Analytics best practices

The 2019 ILTA conference in Orlando featured several talks about building legal operations dashboards, and I was fortunate enough to speak in one of these together with Senior Business Analytics Specialist Estelle Rhee from Microsoft’s legal department. Here are some takeaways from that talk and related talks I was able to attend. 

Advantages of Dashboards Built with Modern BI Tools 

If you are still building Excel spreadsheets and sending them out to your law department colleagues in an email blast, how do you know whether anybody looked at them? How do you know whether they understood them? How do you know whether they modified their behavior based on that information? 

Analytics for the sake of analytics accomplishes nothing. We do analytics to change behavior, and while the old Excel-based way of doing things will always have a place, that place is getting smaller. Unlike Excel, modern BI tools like Tableau allow you to create real-time dashboards and post them on your corporate intranet or other locations so they are always up-to-date, and you don’t have to rebuild them month after month. Best of all, you can track the number of users who visit the dashboards and the way they interact with them, so you know that the information actually went into some eyeballs. You should follow up by setting up meetings with your audience, helping them understand the dashboards, tweaking them to help them accomplish their goals, and tracking progress over time so you can be sure you stay winning. 

Don’t Train People to Think Analytics is a Waste of Time 

Here is a simple, tragic story: an attorney requests analytics from an analytics person, the analytics person is busy, the request takes longer than expected, as deadline approaches, attorney gets frustrated, and finally just “shoots from the hip” and makes their decision without the benefit of analytics. The sad conclusion: next time, the attorney doesn’t even bother to request analytics. Sadly, the analytics person might not even have a way of knowing that they have unwittingly scared away the very people they are trying to help. 

Again, modern dashboards built using tools like Tableau can help prevent this tragedy. Ideally, you only have to build them once, and they automatically refresh with current data, rather than putting you in a situation where you have to build them over and over again and disappoint people when you don’t have time. 

Keep It Simple 

White space is your friend. Do not try to cram everything into one dashboard—it will confuse the heck out of people. When you consult with them about building their dashboards, they might ask you to break this rule. Educate them about design principles and try to negotiate your way out of this request. 

By the way, modern BI tools let you build elegantly simple dashboards without having to skimp on information. The way they do that is by being interactive. For instance, tools like Tableau let you click on bar charts and other chart elements and drill down to see more info. Basically, they take you to a deeper place where you can see more, instead of trying to cram everything into one screen. These tools can also provide a deeper level of data if you hover over a bar or line or other chart element so that you can see pretty much any kind of data you want. For instance, by hovering over a bar that shows total legal spend in a given month, you might cause a box to pop up that will show total spend for the fiscal YTD. 

Follow the Rules, Except When You Don’t 

One exception to the above “white space rule” might occur if you are working with a small audience that is using the same dashboard over and over and needs all the info on one screen for some reason (for example, so they don’t have to toggle back and forth between different screens all the time or click through to a deeper level). In this case, through repeated exposure, the audience should become familiar enough for the dashboard to no longer seem confusing. 

Bottom line, if you understand not only the rules but also the reasons behind them, you may be able to find exceptions. 

Embed Visualizations in Workflows When Possible 

Leading organizations make visualizations even more useful by developing what I call “just in time” dashboards—dashboards embedded in key places where users are most likely to find them valuable. For instance, in an eBilling context, it makes sense to embed these kinds of visualizations into invoice review workflows. Organizations that understand that workflow understand the sorts of visualizations folks are likely to find useful when in different parts of it. That way, invoice reviewers have convenient access to appropriate visualizations even when they didn’t think to ask for them. This removes one of the primary barriers for reviewers who want to become more data-driven but historically have been thwarted by the difficulty of obtaining the right information when they need it. 

Modern BI tools like Tableau do not replace Excel, but they are far superior in many kinds of use cases, including those described above. It is high time legal departments integrate these newer tools into their operations, as many have already done. While there is never any guarantee that improved methods will result in improved performance, they improve the chances a lot over the old way. 

About The Author

Nathan Cemenska

Nathan Cemenska, JD/MBA, is the Director of Legal Operations and Industry Insights at Wolters Kluwer's ELM Solutions. He previously worked in management consultancy helping GCs improve law department performance and has prior experience as a legal operations business analyst.

In past lives, Nathan owned and operated a small law firm and wrote two books about election law. He holds degrees from Northwestern University, Ohio State University, and Cleveland State University.