Business & Financial Management

Getting Started With Matter Budgeting: What Is Old Can Be New

By Heath Fisher posted 04-05-2019 13:24

  

The 21st century has ushered in a taste for all things do it yourself, restored or re-purposed. As evidenced by pallet projects or pantry-raid recipes, the ‘stuff’ laying around your house or yard is now a vehicle for creative expression. Yet most professionals receive emails on a daily basis touting the capabilities of hot stove software taking the world by storm. The legal industry often seems unenthused about the prospect of solving problems internally, especially when out-of-the-box solutions are plentiful. Given the increased focus on managing client financial expectations the spike in the number of products dedicated to budgeting and matter management is no surprise. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine law firm leaders hastily committing six figures to implement a shiny new matter management platform then promptly flipping the channel to HGTV or DIY network when they get home. What gives? Risotto wasn’t initially created to be balled up, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried but nobody is turning that bite down. This begs the question: When weighing solutions to complex business problems why do we overlook the potential of existing tools? Seriously, lanterns made from cheese graters are en vogue. So before diving into an expensive matter budgeting remedy, let’s take a hard look at how firms can leverage technology already in place.


Obtain Representative Data

A reliable estimate starts with an apt comparison to recently completed work. So imagine a scenario in which you know of the perfect representative matter involving the same type of work and the same timekeepers.  Now you’re left to contemplate the best approach to getting your hands on time and billing data. The path of least resistance is likely running a report from the front-end of your time and billing software. In many cases though, report output may not lend itself to modification even if exportable in Excel .xlsx or comma-separated values format. The most surefire way to get at the coveted raw data is to query the tables that house time and billing records using SQL Server. But even those who are not familiar with Structured Query Language could retrieve records by linking time and billing tables in a Microsoft Access database and using Open Database Connectivity to execute queries. Securing the blessing of information systems leadership is crucial as you will need to obtain credentials to link tables in Access.


Enhance and Enrich

The majority of law firm professional staff should be familiar with Excel, including some of the various formulas and functions designed to help users spruce up raw data. SumIf and Vlookup functions are far from exotic but prove valuable when analyzing multiple sets of data bound by a common denominator like matter number or unique identifier. However the true value of using Excel lies in the ability to transform query results into a meaningful, legible, aesthetically pleasing deliverable. How? By creating a Gantt chart or pivot table to slice data and convey rolled-up financial values at the intersection of multiple variables. For instance, a practitioner could be interested in hours by attorney rank separated by month. A pivot table can instantly morph hundreds of time entries spanning an entire year into an easy to digest table or graph highlighting both fees and leverage. Monitoring hours and matter value incurred by the firm while keeping in mind the financial expectations set with the client is crucial, but tracking progress toward an expected outcome or resolution is equally important. In fact, the two are codependent. Enter the Gantt chart, accessible in both Excel and Microsoft Project. This tool can be used to intertwine duration, progress, resources and financial status thereby painting a comprehensive budget picture. Excel add-ins and additional products like the ultra-affordable Microsoft Power BI can further enhance the capabilities of the aforementioned Microsoft Office Suite products.


Foster Dedication via Alerts

The old adage “best laid plans often go awry” holds especially true in legal tech and the business of law. How, then, can professional staff elicit a commitment to actively monitoring budgeted matters? Through a combination of periodic summaries and special alerts. Time can pile up quickly when in the throes of complex litigation so weekly summaries alone may not get the job done. If you want to generate special alerts when a matter eclipses a certain dollar threshold, your first stop should be your time and billing system. The software may have work in progress or billing alert capabilities that remain untapped. As for the periodic summaries, SQL Server Reporting Services might be the ticket. When used in connection with time and billing tables, this Microsoft software can prepare and deliver reports via email as either an attachment or HTML report embedded in the email body. To top it all off, the reports can be pre-scheduled to run and distribute automatically and the timing and recipient possibilities are endless. Make an effort to restrict the level of detail on the report to put a client-friendly instrument in the attorney’s hands as frequently as necessary. Alternatively, firms can empower their business professionals to be responsive to client billing contact requests. With minimal effort from a savvy staff member, Visual Basic for Applications can be used to endow any end-user with the ability compile formatted excel reports with one click. Crafting a Microsoft Access form to capture pertinent data like date ranges or client matter numbers will allow the user to further customize the report. Finally, enlist the help of an IT professional to put a restricted version of the resulting Access database on your firm’s intranet to manage permissions and administrative rights.

Hopefully you can utilize the above tips to bolster matter management efforts. Before committing to new software and embarking on a time-consuming implementation, gather IT and business professionals for a thorough assessment of existing products. The technology already on-hand might just offer the best solution for your budgeting problem.

Do you have a go-to preexisting tool or low cost recommendation for creating quick and dirty or even sophisticated budgets, matter plans or alerts? Share your thoughts, tips and tricks below.


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