Data integration –  knot a problem?

Law firms may be no strangers to the use of metrics to guide decision-making. But with a wealth of new demands and new digital systems put in place since the pandemic, are they forming enough close-knit bonds between systems? Briefing editor Josh Adcock discovers how firms are faring when it comes to weaving data from across solutions into new, valuable insights

The phantom form of big data has haunted professional services – legal included – for some years, and few organisations seem to have fully got a grasp on how to leverage data as successfully as businesses like Meta and Amazon. Yet, law firms are just now – in the wake of being forced to digitise and digitalise more of their systems and processes over the last two years – waking up to the vast potential of their data stores.

The first step on that journey, however, can’t be taken without addressing the systemic barriers to surfacing and sharing data. At Forsters, chief information officer Anthony Stables says integrating business-critical systems has been a challenge, highlighting the firm’s legacy practice management system (PMS) as a significant thorn in its side. “It’s very hard to get any integration going with any of our other systems because it’s a legacy, client-server application. It doesn’t have a good API, and that has a big impact when it comes to accessing and understanding our data.”

Even where systems don’t totally block data-sharing, optimising data surfacing is a priority. At HFW, global director of information technology Mark Parr says there’s been a significant increase in demand for data self-sufficiency in the last two years – and his goal is to develop that capacity further in the future.

“I want fee earners to draw the information that they want, to be able to manipulate a data feed so it gives them the data they want, not rely on what I think they should have. That’s been a huge challenge,” Parr says.

Picking up from here, Lynne Jones, head of global research and resources hub at HFW, says the ability to surface knowledge, and getting a grip on the metadata that surrounds it, is a priority for her, particularly within Microsoft Teams. “We’re looking at how we can sync Teams with our document management system and identifying what should be synced to it. There’s a real issue around surfacing that data.”

Stables adds the development of a data architecture that encourages data-sharing across systems is important, but says deciding how that happens includes a careful balance of value. “I don’t want a huge data lake – which I’ve got to pay a ludicrous amount of money for – just to store information that’s already in other systems, but I do need to access all that data, so that’s something we’re working on.”

In pursuit of this goal, he says, the firm is taking a cloud-first approach to any new systems and ensuring their API interfaces are up to REST (representational state transfer) standards, a set of guidelines that supports interaction with similar web services and applications.

Having adopted NetDocuments as its document management system (DMS) in October 2021, he adds that the firm is undertaking a strategic review that will culminate in the procurement of a new PMS, and a key criteria is that it will integrate meaningfully with the DMS: “Our legacy PMS is one system that attempted to be both PMS and DMS, and struggled in that – but there’s a lot of value in an interface that shows data from both alongside one another, so that’s a key requirement of any new practice management system for us.”

Crossing the language barrier

Clearly, surfacing data is a challenge – but many law firm leaders are highlighting the value in cross-pollinizing one dataset with data and information in other systems – which sometimes requires the creation of new ways to bridge that gap. Anthony Vigneron, director of legal technology solutions at Clifford Chance, says his firm has been working on building a “utility platform” for some time. This comprises the many technical building blocks that comprehensively share data across silos, for instance.

And at DAC Beachcroft, Chris Lewis, head of data and insight, explains his firm is continuing to work on creating “data pipelines” between its various systems – something that began years ago. These rely on use of Qlik Sense, a BI product that allows the firm to join data from multiple sources. “

Developing more unified data systems is also a priority at HFW, where Parr says the prevalence of siloed systems has impacted the accuracy of data in the past. “We were seeing instances of data recorded in our DMS in a slightly different way to another system – but you end up with huge amounts of data that’s probably the same stuff.”

The solution, he says, was to look at the technology and architecture holistically. “We are now geared towards mapping and making systems overlay on top of one another – looking beyond what the HR system needs to do by itself, for instance, to how it works with other systems too.”

Moreover, it’s not just a matter of what’s happening within one firm. Vigneron at CC says the legal sector is still struggling to progress a set of data standards that would enable more cross-organisational collaboration. “None of that is in sync – we’re not describing things in the same way. There are lots of little initiatives in the market, but no top-down settlement around standards. That’s a big problem that other industries have already recognised.”

New demands for data

While firms are recognising the need to surface data and make their various systems speak to one another, what do they hope to get out of that new, contextualised information?

Traditionally, says Jones at HFW, people thought about data in terms of “figures from finance” – but the perceived worth of data is shifting as different types are leveraged more. “Data can come from any area of the business. But it’s better to view the data that you’ve got in context – a given report might only be relevant with additional material from HR, for instance.”

Indeed, Stables at Forsters says the pandemic period has led to a desire to monitor a variety of data points for wellbeing and HR purposes more closely. That includes understanding when people are logging in and whether they’re doing so at strange times of day, for example, to support any wellbeing challenges. “The wellbeing of our staff is taken very seriously – but it’s harder to keep an eye on people’s wellbeing when you’re not seeing them face-to-face every day, so that priority level has certainly changed.”

