Toby Sewell, divisional marketing manager at Access Legal, shares his tips on how law firms can better manage their data

Sewell, Tony

Data is the lifeblood of many modern businesses. Without it, firms are left to wander in the dark, hoping things turn out well. Looking at traditional metrics such as time billed, aged debtors and lockup are invaluable to law firms, but they don’t give you the full picture. There is a whole world of data out there, you just need to know what you’re looking for, how and where to find it, and then what to do with it.

To help cast some light on the topic, we spoke with Joanna Kingston Davies, Group COO of the MAPD Group, and Nigel Stott, Consultant at Baskerville Drummond Consulting, who each have many years of experience in law firm managerial roles, processing and handling data.

What do you want to achieve?

The first thing to think about when starting any data project is what you want to achieve from it. Are you trying to discover particular problem areas for the business? Perhaps patterns and trends in fee earner performance, or customer sentiment? Whatever your aim, you need to have a clear idea of what it is you are looking for, that way you can work backwards and figure out where to find the data you will need.

The MAPD Group break their data down into four areas – Profit, People, client and quality – what they call the ‘stable table’. Joanna Kingston-Davies explains, “We use that expression because its more helpful to people. It’s essentially a balanced scorecard approach. If the table is wonky because one of the legs isn’t working, it will all fall down. The balanced scorecard helps to understand the whole picture rather than just one element of it.”

Nigel Stott adds, “A law firm looking at starting a data project needs to understand what business decisions they’re looking to make. What data touchpoints do they need to take that strategy forward?”

“The law firm’s culture is really important. Historically, there’s been some apathy around data in law firms. I think that’s partly due to a lack of understanding around the importance of data and the value it has to the business. Essentially, there needs to be a deeper understanding and a general openness about how data is used in the business and why it has value to the firm. Data should be treated as an asset, with someone to take ownership of it, understands it and can drive it forward.”

As both Joanna and Nigel mention, the more data you have, the more you will know about the performance of your firm, filling that dark room with light. However, you need to gather that data in a way that is manageable, balancing your need for data with the resources that you currently have to manage that data.

The most effective way to do this is to appoint a ‘data champion’, someone who can lead a data project, understands the needs of the business, the data needed to identify those needs and all importantly, offer insight on that data.

Who should manage your law firm’s data project?

Not everybody ‘gets’ data. To many, those spreadsheets and charts may as well be instructions on how to build a space shuttle. Those people, it’s safe to say, aren’t the right people to lead a data project.

Many firms might ask their IT team to lead on a data project, but Joanna questions this approach.

“There’s a fundamental point about getting the right person or people to really own your data project and lead it which it isn’t necessarily the person you would naturally put on to it. What we see all too often is a data project given to the IT team, which can be really dangerous.”

“The IT team don’t own the data in the first place or the outcomes or consequences of what happens with that data. They should be facilitating its implementation, but data should be owned in an appropriate place.“

“You would certainly need somebody who has a preference for understanding data and its value and integrity. That could be anybody within your organization. It’s just important that the person or people that own it have a genuine passion for it and can genuinely start to shift the needle in terms of the culture and the mindset around it. That’s important as anything.”

Nigel also added, “It’s important to have people who own the data who can also understand the data. Those people can usually look at data and spot anomalies instantly. It’s important to have people who can look at data, really understand it and spot nuances or anomalies in that data set.”

A few important points present themselves in these discussions with Joanna and Nigel. First, whoever you appoint to manage a data project must understand your business and be able to interpret the data correctly. You may even appoint several people to lead on different data projects in different areas of the firm that might fit more closely with their understanding. But something else that is really important is that everybody in your firm understand the data to some extent.

How technology can help your law firm better manage your data

Technology makes many things much easier, and managing data is one of them. From the initial collection of data through various data points, spreadsheets and charts, technology now allows law firms to collate all of their data in a single place.

