Eleven top tips for law firms for a successful data migration

By Joanne Hunter, head of marketing at Legal Futures Associate Select Legal Systems Limited

Data conversion: Don’t throw the digital baby out with the digital bath water

When it comes to converting law firm data over from one legal practice management system to another – the words ‘baby’ and ‘bath water’ spring to mind. The value of a law firm’s data should never be underestimated, not even for a second and it’s important to find an ethical and experienced software supplier you and your partners can trust.

In terms of a law firm’s assets, its data has got to be right up there alongside its people, their expertise and their time. So when decision-makers at law firms put off buying a new business system because the thought of migrating all of their precious data over to the new system is simply too daunting a process to contemplate, it’s pretty understandable, especially when some technology companies, quite unethically, are renowned for making it incredibly hard for law firms to leave them, by making data retrieval difficult.

Data migration (also known as data conversion or data transfer) is the process of retrieving a firm’s data from their previous legal software package and importing it successfully into a new legal practice management system. When it comes to data migration, the needs of one law firm can differ significantly from another in terms of scope and complexity, so it is important to have a detailed and robust plan in place.

Select Legal Systems Limited has been around for more than 25 years, and not only do we have a great deal of experience converting financial, case, matter data and documents over from other systems to our flagship product LAWFUSION, but we have seen and heard a few horror stories about suppliers promising the earth but delivering nothing like.

We also appreciate that from time to time a law firm will decide to leave us, for their own reasons. This is business. We are professional enough to accept this, and we will always do everything we can to make the transition as easy as possible.

This article offers guidance for law firms considering a data conversion from one system to another in terms of the process and what they should expect from both their old and new software supplier.

1. Be sure to include “the data migration experience” on your new system check-list

Data migration skills should be one of your key criteria when finding a suitable new software supplier. The data conversion is the foundation upon which everything to do with your new system will be built. Make sure yours is solid.

Of course, some law firms make better use of their data than others. However, even though the legal profession was built on talent, tradition and tomes of case law, the firms trailblazing in terms of how they use their data are embracing technologies such as artificial intelligence for workflow and case management, data analytics for robust decision making and some are keeping an eye on emerging technologies such as blockchain and all it has to offer in the future to give law firms competitive advantage.

In our data-driven world, even the firms that aren’t yet getting the most out of their data, but have aspirations to do so, still rely on it heavily for the day-to-day running of their businesses, and for compliance, so the value of a law firm’s data should not be underestimated, not even for a second.

So, as part of your search for a suitable new legal practice management software for your business, make sure you include ‘the data migration experience’ on your list of criteria. Think outside of the box when you speak to other users of the packages you have shortlisted, and don’t restrict your questions to just the ones about the software itself.

Also you should check out the new software supplier’s data privacy policy, review the supplier’s information security credentials and ask the new supplier to sign a non-disclosure agreement due to the sensitive nature of the data they are being entrusted with.

For example, Select Legal Systems is an ISO 27001 security certified software supplier at both company and data centre level, we are fully committed to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance, and we are members of the Legal Software Suppliers Association, which has a code of conduct which covers data migration amongst many other things.

2. Remember – it’s your data

Although some software suppliers act as though the data in the old system you have decided to leave behind is theirs, it does of course belong to the law firm. The law firm is entitled to a complete copy of the data in its entirety.

The more helpful/ethical software suppliers will have no problem doing this. Good suppliers will use a single standard database, making the retrieval of your data easy. If a law firm discovers their data is not held in a single industry standard database and their old supplier has trouble, or is unwilling, to provide the data in its native format, then the firm is quite within its rights to have the supplier make a complete copy of your data available in an alternative format (e.g. XML with a DTD – document type definition, Microsoft Access, CSV, Excel, documents in logical folders with index information showing which documents are related to which cases etc).

Before you sign on the dotted line, there are a few direct questions you should ask your new supplier about data retrieval should you ever decide to leave them in the future:

  • Will you auto-generate a copy of our data in SQL database (or other database) format for data migration purposes if we ever decide to move onto an alternative practice management system supplier?
  • Please list the types of data that would be available for data conversion, and how will you provide relevant paths and structural information that indicates how our data records relate to each other?
  • How will you supply all of our case related documents and how will how will you ensure it is clear which matter/files they relate to?
  • What kind of fees should we expect from you for facilitating the retrieval of our data in a usable format?