Lewis also observes that data is now leveraged across a broader range of functions and for new purposes – he saw remote working have an immediate effect on the demand for operational and management data. “With the first lockdown in March 2020, people immediately substituted physical supervision with operational data at all levels of the business – be that at morning virtual meetings or around a virtual whiteboard. The demand for data and reporting through dashboards went through the roof.”

In response, he says, the firm’s data team developed new methods of surfacing and blending data sources for operational purposes. “We’ve created a system to match items on teams’ and individuals’ to-do lists against how long we expect tasks to take – so we can say ‘today this team has X number of tasks, and we expect it to take a total of Y hours’. We combine that with data from our attendance records, so we know how many hours lawyers will have available for fee-earning in the day – it means a supervisor can see all that information every morning and have the relevant data at their fingertips.”

This “managing by data” approach is perhaps more applicable to low-value, high-volume case types, he says, but he sees greater potential for it in other areas in future. And, like Parr, he says it must come with a consideration of what operational leaders actually need. “We’re working with the operational leaders to find out which processes they’re currently following, which key bits of information they need for which process, and how we can embed that data in their day-to-day processes,” Lewis says.

Analytical heads prevail

So, once systems have been aligned more meaningfully, how do leaders plan to make the best use of that data – and, crucially, who will be working with it? Making sure the firm is doing something truly valuable with the data it holds is one of Parr’s current top priorities at HFW, who says new initiatives around managing and servicing data are being spearheaded by a new chief data officer.

In fact, several firms have recognised the need for a new, more centralised approach to data that prevents silos by reassigning ownership of data-gathering and analysis – and clears the way for potentially more valuable outputs as well. Vigneron says that most law firms, Clifford Chance included, have historically invested heavily in analytics tools that sit inside each of the business services functions. But that separation of investments has changed recently, due to the desire to generate more useful analytics, which has led to more centralisation of tools and personnel: “We’re moving towards understanding why things happen – diagnostic analytics – as well as understanding what will happen – meaning predictive analytics.” The firm has made new investments, both in analytics tools and in new roles, including data scientists, data engineers, data processing engineers and dev-ops engineers. “All those jobs were non-existent four years ago,” Vigneron says.

And, with new systems continually being brought in, he now sees an urgent need for firms to address data requirements: “Older firms have legacy systems and new systems that need to be integrated. Plus, we need to answer new business questions that we didn’t have perhaps even six months ago. You don’t see many law firms hiring enough analytics staff to address those things – the numbers are pretty small for a pretty large industry.”

At DAC Beachcroft, Chris Lewis echoes Vigneron’s mantra of moving to a more predictive analytics strategy, saying the firm is about to begin a new, five-year strategy around tech and data. “Internally, we want to be making the best strategic decisions we can by using predictive and prescriptive analytics. But the overarching goal of the new strategy is to use intelligent analytics to offer more value to our clients – doing that will be the ‘cherry on top’.”

External data links

As Lewis hints, data has value not just for firms’ internal use but also for the value it can offer clients – in some case by selling it to them directly. Lewis adds that in the last five or six years there’s been a definite move away from people in the firm asking for data about performance – such as utilisation and realisation stats – and towards acquiring and analysing data from the firm’s case management system (CMS) to help clients get better results. “There’s been more focus on using case data to both our own and our clients’ advantage, both the way we run our cases and how quickly we can reach a settlement.”

He says there’s also been significant momentum behind offering clients benchmarking data. “That may include seeing data as an actual revenue stream – we have a lot of data and a broad view of the whole market.”

However, he adds that there are data governance issues to consider before making this a reality. “There’s a huge amount to consider – we’re in the process of writing a whitepaper at the moment to articulate how we could realise those ideas.”

Similarly, Parr says HFW has previously focused on using its extensive data banks to inform better decision-making, but that focus has increasingly changed to be more external-facing. “As clients in particular pick up on the value of data more and more, they’re asking ‘what’s the value-add of HFW?’ Data is a key part of that. We really do think the ‘secret sauce’ of data is how it can unlock that insight, both for ourselves and our clients.”

But the best may still be yet to come: “We’re only at the very start of productising data, and you can see that if you compare against other industries,” says Vigneron. He adds, however, that the same pressures around data demands from clients are experienced by other sectors. “Nearly every industry is going through something similar, in that the speed of business is accelerating. Everyone wants to focus on the client-facing products – which, in our case, is legal service delivery.”

So, if nothing else about the future of business is entirely predictable, we can at least count on predictive analytics forming an ever-larger part of the legal business world – and calculate that a far higher price will be placed on the ability to surface and share data to get us there.