Data migration from one legal practice management system to another can be a difficult, potentially error-prone process that needs to be handled with extreme care and patience. Legal software vendors, in a rush to close deals, often mislead law firms, telling them that the data transfer is a non-event. Some vendors are much worse than others, as our team here at Rocket Matter has had to rescue many of their clients.
However, if you’re armed with some basic knowledge and have your expectations set, you’ll be able to approach a migration realistically and with confidence that it will succeed. Below are some questions and answers about legal practice management data migration best practices.
How hard is it to pull off a successful data migration?
Here’s the good news: successful data migrations are achievable. However, they are typically not easy. Or fun.
Let’s start off with a goal: When you move data from one system to another, you should end up with a set of information that’s cleaner than what you had in your old system. That’s what we aim to achieve here at Rocket Matter, and it’s a good goal to pursue regardless of what practice management system you choose.
For small law firms with little history and considerable tech-savviness, you might be able to take a do-it-yourself approach. But that’s the exception to the rule. For most firms with any significant operating history, you need to approach the migration with respect. You need a strategy, professional help, and time and resources to make it happen.
When we assist firms with botched data migrations (what we refer to as a rescue operation), they typically tell us that their legal software vendor told them that the migration would be simple. So here’s a good rule to follow: the more a vendor insists that your transition will be easy, the more likely they are to screw it up.
As Jeff White, our Chief Revenue Offer, stated on an episode of the 10 Minute Law Firm Podcast, “If anybody sells you on an easy transition, they’re selling you on something that’s just not a fact. This is like changing the oil on a running car.”
Should we move all of our law firm’s data over?
When you’re switching to a new practice management system, imagine that you’re moving into a new office: It’s a great time to get rid of stuff you don’t need and make sure everything’s nice and clean in your new setup.
Data works the same way. The cleaner your data is, the easier your transition will be (and the less it will cost). As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” So it’s a good idea, if possible, to get your old system in shape before the move. It will certainly reduce costs.
Typically, we advise migrating only active clients and matters with existing balances. Information related to those matters can be brought over as well, including documents, tasks, notes, and calendar events. We also suggest bringing over all of your contact records in order to perform background or conflict checks. If possible, keep the older stuff in one copy of your legacy system for archival purposes.
Be very careful about bringing over individual billable items and invoicing history. The reason for this is that migrating accounting information from one system to the next–unless they are straightforward balances-results in extremely complicated situations. To avoid the time delays and endless hours in excel spreadsheets reconciling two different systems, we recommend either engaging a highly qualified data consultant to extract and import this information or simply leaving this data be and referring back to your original system when needed.
How can I get my law firm’s data out of my old legal practice management system and into a new one?
Getting data out of the system can be done in one of two ways: the error-prone way, or the accurate way.
PC Law, Time Matters, Amicus Attorney, Tabs, and other legacy legal practice management software has internal databases that store and manage the information in the system. The right way to access this data is to work with professionals who understand how these databases are structured and have a holistic view of how legal data should be handled.
By doing so, you will end up with the cleanest, most accurate representation of your data that is ready to import into your new system. When you work with data professionals, your contacts will maintain their associations with their matters, billable information will be accurate and end up in the right place, and data relationships will be honored.
Should I manually export my law firm’s data?
The wrong way to get data out of a system is to manually export files. This is a very error-prone way of transferring information, as the exports will then need to be reimported into your new software without any guarantee that your data will be related properly.
To get data into a system, your best bet is to work with a professional that understands the data model of your new software. This could be the vendor itself or a third-party consultant who specializes in legal practice management systems.
Most cloud-based options have DIY import screens for firms that are transferring a small volume of information. Unless the law firm truly understands their data and where it will be located in the new software, these should be avoided.
My previous data migration failed and now we have a mess. Can anything be done about that?
In the case of botched data migrations, engineers can do forensic database work on the original system and the new botched system. After analysis, your professional can map out a plan for you to get back on track and get clean data.
These operations can be a bit involved and expensive, but the results resolve a potential crisis. The right engineer can not only help you move to a new legal practice management platform, but they can also clean up and consolidate your database into one great system.
How does data migration work with heavily customized legacy software?