Starting life with a new practice management system without your data is less than ideal for any law firm. Make sure you have in writing, before you sign the contract, that ALL your data will be completely retrievable should you ever need it, in a usable format, auto-generated, with no manual intervention required by yourselves.

3. Consider the scope of your data migration – what do you need?

A law firm must decide up front the level of complexity it requires for its data migration – i.e. at one end of the scale the law firm may decide it only wants the very basic static client and matter data taking over to the new system. However, at the other end, a full transfer would include pretty much all historical and transactional data.

The choice would be:

  • Static only data: client data, contact data, matter data, no balances, and no transactions.
  • Static data & balances: client data, contact data, matter data, top-level balances, and no transactions.
  • Static data, balances & transactions: client data, contact data, matter data, balances and transactions.
  • Full transfer: client data, contact data, matter data, balances, transactions, case management data, and peripheral data.

4. Set your expectations regarding timescales & fees

A law firm should expect to receive their data from the current supplier in a reasonable timeframe (e.g. within one working week from the date it is requested would not be unreasonable), and you should not expect to be charged for the data itself, although it is quite reasonable to expect to pay for the supplier’s time for extracting your data, especially if your data retrieval needs are all encompassing and/or complex.

Charges from the supplier you are leaving should reflect the work required to retrieve your data, and care must be taken not to accept a punitive fee as sour grapes because they are losing your firm as a client.

You may be expected to settle any outstanding invoices before they hand over your data, which is quite reasonable and often outlined within a supplier’s terms of business/contract.

Your new supplier, of course, has the most work to do when it comes to your data migration project and again, a law firm should expect to pay for the supplier’s time.

5. Organise dual running if you can

The more helpful/ethical suppliers will be professional despite losing you as a client and will help you as much as they can with the smooth transition from one system to another.

The dual running of both the old and the new system for a short while is often the ideal scenario for reporting and enquiry purposes to make the transition efficient and painless.

If dual running is not possible, reports should be generated at the point of closing the old system which will meet the requirements of external auditors and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (e.g. aged creditor, aged debtor, matter balance, nominal ledger, WIP, purchase ledger, trial balance, balance sheet reports etc) These reports must match the reports from the new system exactly, and you need to retain them for your records for the long term.

6. Recognise that garbage in means garbage out

It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy for people to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to facing up to the quality, or lack of quality, of their data. We recommend a focused data-cleansing exercise before starting the migration process.

A data transfer at transaction level, of course, will transfer all data including records that don’t balance. If you’re expecting the data migration to magically eliminate long-term data irregularities, you’re kidding yourselves.

It really should go without saying, but every effort must be made by the law firm to provide clean data for the new software supplier to work with.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Teething problems are inevitable when implementing a new system, but if you plan properly and work with your new supplier, there is no reason why your data migration shouldn’t run smoothly and painlessly, especially when working with experts who have migrated law firm data from a variety of systems over many years.

Prevention is always better than cure – so the best advice to any law firm considering a data conversion is to discuss any data concerns with your new supplier early, and work together to iron out any challenges.

There’s a fair chance that the way data is held in your old system will be entirely different to how it is going to be held in your new system. For example, your new system may store address details in multiple fields, compared to storing it in one address field in your old system.

These are the kind of questions your new software supplier should be asking you as part of the data-migration planning process and the law firm must take these questions seriously. In this instance, the one address field coming from the old system can be broken down into relevant street, town, county, post code fields for the new system.

It is likely the system you are moving to will be more sophisticated than the system you are leaving behind. LAWFUSION, for example, has a link between a bill record and the time transactions included on the bill. If your old system does not go this far, this will impact on the data transfer. It shouldn’t be a problem for a good data-migration expert as long as these differences are flagged up in the planning process.

A good supplier will know the right questions to ask and will guide the law firm to ensure they take the time to provide the relevant level of detail in their answers. It is always in the best interests of the law firm to flag up early with their new technology partner any data concerns they may have.

