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Hannah Gannagé-Stewart

Deputy Editor, Solicitors Journal

Beautiful data: analytics can help us ask ourselves the right questions

Beautiful data: analytics can help us ask ourselves the right questions


Reporting systems only give us poor averages about the likely cost or duration of a case, argues Alan Larkin as he mines client data for more accurate approaches

Stockholm, October 2018. I’m at the IBM University Analytics conference, sitting in on an analytics session, surrounded by data scientists. What possible relevance could data analytics have for English family law?

The journey that took me to Stockholm began two years earlier when I obtained a licence for the IBM Business Intelligence platform (formerly IBM Watson).

I had a large amount of data from a family law triage project covering 228 anonymised clients and I needed an analytics platform that could make sense of their various journeys in and around family law processes.

I wanted to see the ‘Big Picture’ by asking questions of the data that I hoped would deliver better outcomes for clients. Family lawyers provide bespoke services to individuals experiencing the unique stress of broken, or swiftly rupturing family relationships.

The focus is personal, particular and intimate. The very antithesis of the Big Picture. A family lawyer must collect information. Lots of it. This information is ‘hard’ like a bank account balance or ‘soft’ such as the level of marital conflict. Let’s call this information ‘data’.

The Big Picture is out of focus for busy family lawyers who concentrate on the pressing needs of each client. Imagine in a given year the significant volumes of data produced across a team’s caseload.

Patterns and stories 

I often remind my family law colleagues that they possess much more than simple biographical data. They are capturing the profound minutiae of relationships in transition: the disputed family home, the almost-forgotten prenup, the child with special needs, the insolvent business, and the suspicions of hidden wealth.

All of this locked away in Word documents, PDFs, emails, and spider-scrawl handwritten notes. Voluminous and beautiful data. There are patterns in this data. We cannot see it with our close gaze on the individual client journey. But with an analytics platform the data will show patterns.

These patterns become stories: stories that could make for better lawyers, leaner legal processes, more informed, engaged and empowered clients. The search for the Big Picture is not an indulgence or distraction from the lawyering day job.

Case in point: lawyers provide estimates of cost and time to clients, often based on broad assumptions about how previous cases have progressed. Some of those assumptions will be based on real data from that firm’s reporting system. Some. Even then, these may be little better than crude averages.

A reporting system may tell us the length of previous cases or profit costs charged. But it will not tell us why. What is the difference if there are four children instead of two? If the marriage is long or short? If the lawyers are dispute resolution specialists or dilettante dabblers? How might these barely finite variances drive costs outcomes? Can we turn insight into prediction?

Internal reporting systems can perform heroics if our ambition is to slice and dice debtor days or some-such fiscal belly-fluff. These metrics, born of accountancy rather than data science, invariably look inwards but very rarely out or up searching for a client.

Why, in view of all of the information lawyers hold on their clients, is it not possible to ask better questions of this data and obtain tailored answers for our hard-pressed clients? Better answers are needed to the perennial questions of “How much is this going to cost me?” and “How long will it take?”

The SRA has more than a passing interest in how we (mis)handle this. These questions deserve data-driven answers, not average costs or elasticated costs bands. Put your hand up if you have average clients with average lives, or average concerns, destined for average outcomes. Keep your hand up if you are brave enough to admit that to the next client who walks through your door. 

And so, in Stockholm, it struck me. I have divorced stockbrokers, accountants, financial advisers, and lawyers. But not a data scientist. And when I do, what will keep me awake at night is the thought of her opening my firm’s engagement letter and the inevitable phone call. “Alan, about that costs estimate. I have quite a few questions.”

Alan Larkin is a partner at Family Law Partners