Notes from the Technology Trenches: Advisen: A Unique Approach to Business

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

This month I want to introduce a tool that I'm not sure will be useful for everyone, but which has some nice features I wanted to share. My firm is currently in its trial period of using Advisen.com. It's a fee-based service that was originally intended for use by the insurance industry in evaluating corporate entities in terms of stability, especially for Directors and Officers (D&O) Insurance, but it has some useful information for anyone who is doing general business research. It is still used predominantly by insurance executives, and most of the features it offers are insurance specific, but don't let that fool you -- it has a lot to offer to anyone doing general business research. As fee services go, it is not cheap, but the data it offer may make it worth your while. A password costs $625 per month, but the company was very generous about allowing the password to be shared, not only across an office, but for multiple offices. It is, however, only possible for one person to use it at a time.

Much of what Advisen offers, aside from the proprietary data and analysis for the insurance researcher, is readily available through other services here and there, and in that respect, it reminds me of Securities Mosaic, partly it's nice just because it's a one-stop-shop. It also gives access to information that, though it may be available from other sources, isn't necessarily typical for a business profile. But here's a description of what it covers from its site to give you a better idea of what I mean:

Full financial information for all public companies globally and summary information for hundreds of thousands of private companies;
Up-to-the minute news from thousands of newspapers and professional journals from around the world;
Case law from all U.S. federal and state courts, as well as full docket information on litigation for U.S. federal courts;
All SEC filings, and specific focus on 10Ks, 10Qs and DEF14A's;
Regulatory Violation data from United States and Canada, eg. the SEC, FDA, OSHA, etc.;
Insurance market information for virtually every country in the world;
Insurance market benchmarking data on premiums, retentions, amounts of insurance and demographics;
Key insurance-related legislation and regulation;
Large loss statistics;
Direct access to hundreds of insurance-related Web sites;
Policy comparisons for major commercial insurance lines;
Proprietary Advisen analysis of important insurance industry issues.

Of all that, the things that might be useful to someone in my office, usually an attorney doing corporate legal work, are the first 5 items. Let's take them in turn:

  • Financial Information for Domestic and International Public and Private Companies: From my poking around, it looks like this coverage is maybe in the Hoover's range: both domestic and international, better coverage for larger companies. Advisen does not have the minimal, mainly contact information that Hoover's does, though. The Advisen representative I spoke to explained that their goal is to cover any company traded on a public exchange, internationally, major private companies -- essentially, anyone big enough to need D&O insurance. I found some gaps as I tested the system, but Advisen was very helpful in adding companies that I didn't find covered and also good about explaining why some data wasn't there that I might have expected. So, the information that you get from the main profile page of a company is the same kind of data you get other places, often gleaned from public filings.
  • News: Well, it is nice that it's there, and if you are paying for the service you might as well use it, but it's not on par with some of the larger news providers like Lexis or Westlaw. Still, as with Yahoo Finance and Hoover's, you can see recent stories associated with the company you are researching, and you get the additional bonus of being able to search for more. The search tools are not as sophisticated as those from Lexis or Westlaw, but you can actually do some searching -- it's not just a chronological list like those offered in Yahoo Finance or Hoovers. And the Advanced search allows you to pick sources, including the Wall Street Journal. I don't know the details of how they provide that access, but it's interesting to note.
  • Case Law and Docket Information: The case law element of this, I really liked. I don't think it's all case law, just what you'd find on the Web, but it is all in one spot, and this isn't something I have seen in another service yet. You do get to see the full text of the decision, too. You see the current docket, I believe the source for that is PACER, but to get anything within it you have to go through Courtlink via Lexis. Still, even just the docket is pretty handy to have as part of the profile since you get an idea of not only what cases made it to the point of decision, but also just how litigious a company is even if they often settle out of court.
  • SEC Filings: This you can get all over creation, but again, as part of a profile you have got to have it, and it's there.
  • Regulatory Violation Data:  Again, I liked this very much. It's not hard to find on the Web direct from the regulatory agencies, but that I don't have to go somewhere else to do it is very handy.

