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Jamie Pennington – The reason for information

In this latest in our series of guest blogs. Jamie Pennington, business coach and trainer for Professional Service Firms gives his thoughts on the importance of timely actionable information.

Information without action is useless

I first learnt this when I used to work in defence intelligence. It’s less glamorous than you might think, especially when your speciality is maps and geographic data.

But I did learn one thing: intelligence has to be used to be useful. Without action you are like somebody watching a film. You can see the protagonists. You can discern the plot. You can probably anticipate what may happen next. But you are a voyeur, not a participant.

So within Defence Intelligence, before we undertook any intelligence analysis, we would ask the question “if you knew the answer to this question, what would it enable you to do?” If the answer was “we’re not sure, we are just interested” the intelligence request would go to the back of the queue. We were looking for a clear “we need to know X by time Y so we can take action Z”

Now, twenty years after I left Defence Intelligence, data has become the new hot topic within law firms. And the challenge is similar – partners want information, but they’re not sure why.

Most of the intelligence available is numbers-based. Yet you will realise that lawyers are not naturally numbers people. Words yes. Numbers no. This means that few partners are really sure which finance numbers are the ones they need to run the business. As a result most firms give equity partners all the finance figures in the form of a monthly report. Few partners really read the data, but they’re reassured that the data is available. In the words the famous lawyer FE Smith “they are none the wiser, but they are certainly better informed”.

So the answer for most law firms is not just more data. The answer lies in providing the right data in the right format to the right people in a timely manner, so that those people can take action. The central question is therefore not “what data do we have?”, but “what do our partners need to know, on a weekly basis, to enable them to make more profit and create more satisfied clients?”

The rule of thumb is that partners should be given all the information necessary to run their own bit of the business more effectively. Equity partners (as owners) should be given firm-wide figures, probably monthly, but certainly at a lower level of detail. The aim of information is to enable wise decisions to be made.

Providing the necessary information a user-friendly format helps partners understand the data. Graphs and charts are best. Lawyers love words, but it’s not easy to turn financial data into text. The closest we come in accountancy is balance sheets and profit and loss accounts, neither of which are easy meat for lawyers. The best answer lies in choosing the right data – in conjunction with the partners who will receive it – and then providing that data in an easy to understand graphical format. It’s a dashboard, analogous to driving a car. It has the key data (speed, fuel, revs, battery etc) but not the whole engine management data.

Creating a dashboard is straightforward. Creating a dashboard which provides the right information, accurately, on time, in a useful format is not straightforward. Experience suggests that firms should provide an example to partners which they can tweak, rather than design from the ground up.

Firms should also consider whether their own overstretched finance team have the resources to provide the dashboard. Outsourcing may make a lot more sense, as your firm’s challenges are not dissimilar other firms’, and an outsourcer will have economy of scale when developing a solution.

Once the partners have the right data, in the right format, at the right time they need to take action. Getting lawyers to change their behaviour is not simple, but I will provide some tips and hints in my next blog.

Jamie Pennington – Pennington Hennessy

Jamie works with partners and their teams to enable them to be better at their non-lawyer roles: sales, leadership and project management.
He has worked with 25 of the Top 50 law firms, three of the Big 4 accountancy firms plus many smaller professional service firms throughout the world.

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