Powering Your Practice With Databases

I recently met with my elderly mother’s Accountant who had a Financial Planner in attendance. When I told them of my legal IT consulting work, they were almost sympathetic as the lawyers they knew were averse to the use of databases. This was in stark contrast to themselves, and most members of their profession. Their view was that lawyers were archaic in their information management practices.

It is not just referral sources who are speaking up, clients are also losing patience with lawyers, with one corporation, KIA Motors developing a test of their IT skills.

Although I am not privy to the fine details of the test, I suspect I would probably fail it as it requires certain tools. I don’t use Excel for anything much more than for viewing a table. In fact I only superficially use Microsoft Word and Excel, and no longer use Adobe Acrobat. Instead I try to use the best tools for the job. When it comes to manipulating data such as lists of documents, dates, phone numbers, contacts etc. Filemaker Pro is a much better choice for lawyers than Excel. For writing I might use Scrivener, depending on the job. For PDF’s, I might use PDFPen Pro as I prefer to use a Mac.

Hence, I wonder whether the KIA test is ideal. Maybe it should be a test focused on results, not handicapped by what some of us regard as inferior tools. I can do amazing things with Filemaker, whether analysing data in litigation or converting data from one Practice Management System (PMS) to another.

It is all very well talking about the merits of data management tools, but if you don’t realise that you have information management issues, you are hardly going to invest in learning those tools. When doing data conversions, I typically have to do too much in the way of miracles in repairing damaged law firm data, mainly because firms don’t value their own data sufficiently to protect it in the first place. While litigation warrants “style guides” and procedure manuals so that everyone is on the same page when entering data in a large case, firms rarely bother putting in the same effort when working with their own data assets.

Managing their own client information should be a priority, and that means using a database. However, lawyers rarely think of themselves as information managers, and databases have never really been sexy, until now, it seems. According to Sydney blogger and marketer, Malcolm Auld, things are changing but again, it’s easy to jump onto the wrong horse, just because it has an “IT” or “www” label.

Who’d have thought hey? Databases and data are now the sexiest thing in marketing. The essence of direct marketing, the customer database, is the new black. The geeks are running the marketing world. They not only control the IT that manages websites and online systems, they also control the interpretation of the data created by same.

BIG DATA is the current buzzword on every marketer’s lips – not that many understand it, but it’s the latest buzzword so let’s flog it to death until the next digital fashion arrives. The reason BIG DATA is so popular is because we can now measure everything people do online – when they visit a website or blog, open an email, post a social comment, click on a link, upload an image, download an App and more.

While all this IT and internet stuff is exciting, the boring basics of data management still need to be addressed with knowledge, consistency, and respect. I wonder whether a poorly managed computerised firm, is less valuable than one that has seen minimal IT use. At least with a manual filing system, you know what you are getting in a succession context, and so is less of a risk for anyone taking over. That is particularly so where there are a few personal standalone apps cobbled together rather than a solid, shared Practice Management System which acts as a reliable foundation for future initiatives. Hence, there is a lot to be said for Malcolm’s conclusions:

Most companies haven’t even got their small data sorted, so worrying about BIG DATA is a complete waste of time and resources. I often ask my audiences of business executives “who has a functioning database of their customers (and prospects) that they can access easily to grow their business?” You can guess the answer – at best about 40% really have useful databases, but usually the number is about 10%. … The majority of businesses just need to worry about small data, because in most industries it’s the data that will get you the BIG RESULTS.

Of those who think they have good data, I suspect most are mistaken. Just using lists to sort data will reveal that Bill, Billy, William, Wil and Willie Smith, might be one person, even though they have 3 addresses, and only one of them is married.

Without reliable data, you cannot converse with your clients when attempting to scale your practice. And a great way to analyse your client data is via Filemaker Pro even as a supplement to a PMS. And now is a great time to invest in yourself as a lawyer equipped to handle legal and business information in the new age of legal business. Filemaker Pro version 13 has just been released, and it allows you to take what you can easily develop on your desktop, and have it run exactly the same in a browser for the world, or just your clients to use. The ideal use is to extend the functionality, and relevance, of your PMS with Filemaker whether on the desktop (Mac or Windows), the web, or an iPhone/iPad.

This new version really is extraordinary, and worth investigating. And, just like the legal profession has had to adjust its approach to pricing, the fact that Filemaker has now moved to a subscription model means that the bar has been lowered for getting access to powerful database benefits. It’s in the Petty Cash zone for Filemaker at $9 per month, $29 for the Server, and free for the iPad/iPhone.

Watch this space as there are IT-enabled lawyers out there who will empower their practices with the real engine rooms of the internet. The BYOD challenge for IT departments could soon also come to mean Bring Your Own Database.


  1. Simon, what’s the best resource to get me started using Filemaker Pro effectively and quickly?