8. Expect some manual transformation

Prior to the data migration, it is prudent to expect to have to do some manual data translation (or transformation) to prepare your data to be imported cleanly into your new system – simple things like matching the old system formats to the new, or changing fee-earner references to fee-earner initials.

Some manual data transformation may be more complex than this, but it is worth bearing in mind that most data conversions that involve legal accounts and practice management software will require some level of manual data transformation before the data migration can take place. A good software supplier will make the transformation steps clear before you start, and will work with you to ensure the data structure is correct.

In some cases, a law firm’s data may be too complex to match over to the new system, even with manual data transformation. If the system you are leaving differs massively from the new system, detailed discussions need to be had with your new supplier.

9. Always do a trial run

In preparation for a successful data migration, it is advisable to have at least one trial run of the conversion prior to the live data migration. The trial run is the law firm’s chance to check that all expected data is available in the new system, stored where and how expected, and that it operates as it should.

Corrections can sometimes be very difficult to manage after a live conversion once the system is being actively used. A trial run enables the law firm to check data has converted correctly and provides the opportunity to carry out any corrections to the data-migration plan before going live.

A trial run will reduce the pressure and allow the firm more time to check the integrity of their data, making the live conversion far safer.

A good software supplier will help you prepare a check-list plan so you can produce a set of reports for conversion-checking purposes as part of the trial run. For example, matters with financial balances allow the firm to check overall totals as well as spot check individual clients and matters.

We will recommend a list of reports for you to run off, as a good starting point for data-checking purposes, following a data migration. It is essential the recommended reports include totals and are run off at the same time as the data back-up for conversion and that no changes are made to the system between the reports being generated and the data being taken. Timing is key.

Some firms store very large volumes of documents, so it may be practical to migrate only a subset of these for the trial run. This will allow you to test that the document migration works effectively whilst cutting download time before you migrate the whole lot.

It is advisable to take document creation and modification dates/times for these files as part of your data set to be converted over.

Check out our Cartwright King case study video, in which they talk about their data conversion experience.

10. Plan adequate and timely resources for acceptance testing

After the trial run, it is the law firm’s responsibility to dedicate sufficient time and resources to thoroughly testing the converted trial run data before moving onto the live environment.

This process is known as acceptance testing and it should be carried out as soon as practically possible after the trial run, because the sooner issues are identified, often the easier they are to resolve.

Shortly after the trial run is completed, the law firm needs to confirm the following to the software supplier (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Do the balances agree?
  • Was the data converted according to the agreed rules?
  • Were any fields overlooked during the trial run?
  • Do you have the correct number of records expected from the trial run in the new system?
  • Are reports required?
  • Is further data cleansing required prior to live migration?
  • Were any data problems picked up?
  • Are there any agreed actions?

It is quite likely that the law firm will discover some items that have not converted over as expected during the trial run. This is exactly what the trial run is for. During acceptance testing, the law firm and supplier will be able to assess the success of the trial run and agree whether another trial run is required once data correction actions have been completed, or whether the firm is ready to move to the live data migration.

The law firm testing team should document in detail any inconsistencies or problems and summarise their findings in a standardised format and send to the software supplier for correction, prior to the live data migration.

At the end of the acceptance testing process, the law firm will be asked to approve and sign off the results before moving on to next steps.

11. Accept there needs to be some contingency planning

A good software supplier will provide hand-holding for ‘go live’ as your users begin to start using your new system in earnest in those early days.

Detailed acceptance testing will have been carried out by this point so chances are a large percentage of your data will be intact. However, even with the most prudent planning and checking, it is still possible users may discover unforeseen problems after go live. Anything like this should be reported to your software supplier immediately and logged.

Once aware, a good software partner will establish if the issue can be easily resolved or if it will require more significant corrective work. Corrections to conversions can range from simple manipulation of converted data that may have been incorrectly transformed, through to a more significant flaw that would require a complete re-run of the whole conversion. Although unlikely, an entire re-run should be built into contingency plans just in case.

At the end of the day, a data migration is a team effort between law firm and software supplier and it is in everyone’s best interests to get it right first time.

These top tips are not an exhaustive list, but it is a very good starting point for firms looking for a new software solution and are planning a data conversion.


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