Law firms should understand the difference between customer relationship management (CRM) and relationship discovery. 

CRM is hard. Lawyers must enter and share data. Few large law firms use it effectively. BigLaw should ask where the value in relationships lie.

Much value lies in tapping relationships for business development and client service. Figuring out, however, who knows whom, is hard. CRM is neither necessary nor sufficient to identify connections. What I call “enterprise relationship discovery” software (ERD) solves this problem. And lawyers need not input data for it to work.

ERD easily leads rainmakers and marketers to connections their lawyers and staff have. Savvy lawyers use this not only for business development but also for making connections for their existing clients. ERD works by analyzing e-mail traffic and contact; it has mechanisms to protect relationship owners.

Rich Rifkin, formerly of Hummingbird, now with Contact Networks, recently demoed his company’s flagship ERD product. It looks good. Firms wanting to tap their own relationship assets should consider ERD. (I cannot comment on alternative products; I have no relationship with Contact Networks.)

ERD is close to “something for nothing.” Sure, it does cost to buy the software and users do need a bit of training. But this effort is much less than what’s required for many knowledge management and all CRM projects. With ERD, lawyers don’t have to change what they do – this avoids the failure point in many law firm initiatives.

[ERD should not be confused with social network analysis (SNA). The latter is typically a more customized analysis designed to understand your own organization at a deeper level.]