For those of you lamenting over the level of effort required to keep your CRM systems up-to-date or the lack of use by lawyers, these new tools may be the answer.
Social networking has been around for a while. Personal products like Plaxo, Spoke and LinkedIn have millions of users and offer several nifty features. For example, LinkedIn has an optional plug-in that will mine your e-mail traffic, create Outlook Contacts and upload them to your LinkedIn account, hosted via an ASP. While this type of mining may be okay for individuals, I doubt most firms would be interested in something that requires you to upload the firm's contact information to a public ASP. However, the concept of mining e-mail has emerged in two products which do allow you to host the software on your own network, Contact Networks and Branch-IT. Visible Path is also a really interesting product, but they only work on a ASP model.
What I like about Contact Networks and Branch-IT is that these products address two crucial shortcomings of traditional CRM systems. First, because they mine your firm's e-mail server and create individual contact records from e-mail your lawyers send and receive (filtering out spam and other junk mail) there's absolutely ZERO data entry required by lawyers or their secretaries - genius. The second thing these systems do is offer various access levels to contact information, which can provide lawyers a much greater level of control over the use of their contacts then in a traditional CRM system. Contact Networks takes it a step further and maintains their own database of companies, along with the executives of those companies, and the system will attempt to match up (based on the domain of the e-mail) an e-mail address not only with a company, but with an individual person. Their database also tracks what industry/SIC code the company is in, which is great information hard to manually keep in CRM.
That being said, these systems aren't meant to replace CRM, they are simply meant to offer a supplement for the all important 'who knows who' questions that arise. CRM still is needed to manage mailing lists, track opportunities, etc. But, if you're firm is serious about leveraging its relationship capital, these tools shouldn't be overlooked.