Laying bare the truths about data migration

Wednesday 23 March, 2022

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If a legal software supplier promises you won’t feel a thing during data migration, they’re lying. That’s according to Deborah Witkiss at Insight Legal. Although the impact of a software switchover can be minimised, it can’t be totally eradicated. Not if you want the job done properly.

In this article, Deborah describes how extraordinarily elaborate data migration is, along with what you can expect during a comprehensive data transfer and advice on spending any downtime wisely.

Data as your ‘warehouse’ and migration as a ‘jigsaw puzzle’

The data you hold tells a story of your business – its client base past and present, its accounting transactions, its financial reporting and its client relationship history. There will literally be thousands upon thousands of fields, columns and rows of data.

This data is your law firm’s lifeblood. It’s all the services you’ve sold and those you’re going to sell in the future. To use an analogy, it’s the equivalent of a manufacturing organisation’s warehouse and shop floor. It’s what your success has been built on and depends upon. Being so valuable, retaining this data in all its complexity during data migration is absolutely vital.

Therein lies the challenge. You see, no two legal software systems are the same behind the scenes, even if they bear striking similarities on the user interface. Where data sits in one, sits elsewhere in the other.

To visualise data in simplistic terms, draw upon another analogy and imagine your current dataset as a complete jigsaw puzzle picture. It first needs to be broken down into pieces. This is stage one of your data migration project – exporting existing data from your old system. These jigsaw pieces then need to be joined back together, but this time into differently shaped positions. This is stage two of your data migration project – importing data into your new system.

The role of your software supplier is to work out how and why each jigsaw piece fits together right now, then figure out how to make them fit into the new system. They’re trying to understand and manipulate something they haven’t written – the database. Yet, it can be reassembled to look the same if done by expert hands.

Data migration failure is a possibility

Let’s cut to the chase: Due to the enormously complicated nature of the task, data transfer can be disastrous if not sufficiently managed – not only in terms of data loss but also business interruption and costs. To explain…

Failure #1: Data loss

If your potential new software provider just feeds your data into a ‘machine’ and isn’t asking you in-depth questions about how you use your system and what data you store, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll lose data. Whilst the promise of a speedy switchover may sound appealing, you also need to be sure of maintaining quality. Having guided hundreds of clients through data migrations at Insight Legal, we’re well versed in the process and detect bad data transfers from a distance.

At the worst end of the spectrum, if your data migration culminates in PDFs of historical data, such as transactions on your ledgers, it’s information that can’t be unpicked, no matter how hard you subsequently try. Data falling into this category is lost to you forever. Not without being manually re-inputted, anyway.

We’ve already ascertained that data is a hugely valuable asset. It thus follows that lost data is damaging to your business. Without data, you’re unable to leverage analytics to make informed management decisions, track progress to identify trends and drive performance, segment data for marketing purposes, plus myriad other business development uses.

Failure #2: Disruption

Having established the unavoidability of interruption caused by data migration, it’s important to note that this is a necessary part of the intricate technique of moving data from one application into another. Rush it and the ensuing disruption will be greater in the longer term as elements of your data will be amiss or gone altogether.

A trusted supplier, however, will lessen the impact by performing migration thoroughly, following a defined schedule which utilises every minute, including downtime moments. You too can use the time judiciously by partaking in training and familiarising yourself with your new software. Interruption doesn’t have to mean a complete halt and it can provide the perfect opportunity for learning.

Regarding training, by investing downtime in learning your new product, it actually reduces disruption further down the line. Being able to navigate the software better will reap rewards once you enter the live environment as you can hit the ground running.

Failure #3: Extravagant expense

Costs vary greatly and don’t always directly correlate to the quality of data conversion support you’ll receive. In other words, you can pay eye-watering sums of money, tens of thousands of pounds in some instances, for mediocre migration. Don’t employ the usual strategy of ruling out the cheapest and most expensive, and opting for a mid-range quote based on cost alone. Seek clarification on exactly what it is you’re paying for upfront.

A further element of costs is licence fees for the system you’re swapping out. If you’re forced to carry on running it in order to keep your data, it’ll get extortionately expensive. Whilst you have data protection and retention obligations, as dictated by the SRA and ICO amongst other regulators, your supplier has responsibilities on this front. Issuing punitive charges, refusing to assist and holding your data at bay are deplorable, yet highly feasible, antics. Refer to your contract terms early on in proceedings so you know where you stand and prevent a dispute over data.

The same can be said of your new supplier. Examine your contract’s T&Cs so that you totally comprehend what you’re committing to from the outset of your partnership.

Data migration planning perfection

Now the facts of a ‘bad’ data migration have been laid bare, what does a ‘good’ data transfer look like? In truth, software houses will handle implementation projects differently. There are common standards to uphold – for those companies who are members of the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA), at least.

Conditions of LSSA membership are obeying its ‘Code of Conduct’, which outlines general and specific requirements around export and import of data, and adhering to its ‘Data Conversion White Paper’, which defines expectations for all parties concerned. It’s all about understanding the data fields within the incumbent and new systems, agreeing the level of data for conservation, undertaking a trial conversion prior to the live conversion, and, finally, ensuring data is deleted on the system you’re leaving behind once the new system is up-and-running.

At Insight Legal, we pride ourselves on possessing the expansive specialist technical skills to help clients successfully through the steps of data migration – from deciding the scope of data and outlining associated costs to conducting a test conversion, and resolving problems throughout and beyond.

The key phase is the data conversion trial. The most complicated datasets can take weeks, months even, to execute the trial. That’s because it’ll cover producing reports and analysing the database to verify the starting point, writing scripts for every piece of data to preserve integrity, presenting converted data for client approval, modifying the conversion process to fix issues, uploading final user-accepted data while simultaneously training staff, and achieving go live. You can see our tried-and-tested data migration methodology depicted in flow chart format at

If the trial seems lengthy, think about the longer-term disruption caused by data issues once you’re live.  With a diary packed full of meetings, court hearings and a plethora of additional commitments, your practice can become seriously unstuck if you find yourself in a situation where you’re ironing out data errors at a much later date.

Parting words of wisdom

To quote from the LSSA’s website, ‘Depending on the scope, data conversions can be complex and time consuming… requiring significant planning and usually a trial run to ensure the end result meets the customer’s needs.’

So, acknowledge that data conversion can’t just happen with the flick of a switch or be a week’s long exercise. It should be done rigorously as part of a systematic procedure, to an agreed timescale, with recognition of business interruption, and taking advantage of possible downtime for essential training, testing and refinement.

By selecting a reliable and reputable supplier, and making sure your current supplier handles data extraction and deletion as they have a duty to do, you’ll soon be on your way to fully operational with your preferred case management and legal accounts solution. Believe me when I say it’s worth the time and effort. Insight Legal’s performed over 600 data conversions from 50 systems, so I should know.