A few other nice features of the service aren't detailed in the Web list:

  • Officer and Director Information: I also liked that within the company profile, under Board & Management, when you choose to look at the officers and directors, you can not only see a list of names but also link to a list of biographies of all the officers or directors at once. Many services give you the initial list, but then you need to click through each name to see the relevant biographical information. Most of the research I do is not specific to an individual, but more generally about the company, so for me that's a nice time saver because I would need to get them all. Another feature under this category is called "Company Interlocks," instances in which an officer or director of the given company also serves as an officer or director of another. Yes, there are plenty of places you can get this information, but again, not usually for all the officers and directors of a single company all in one list.
  • Corporate Governance: Under the same Board & Management section, Advisen also gives information about how each profiled company ranks on issues of corporate governance and board effectiveness, something in which a law firm would be specifically interested. This a something that is not typically available in business profiles, but which I expect will become more common as more attention continues to be focused on accounting and auditing for public firms.
  • Ratings and Rankings: Not Fitch, and not Moody's, which I was a little surprised about, but Advisen does offer S&P ratings information, though not for all companies. The representative I spoke too said the company was looking into adding more. They do have AM Best ratings, and they offer other financial and credit ratings, information on liability and bankruptcy risk and also on financial strength.
  • Institutional Ownership: The top 15 current institutional owners. This is not standard company profile information, and I found it a good value for the price. As far as I know, this is only available through Thomson and Bloomberg, or by mining the SEC filings, so it's usually either very expensive or very time-consuming to get. But, 15 names is not really comprehensive. Thomson gives the top 50, and even that is not complete. On the other hand, in a free source you may find data about the percentage of a company owned by institutions, but you don't get a list of names. So, whether this is helpful to you and worth the subscription price will clearly depend on how often you need this information and to what depth.
  • Hierarchy and Affiliations: This is pretty sweet too. Not only do you get parent/subsidiary information, but you also get information on mergers, acquisitions and divestitures. I should note that the deal data is delivered in a news summary format, as is much of the information on Advisen, and only a certain number of deals are reported, in chronological order. But, you can use their news search to find more and farther back in time if you need to. The corporate parent/subsidiary information is another feature that is otherwise pricey to acquire, though it doesn't come with all the bells and whistles you would get from Dun & Bradstreet, for instance. It is, however, an easy to read and understand list like that available from Corporate Affiliations. In fact, that may be the source, though it is hard to tell from the data on the page.

Last, one of the nicest features from the service is not about content at all, it's a custom report option. As a librarian, I am most often asked to get either some single piece of information about a company, like its institutional holders, or, "Everything." I'm happy to try, but it really does help me if our attorneys can ask for specifics. The problem is, since many of them don't do this kind of research on a regular basis, they often don't know what they can ask for. Advisen's Custom Report makes it easier for everyone by offering a list of items to mark. And, the report can be easily sent by email to the recipient.

A Few Words of Caution

I like Advisen, and I find it to be a pretty good value for the money, but I do have some reservations about it. First, I did find some gaps in it's coverage where there would be information reported for one public company, but not for another where I would expect it to be, or where no company was listed, even though it should have been because it was publicly traded. Usually someone at Advisen is able to help figure out why, but it doesn't make me feel confident that I am getting a complete picture every time. Yes, if you call, they will fix the gap, but what if a user doesn't bother or doesn't know to call? And the depth of coverage won't give you a complete picture, though it isn't really intended to in the sense that is usually required in a law firm setting. This is a tool for evaluating a company's current situation and stability, but it is not a tool for in-depth historical information, at least not yet. Still, keeping that in mind, it may be worthwhile emailing Advisen about getting a trial subscription to see if it something that would help fill out your suite of research needs.