What Do We Do With All This Data?

It is said that we measure what we value and that we value what we measure. If the adage holds true, law firms’ emphasis on measurement of billable hours points ultimately to their focus on making a profit. This is hardly surprising.

Heather Douglas’ post Metrics: Beyond the Billable Hour, suggests that law firms should measure more than just billable hours and could make use of the valuable data gleaned or already in their possession. Those are good ideas that could support the profit motivation, but may require a different approach to measurement and data gathering, relying on research methodologies not taught in law schools. To implement the kind of approach Douglas is advocating, firms would do well to consider bringing in experts in data measurement and evaluation, whether from social sciences, business and public administration or other relevant fields.

The need to bring in experts became especially clear to me as I recently sat down with an academic from the field of criminal justice to talk about ways that the non-profit I work with might make better use of the data we gather. We have demographic data on the clients we see (where are they from, income level, gender, ethnicity, etc), quantitative data on the work we do (volunteer hours, numbers of clients seen, value of work completed, etc.), qualitative data from client feedback forms and intern evaluations, and more.

Having data and making use of it, however, are two entirely different things. As I was politely reminded, the language and methodologies of law and lawyers are not the language and methodologies of social science research. While lawyers are skilled in dealing with evidence in the legal context and have strong analytical abilities, these are not necessarily the same skills required in gathering and analyzing qualitative and quantitative evidence (i.e. data) about the work we do and the needs of our clients.

The non-profit world, like the world of for-profit law firms, is data rich. We have an abundance of data in our possession, but typically lack the resources to mine and analyze it. This is where the experts come in. In our case, we are fortunate to have access to senior level students in the Criminal Justice department at the Faculty of Arts, University of Winnipeg. We can provide these students who are learning statistics and program evaluation with internship opportunities that allow them to put theory into practice. They benefit from a practical learning opportunity while we benefit from their data gathering and analysis. It’s a win-win.

This kind of data analysis really isn’t optional in the non-profit world. Our donors and funders require measurement of not only work inputs and outputs, but also program outcomes. They want to know how their money is spent, what value is provided and whether the expected results were achieved. This makes sense, as we are the stewards of their contributions and need to report back on how we managed their investments in our work.

One could argue that law firms and lawyers are in a similar situation in respect of the fees clients pay. Clients, too, want to know how their money is being spent, what value is provided and whether expected results will be achieved. While law firms may get away with focusing only on hours, billings and collections for the interim, I expect that in the (possibly near) future, their clients will require more robust analysis of business metrics from their law firms as well.


  1. Heather Douglas

    Karen- I completely agree that experts would be needed to design a system that measures other metrics. Technology on it’s own is currently not sophisticated enough.