Wolters Kluwer’s ELM Solutions’ Margie Sleboda and Nathan Cemenska discuss the powerful world of dashboard software and how it can help companies analyze and improve legal spend and operations.

CCBJ: We frequently talk about how to use data and analytics in the modern corporate legal department. Why should dashboards in particular be part of that process?

Margie Sleboda: Dashboards present information in a usable manner, making it convenient and accessible in helping to drive decisions and strategies. We offer dashboards that can help corporate legal departments with best practices by efficiently displaying information.

Nathan Cemenska: Time is valuable, and attorneys need tools that provide the high-level information they need to make good decisions without having to get into the weeds. If you don’t provide that information in a useful way, people will rely on anecdotes and intuition, which can impair decision-making.

Let’s be sure we’re clear about the term itself. What exactly do we mean when we talk about dashboards in the context of the corporate legal department?

Cemenska: It’s computer software that’s like the dashboard of your car. It’s a visual representation of the information you need in order to get where you’re going. It might have to do with financial information about invoices you received from outside counsel, or the mix of matters you’re working on, who is working on them, what the status is.

Sleboda: It’s a data visualization tool – a way to see key performance indicators and business metrics at a glance, then drill into them. It’s very high level, but you can go granular and do a deeper analysis if needed.

What are the best uses for dashboards in a corporate legal environment?

Sleboda: We really want corporate legal departments to have a good understanding of their own data and what’s happening in their department. That’s the first level of a dashboard – seeing what’s going on and what’s aligned or not with the overall strategy. Then the next step is to measure and see what’s working. This involves asking questions about whether you are measuring the right things, whether you have the right metrics in your dashboard.

Cemenska: Dashboards are there to help you make decisions – like whether to cut a particular invoice or whether to adjust it. Whether to continue using a particular law firm. Whether to talk to a firm about the way a particular matter is being handled. Things like that.

What should legal operations professionals keep in mind when planning and designing their dashboards?

Cemenska: Less is more. If you include too much information, you’re going to scatter people’s attention, and they won’t know what their priorities are. What you exclude is just as important as what you include. The other thing is that it needs to be visually simple. You want it to be very clear and focused.

Sleboda: No one size fits all. You will probably need to develop separate dashboards for different audiences. The content depends on who is using it. Are they executives? Are they panel managers? What level of detail do they need? Too much information can be really overwhelming. Fortunately, when it comes to dashboard design, there’s a good deal of flexibility in terms of usability, such as color indicators, chart types, responses, that kind of thing.

Cemenska: There may be multiple audiences for a particular piece of information. Dashboards can be tweaked so that they are most useful, visually, for a particular audience – even if it’s the same information that’s being presented to other readers in a different way.

How should legal departments get started when creating their dashboards?

Sleboda: You need to assess the shape of your data – make sure it is in a shape that is consumable and usable. But don’t try to boil the ocean. Decide what is most critical, and start there – start measuring. And do it slowly. Do an iterative process, so that you’re testing the dashboard’s functionality at the same time that you’re testing the sort of content you might be working with, along with the different user types that need to consume the information.

Cemenska: Exactly. Start small. Just do one dashboard in the beginning, because it’s harder than you think. And you have to actually co-create it with your audience. You can’t just create it based on what you think is going to work. You have to show it to them and ask them if it’s working. You have to listen and do some critical thinking, because they might not even realize how much more the dashboard could be doing for them.

How do dashboards fit into the larger scope of legal project management?

Cemenska: I think of legal project management in two ways. One is managing a whole portfolio of legal matters – a situation where you have a large number of small legal matters. You can’t really individually project-manage all of them, but you can have a dashboard that helps you monitor the entire portfolio. The other situation is one where you’re dealing with a single very large legal matter – one that’s multiple millions of dollars per year in spend. You can have dashboards that are specific to that matter, because it’s so big that even a 1 percent difference amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially. And when you look at the risk involved, it’s usually much more than that. So it helps to have a dashboard that allows you to really focus and get down to the nitty-gritty.