LinkedIn a Competitive Intelligence Tool,” was brought to my attention this morning by fellow watercoolerite Russell Lawson who also blogs at

As someone who focuses their marketing practice on social media in all forms, the article left me wondering: “what am I missing here?” So, I am turning to the watercooler in hopes that you can help me out.

The author’s claim:

“…more than anything, the wealth of information available on LinkedIn to CI [competitive intelligence] professionals is a result of the law of unintended consequences. Attorneys and firms, possessing the good intention of raising their credibility and visibility, have given out more information than was, in hindsight, wise. CI pros are using the information freely given on these sites to better position their own firms and to better understand their competitor firms.”

The author, then illustrates this point with a few examples.

“A quick search for a well-known law firm listed one of their attorneys as the top result. Although Mr. Lawyer made his connections private, he did not shy away from requesting recommendations. He lists over 40 recommendations, 26 of which are from clients. Some of these clients are (names have been withheld, but are available on Mr. Lawyer’s profile):

• A publicly listed hotel and resort corporation;
• A large biotech company; and
• A private equity firm.

At first glance, the CI pro now knows at least 20 of Mr. Lawyer’s clients (some clients had more than one person recommending Mr. Lawyer). Were a firm considering approaching Mr. Lawyer as a lateral hire, they would include this information, and an analysis of the clients, to determine if Mr. Lawyer’s client base was in line with the firm’s business development goals.

If, on the other hand, a firm was competing with Mr. Lawyer’s firm for work from a company in the hotel industry, then Mr. Lawyer’s recommendations might be leveraged to the CI pro’s firm’s advantage. While Mr. Lawyer may point to his recommendations as proof that he has delighted clients in this industry, the competing firm may highlight this as Mr. Lawyer having a better relationship with a competitor company.”

Is this really what CI pros do with their time? And I thought marketers were being undervalued….(snicker)

But seriously, what is the big downside to your competition knowing that you have satisfied clients and that you are working your contacts on LinkedIn?Aren’t the actions of public companies public anyway? Don’t most attorneys reveal their clients or case types on their law firm bios? Frankly, the information you can pull from LexisNexis about cases, clients, and jurisdictional penetration are more reliable, complete and possibly more efficient than time spent lurking on LinkedIn.

The author’s next illustration of the cautions of LinkedIn to unsuspecting law firms:

A certain Am Law 100 firm, AMLF, is an excellent example of a great company profile. 56 percent of users are male, and the median age is 35 years old. However, 30 percent of all of this firm’s representation on LinkedIn are partners. This suggests that: 1) the partnership is young; and 2) the “Related Companies” may provide reliable data as to clients and hiring trends.

Martindale Hubbell still lists birthdays, I believe. And partners.

The author goes on to demonstrate how the “related companies” section is a mine of information for the CI pro.

In the “Related Companies” section of the company profile, LinkedIn has mined its data and determined where companies hire from and where personnel go. In this case, LinkedIn has noted two boutique Am Law listed firms have kindly trained many of AMLF’s attorneys. Interestingly, one firm is a boutique IP firm, the other a commercial litigation firm. This suggests that AMLF is making a concentrated effort to expand specific practice groups. Furthermore, LinkedIn shows that AMLF, in turn, has provided two smaller Am Law 200 firms with quite a few people. Additional research shows that these Am Law 200 firms are marketing themselves as “family friendly” and providing an excellent work/life balance to potential recruits. Definitely something for AMLF to consider …

I mean, if it’s really that important to know which AM Law firms are marketing themselves as family friendly, yeah, LinkedIn might be a place to quickly get some of that information, but it sure is no secret, just visit their web site or do a Google search on family friendly law firms. Voila! And why is family friendly valuable intelligence anyway? We all know it isn’t true if you’re talking about an AMLAW firm. (snicker)

And finally, although this was at the top of the article I’ve moved it to the finale because I find it so fascinating….

Although Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace do provide value to business development programs, each firm must strive to balance the need for visibility and networking with safeguarding their firm’s competitive advantage. [Emphasis added]

Okay, this one really worries me. I’ve been in marketing a long time. Not only in law firms, but also in other industries. And, while I hate to disappoint those who think they do, does any law firm really have a competitive advantage that’s worth safeguarding? When I think of safeguarding competitive advantage I think of the one and only super secret recipe for coca cola without which would not make coca cola a leading brand.

Am I missing something? Law firms seem pretty much the same to me – baring a few differences of size or practice focus. Differentiation, (competitive advantage) for the most part, if you can dig up something, is generally exploited in marketing materials, not hidden in a secret place. IMHO, if any firm has competitive advantage it’s because they deliver the basic category benefits simply better than anyone else. Competitive advantage in law firms can’t possibly be as nuanced as; family friendly, who is your recruiting firm of record, or how young is your partnership, can it? What am I missing here? Help, I’m having a CI crisis!

Truth is, at least from my point of view, the cultural shift that read, write, web is forcing upon uptight personalities (and those that work with them) will take a while, but those who get a head start will find it very rich – in many regards. I’m not an evangelist I’m a pragmatist. It’s here, it’s a tool, let’s try it. Furthermore, social media is not a one trick pony. It is not only good for exposure and introductions (the awareness stage) -but where social media really works best is in the middle of the marketing funnel where people are gathering knowledge and making considerations that lead to selection, loyalty and a client! As long as I’ve been around I’ve never seen a tool that enables those types of conversations across geographic boundaries better. But like any tool, it’s only as good as the hand that holds it. A tool does not lead. It does what it is told to do. Strategy and planning are important.

Now, that being said, there really ARE some red flags about what you share on the Web while networking, blogging or even playing around in the safe haven of LinkedIn. Private investigators do get pertinent information online that can be used against you or your clients in litigation. Without going into detail, it’s a great source to put together 2+2, for example in family law cases, divorce, fraud, employment litigation, etc. (but the company email during discovery will get you that information too!)

However, for your basic social-networking-lawyer with some common sense, a little street smarts, and ethical behavior, there’s just too much to like and too many good reasons to be networking on line.

So, what am I missing? If this type of information is so very meaningful to the CI community within law firms -even so much as to put the brakes on something as valuable as networking for new business, is it really possible to “throw off” the competition with a little more or less information on your LinkedIn profile? Should you remove all the content from your Web site too?

One final note, the author does point out, wisely, that it may not be to your advantage to make your LinkedIn connections public. I know a financial adviser that keeps his private because he doesn’t want others poaching his list. Practical pointer: before posting a profile on any social space, always go to the privacy options. Turn them all private and then one by one click on those that make sense for your strategy.