It’s very common for law firms to have highly customized versions of Time Matters, Tabs, or other programs (even Outlook), that have been jury-rigged for the needs of the firm. In fact, there’s an entire industry of consultants that makes their bread and butter with these kinds of projects.
The simple answer: A good database professional will be able to get your custom information out of your legacy software. It can be transferred to the new system, but how you view or find that same data may be different.
To illustrate, Rocket Matter’s Business Intelligence module allows you to customize reports, which allow you to replicate data views that you’re used to. There are also custom storage fields associated with matters and contacts, which can store custom data from your legacy system. There are also general-purpose notes which can receive your custom information that doesn’t have a home anywhere else. Most modern cloud systems do something similar.
Will my new legal practice management software work the same as my old one?
It is important to understand that no new system will exactly replicate the workflows and visual screens in your old software. You’re going to have to learn new tricks, but ultimately you’re going to be solving the same problems. This tends to be more of a human resource than a technology issue, as many employees are resistant to change. If this is an issue or potential one for you, you might want to download our white paper How Managing Partners Get Bad Advice.
Can I import some data now, and other data later?
Aside from rushing the project, partial imports are probably the single biggest mistake you can make when migrating data. Partial imports cause a lot of problems because you can end up with data you don’t trust.
Consider the following scenario: in import #1, the client record for John Smith comes over into your new software. The law firm starts using the new software and adds billable time, tasks, and documents related to John Smith.
Import #2 comes in and a duplicate record for John Smith is added to the database, with what turns out to be more relevant information than the John Smith from the first import. You now have a polluted database that needs to be cleaned.
When you perform imports, you bring in thousands of records at once, and John Smith might be only one record among hundreds that are affected. Now you have a big mess on your hands, and you’re actively using the new software with major data inconsistencies.
The best practice is to import all your data first, examine it, and when you are comfortable, start using the new software on a coordinated firm-wide “go live” date.
How do I know if I’m working with a competent legal data migration expert?
If you’re working with Rocket Matter, we only work with people we trust with a deep knowledge of our system, databases in general, and major legacy players. Even if you have an unusual system, our experts can usually obtain the information from the database.
If you’re not working with us, your best bet is to rely on references. Get two or more quotes if possible, and keep in mind that this person does not have to be local. As long as they have an internet connection, they can perform the migration. So choose the best person possible for the job, regardless of location.
If you’re working with another vendor, make sure that they provide realistic expectations about the effort, time, and expense involved in your migration. If they (or anyone else) give you a quote without looking at your system, that is a very bad sign, as migrations can vary wildly in complexity.
Keep in mind our maxim from before: the more a vendor insists that your transition will be easy, the more likely they are to screw it up.
How much will it cost to transfer my law firm’s data to new a new legal practice management system?
When it comes to data migrations, you get what you pay for. High-quality professionals who can produce a clean set of data in a new system are valuable.
Several factors will affect your price, including the complexity of your situation, the volume of data (especially documents) you are transferring, and the cleanliness of your data. Prices can range from $1,500 for simple jobs up to the $20-30,000 range for complicated rescue operations.
If up-front costs are prohibitively expensive, your vendor may allow you to “finance” the migration by paying for it over a period of time.
Parting words regarding legal practice management data migrations
Migrations are tough but doable. And when you’re using a new, modern system, with a brand-new clean set of data, it will be well worth it. A few do’s and don’ts as reference:
Do: Approach the migration strategically with skilled partners.
Do: Remember this maxim: the more a vendor insists that your transition will be easy, the more likely they are to screw it up.
Don’t: Cheap out on your migration. You will get what you pay for.
Do: Clean your data before migration for bad data, duplicates, and information in incorrect data fields.
Don’t: Start using your new software with the migration until you’ve validated that all of your data is there and in good shape.
Don’t: Import the data in separate batches, unless you are not going to use the software between those imports.
Do: Request a preview mode for your new system as part of the migration process.
Do: Import all your data first, examine it, and when you are comfortable, start using the new software on a coordinated firm-wide “go live” date.
In conclusion, migrating your data from one legal practice management solution to another doesn’t have to be like pulling teeth. Follow the best practices outlined in this post, and you’ll be on your way to being productive with your new software in no time.