In Access Legal’s latest whitepaper, ‘How law firms can achieve success in a post pandemic world’, Access Legal’s head of product, Lauren Colbeck, discusses the changing needs of law firms in relation to data, “We’re fast reaching the point where we can combine data from multiple sources to build a fuller picture. Enriching case and practice management analytics with insights from HR, finance and CRM enables firms to understand profitability, identify growth opportunities and allocate workload based on fee-earners’ expertise.”

“These areas of the business would typically have their own systems and analytics but there’s growing appetite to have everything in one place, instead of exporting data from one and importing it into another or having different spreadsheets open. A central platform, with a single sign-on, is much cleaner, simpler and more effective because it takes much of the effort out.”

Nigel Stott expands on this point, “Strategically, it’s important for law firms to consider how they will pull data from their different systems. It’s important to consider where it all sits and how we pull it all into a central point. What we’re starting to see now is firms pulling data from different data sets together and getting new insights into that data. For example, you can pull time recording data and HR data so if you see a dip in time recording, the HR system may give you some context as to why you see time recording dip in a certain team or for a certain individual.”

That trend towards more joined up systems and reporting show no signs of abating, but to ensure that data is correct and not misleading, a process is needed to ensure the integrity of the data.

Joanna explains, “Data integrity is crucial. Your reports only as good as what’s put into it. One of the key challenges is the cultural piece – is the data that’s there in the first place valid, relevant, timely and up to date? Law firms have all seen the horror stories of writing to a client who passed away several years ago and it’s all about making sure we engender that culture change.”

We’ve seen now how important it is to understand what you’re trying to achieve with your data analytics, who should manage it and how tech can help with that, but something we’ve only touched on is how that data is presented.

Presenting your law firm’s data

Presenting data in an appropriate format can make a world of difference. Presenting data as a bar or line chart can show you trends in your data. Are things heading in the right way or is a particular area on a downward trend and need improvement? Similarly, presenting data as a pie chart helps to easily make comparisons between different data points. Which departments are contributing most? Which fee earners are contributing most? All of that context is lost if data is presented simply as a table in an Excel spreadsheet.

“When looking at delivering data and metrics to the business that you need people to take action on, you need to be specific about what data you want people to pay attention to. What data matters most to people and how do we visualize and present that data? People absorb info in different ways so that needs to be thought about.”

Nigel continued, “Keep it simple. Understand what’s important to your business and where the focus needs to be. We’re seeing lots of tech coming to market that will help with visualizing data and pulling everything together, using things like AI and machine learning that is becoming more readily accessible to law firms. This can be used to analyse data coming in, looking for anomalies, making sure data is cleansed before coming into systems.”

“Thinking strategically, if introducing new data sets, where does that data need to sit, and how are we going to pull that data together along with other sources? The tech is out there, you just need to understand in simple terms where that data comes from and how you’re going to manage it.”

Joanna added, “You can’t underestimate the importance of presentation of data. People have different preferences and process things differently. A small change we made to the presentation of our data that made a big difference was to move from a RAG (red, amber, green) rating to Gold, Green and Amber. Small tweaks like that were really valuable, because if people feel like they’re back at school and there’s a pass or fail rate, it can be very belittling.”

By now you should see the importance of data visualization, and there are many ways that you can present your data so it’s important for you to know what visualization methods are best for each data set and what’s best for the person it is being presented to so that they can easily understand it and gain insight from it.

Some key non-traditional KPIs for law firms

You should now understand the fundamentals to getting started with a data project. Joanna and Nigel have imparted many useful pieces of information. Remember to start of simply, focusing on one thing at a time, with a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Make sure you have someone who is passionate about data and understands it leading the project and give them the appropriate tools to pull all that data together and present it in an appropriate format.

The data you should be looking at goes well beyond just the traditional financial metrics. Including things like employee engagement and client satisfaction data will give you a much fuller picture of your law firm, enabling you to spot problem areas more easily and make the required improvements to make your firm more successful.