The term "raw data" smacks of a topic that attorneys went to law school to avoid. Having worked with a large number of attorneys, I can confidently say that data and processed data, more commonly known as "information," are not concepts that enamor the typical practitioner. Instead, the traditional notion of attorneys is that those concepts are too attenuated from the practice of law to matter to them. Or, if data and information do matter, they are someone else's concern.
However, because of a myriad of factors, the significance of data and information is beginning to pique more attorneys' interests. And, with some encouragement and subtle positioning, the most classic lawyer can now become a champion of the use of data and information.
In 2005, at even the most progressive firms, it would have been difficult for anyone to provide guidance in this area. Most engagements were billed by the hour. Work was plentiful. The practice of law was fairly insulated from outside threats. And so on. The prevailing theme was, "Why fix what isn't broken?" Generally, data did not matter—or at least not to the extent it should have. But that was then. The last eight years have shaken the legal industry in significant ways, and market pressures now impact individual attorneys and law firm strategies in a tangible manner.
Competition within the market is fiercer than ever, and new variables have entered the equation. Fixed fees, alternative business structures, reverse auctions, and legal process outsources are no longer theoretical concerns. Because of this new reality, attorneys are seeking more effective ways to plan for, execute, and manage legal work. In each of these areas, data usage can help practitioners meet new business challenges, engage their clients, enhance service delivery, and expand their practice. Further, each of these areas is a "hook" by which you can capture support and create attorney advocates for data and information usage.
Attorneys now engage in deeper matter planning than in the past. In the "old normal," precedent and experience drove an engagement. Formal execution plans were uncommon. But, again, times have changed. Attorneys are now tasked with setting scope and expectations, creating road maps for execution, determining pricing structures, setting appropriate staffing—among other duties. To compound matters, the sophistication sought by clients in these areas is increasing steadily.
Getting these pieces right is difficult. How are attorneys to harness and leverage the past experiences of their firm and their peers? The answer to that question requires structured and unstructured data and information about those matters. By making this connection clear and, hopefully, by enabling them to take their first steps with the data in hand, you can begin to change their view on how to meet these challenges.
To best complete a matter, attorneys and their clients will want to know the progression of work, how they got to a given point, and what was produced along the way. Legal Project Management (LPM) took root as a means to provide tighter controls in this area. LPM has created a considerable amount of excitement within the last four years. One goal of a comprehensive LPM program is to ensure that the right people are executing the right work on a particular matter at the right time. For clients, that improves quality and leads to a more efficient outcome. The emphasis on LPM has made data, and the control it can bring, more compelling.
Billing systems and, in some cases, workflow tools can help facilitate the execution of work. They are not a replacement for a mature LPM program, but they can drive legal teams to some of the same ends. It is the data from these systems that can help divulge where you are in a given piece of work. Pinpointing "where" can be a challenge, but, as the saying goes, "Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good." The ability to track at any level will improve coordination, effectiveness, and greatly benefit the client.
Lawyers and clients are also looking for ways to identify problems and receive early warnings related to matters, whether the problems of note are financial in nature or related to the process or circumstances of a matter. Attorneys, legal teams, and, most importantly, clients detest surprises. However, with the right data, you can mitigate risk and surprises in compelling ways.
My firm is somewhat unique in this area. Seyfarth Shaw is almost eight years into a journey that entails pulling concepts from Six Sigma and Lean, and recombining them to improve the way it delivers legal services. As the firm's approach matured, it has been branded as SeyfarthLean. Because of our program's genesis, an emphasis on data has been a part of our world for a while. Over time, that emphasis has rippled through our firm's attorney ranks. What we have found is that if we track our processes better, we can then manage our matters better. And, if we can manage these engagements better, we can be more successful in the eyes of our client. Ultimately, this leads to more work and a healthier enterprise.
Nevertheless, a Six Sigma, Lean, or Lean Six Sigma program is not needed in order to reap the benefits of data and information in the management of matters. Most time entry systems provide the ability to capture task codes, which can aid the specific or systematic tracking of matters. Reporting systems can be built to leverage those data points to better control legal work. Further, combine that with timekeeper information, and you can get a sense of who is involved in a given set of work and in what capacity. Managing timekeeper sprawl alone can yield significant benefits to clients and the long-term health of a relationship.
However, once attorneys leverage task code data and related financial information, they typically yearn for more. For instance, at Seyfarth Shaw, we have a custom Matter Management System that provides timekeeper, task code, and budget information. At first, attorneys thought it was too much information. Now, we are constantly exploring new ways to gain value from our task information. We have even gone so far as to create a separate system to better track matter process data. But the first step is critical. Attorneys need to begin recognizing that there is value in that information. Once the recognition is there, they become critical champions in communicating that value to others and pushing for broader efforts within this space.
Continued Responsibilities of the Information Steward
Though the market is helping to drive attorneys to embrace data usage, individuals looking to drive change and innovate within the practice of law cannot take their hands off the wheel. Those in practice support roles need to continue to do their part to steer and drive their organization. We have to make things easier. There are three main ways to increase the pace at which we create data usage converts.
First, we have to continue to design systems that make it easier to create, collect, and digest data. And, we need to do so with an eye toward using that data in meaningful ways in the future. If we can limit rework by attorneys and minimize obtrusion in their daily lives, we are more likely to succeed. Our goal, even if aspirational, should be to have data be a natural externality or exhaust from the firm's legal work. If not a natural exhaust, it should be the byproduct of an endeavor in which they understand the purpose of the extra steps in the process. In the future, gamification may lead to additional data points of value, making data creation almost "fun." However, most firms are several steps away from taking that approach seriously.
Second, we need to make data and information easier to consume. Dashboards and graphical modes of conveyance have helped. But we need to continue to push in this area, taking information design and data visualization disciplines seriously. This includes looking outside of the legal vertical for best practices. This area has seen tremendous growth in the last five years, and legal is now positioned to embrace the lessons learned within that domain.
Third, where possible, we need to create instant gratification. We need to serve up that information in a quick, meaningful way so that attorneys can use the data as soon as possible to make better decisions and enhance awareness. Assuming the collection of data requires some work by the attorney, this will help incentivize practitioners to continue feeding the system.
At all points, be aware that attorneys are a skeptical and pessimistic lot. There is research to back up that opinion now.1 Further, they tend to be slightly less altruistic than other groups.2 Advocating data for data's sake or in hopes of benefiting others in your firm will not get you far. As you hone your message, you will need a direct tie to an acute need, and that acute need should be related to the success of their practice. By focusing on how the data can help attorneys plan, execute, and manage work, you will be in the best position for success.
In the long run, whether you make information champions of your attorneys or not will matter little. There is a gravitational pull toward increased usage of data and information in the practice of law. It's the same "pull" that has led to big data, Hadoop and related technologies appearing outside of legal. The practice of law will eventually end up down the same path. However, if attorneys can become champions of data usage before their competitors, they will be better positioned for future success and future profit.
1 Sirkin, M., Ph.D., July 26th, 2012, The Attorney Personality: Knowing and Harnessing Your Practitioners' Tendencies, presented at an ILTA KM Peer Group Webinar.
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