Brown

CHARLESTON -- A lawyer's success used to be governed by his or her expertise in an area of law. Today, even more is required of a partner or associate, and it comes in the form of relationship intelligence.

According to LexisNexis, a global information and research service company, relationship intelligence is defined as a firm-wide resource that reveals the complex connections between people, companies, history, and experience. The concept is simple: Transform who is known and what has been done into new business development opportunities.

In a white paper developed by the data-mining giant, a law firm's most valuable assets are the relationships it nurtures with clients and other entities. The reason marketing plans fail is because lawyers don't care to uncover hidden relationship networks between themselves and those individuals on the outside. The recovery effort is easy, that is, if a firm is willing to spend some money.

A software product called InterAction, centralizes a firm's comprehensive knowledge about clients and contacts, and makes the information available to everyone within a law firm, from attorneys to secretaries. Although confidential details (such as notes logged from privileged conversations) are protected by password features, the rest of the data can be viewed and updated by anyone in the practice, or the firm as a whole.

LexisNexis describes the legal software system as a necessary tool in the client development campaign. Enhanced features of InterAction include a contact verification module, which keeps the firm's database current through automated e-mail processes. For multi-disciplinary law firms engaged in cross marketing, a practice matter function connects cases with people and companies in one central location, eliminating the need for numerous databases.

Client entertainment, networking, and audits can be managed through yet another software subscription, which houses non-billable time entries, otherwise known as marketing. The sharing of information has moved from casual, infrequent conversations between a few lawyers to firm-wide communication.

Enterprise database systems may be new to law firms, especially those of smaller size, but the concept of customer relationship management should be well known. The "CRM" concept, which has been in circulation for the last decade, was created to increase a firm's profitability by securing ties with clients. The idea is to compile as much information as possible to build a comprehensive profile of the client or company.

The accuracy of such data provides lawyers with the key pieces of information needed to provide better legal services, or offer new areas of help in situations that are still on the horizon. Some consultants refer to it as playing offense; assess future wants and needs and start billing today.

Launching a relationship database can take a month to a year to install, and a few hundred to a million dollars to implement. For those critics who believe a business card index is a sufficient means of maintaining contact information, the process of building a customized database is an expensive way to invest in something that may not be used.

A database is as valuable as the information in it, technology experts remind companies such as law firms. If no one is tagged as the manager of client contact information, and no one is held responsible for the integrity of the data, then the program lives as another unused icon floating on a computer screen. At that point, asking who knows whom is replaced with "Who cares?"

Brown is a legal marketing executive and the managing member of a professional writing agency.

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