Forum Magazine: The Data-Driven Practice — Rodney Miller of Alston & Bird

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Rodney Miller is director of Business Information Governance at Alston & Bird LLP. He took part in a panel on governance at the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute’s Emerging Legal Technology Forum in Toronto. Afterward, he sat down with Forum to discuss the changes coming to law firms because of the increasing value of data and data management in the practice of law, and the increasing importance of professionals who understand data in the industry.

“What am I Going to Do at a Law Firm?”

Rodney Miller did not have a career in the legal industry in mind when he started out. He began as an IT consultant with Boeing Information Services, working on projects for the military and the defense industry. He later switched to telecommunications consulting. When the tech downturn began in the late 1990s, he was looking for a more permanent, less project-based home, and a headhunter found him a role at Alston & Bird. At first, he was unsure: “What am I going to do at a law firm?” He had no idea what the technology environment would be there, but it turned out to be perfect timing – law firms were starting to bring in more enterprise data-based systems and needed support for all that technology.

In the process, Miller says, he started to “learn where all the treasures are buried. I’ve been around and touched on so many aspects of operations and the practice of law that it’s just scary sometimes,” he says.

In the beginning, there was a clear divide: “There were the lawyers, and there was the administrative side. And that was culturally a bit of a change,” he says. “It wasn’t just Alston & Bird. “Many firms back then were very clear-cut in terms of roles and responsibilities.” Even so, Miller took a proactive stance and raised his hand if he thought he could solve a problem, regardless of which side of the house it affected.

“I’ve been around and touched on so many aspects of operations and the practice of law that it’s just scary sometimes…”

Turning Points

In the first several years of his tenure the firm, like many others, struggled with slow adoption of technology. Few firms wanted to move ahead with new technologies if they didn’t see peers doing the same things. But two shocks to the economy – the 9/11 attack in 2001 and the recession in 2007-08 – meant “everything changed.”

“Suddenly everything about how we practiced law and how we provided service to our clients was different. We had to do more with less, be more efficient, understand new competitors and learn that clients had the final say.” All of this led to a great need for lawyers to have more mobility and to access solutions, often on mobile devices, that had at-your-service reporting. “And at the same time, the technology evolved so that business intelligence and analytical reporting could suddenly be delivered much faster. And most importantly, our lawyers started seeing more commercial applications around them and started to ask, ‘Why aren’t we doing that?’”

Data, Data Everywhere

“When you understand that the primary purpose of your business as a law firm is analyzing data, that’s when you start to see it as an asset. Whether it’s a deposition, or corporate transactional work — you’re analyzing data to make decisions,” says Miller.


Rodney Miller of Alston & Bird

The challenge, however, is that law firms have all this data at their disposal, but it’s in various segments and corners of the firm and it’s all disconnected. “There’s no clear understanding of how the operational data or the work product data can be leveraged to make it more intelligent or predictive or efficient.”

A key value in Miller’s role overseeing data governance is his ability to see all the firm’s data and where it resides. And he can see the challenges that different groups – whether on the practice side or on the administrative side – are having in accessing and leveraging that data. “My team can act as a conduit for many departments and practice groups, because we have access to and ownership of this data. It’s easier for us to see things than it is for a department head in HR or business development, because they don’t know if we have the data we need, or where it resides. So, the beauty of my job is that I can reach across those groups and find a comprehensive solution for all that data.”

Consultant Mode

To get data-centric solutions in the hands of his firm’s users, Miller explains, he goes into “consultant mode.” He takes as an example the firm’s business development and marketing operations. A centerpiece of that operation is putting together pitches and request for proposal (RFP) responses – work that involves practice groups, business development people, financial professionals. And they need all kinds of data – work product, financial data, relationship data. They need commercially available data, as well as data generated inside the firm.

“My job is to just sit down and understand the workflow process that goes into these activities, and then try to automate it as much as we can and identify the data points or data repositories that they will need to build the right reports and analyses. This ‘consultant mode’ is really about work process improvement and data allocation. And we do this with business development teams, we do it with processes within the practice groups, and in the litigation team. We try to be innovative and understand the user experience, because that’s different in all these various contexts, depending on who you are talking to.”

“When you understand that the primary purpose of your business as a law firm is analyzing data, that’s when you start to see it as an asset.”

New Revenue Streams, New Models

He acknowledges that lawyers in the firm are advancing in their ability to think of data as an asset and to build a “data mentality.” But that’s stage two or three, he says. The first real breakthrough comes in understanding what data the firm has. When they know what’s available, they start to think, “What other data is here that I can leverage as a revenue stream?”

This kind of understanding will be increasingly important as the billable hour ceases to be the primary way of charging clients. With data, you can do an analysis on margins based in billable rates vs. margins based on fixed rates with data-driven efficiencies. The data will drive an understanding of billing structures that bring down costs for clients but hold up margins for the firm. “All this comes with an understanding of the data itself – where it’s housed, and what questions it can answer.”

A Cultural Shift

As lawyers get used to thinking about data in new ways, Miller expects a cultural change to occur. “This old bilateral alignment of the operations side of the house versus the lawyer side is changing drastically. There needs to be some hybrid form of services and expertise that speaks to the business of law more innovatively. There will still be lawyers, and technologists, and other types of professionals working in their realms. But if they are not on the same page and speaking the same language in the middle, then there will be a world of hurt in trying to effectively render these solutions.”

In Miller’s mind, it all comes back to using that language to understand the data generated by the firm. “I’ll say data probably 100 times because I think it always comes back to data no matter who is doing the work.”