Business analysis in the legal sector

You could be forgiven for thinking there is no such thing as business analysis in the legal sector. While there are now many BAs working in the industry, you won’t often hear them spoken about. The BA role rarely gets a mention in the Legal industry press, is often narrowly limited in its remit and deployment, and now faces stiff competition from new and exciting roles growing up in the burgeoning ‘LegalTech’ sector.

In this post, I’ll look at the challenges the BA profession faces in the legal sector, where these come from, and what could be changed to unlock the full value of the role.

An image showing two people meeting and looking at a laptop. Perhaps this is an example of business analysis in the legal sector?

What’s the problem?

For much of my career as a business analyst, I’ve worked in the legal sector. In 2007, a forward-thinking IT Development Manager took a chance on me (coming as I did from Financial Services), and I found myself as the sole BA at a Bristol law firm. As it turned out, I was one of the very few BAs working in the legal sector at that time.

Since then, I’ve seen more and more law firms engage business analysts. Most firms of any significant size are now likely to have at least one. According to IIBA UK’s 2020 survey, the legal sector now employs around 2% of the nation’s BAs! Yet it seems the role has yet to achieve its full potential in terms of value generation or recognition. I believe there are a number of indicators that demonstrate this:

Business analysis in the legal sector is limited to IT projects

This issue is a pet peeve of mine!

Business analysis is a lot more than just gathering IT system requirements, and yet business analysis in the legal sector is almost always based in the IT department. Rather than being a tool for the firm as “customer”, the role functions as a buffer for the “supplier” – IT. There are a whole host of activities within the role that BAs in legal will rarely be invited to perform – strategic analysis, problem exploration and definition, process and service design, solution evaluation (including business case development), benefits management: the list goes on!

As an added challenge, BAs are frequently kept away from much of the actual legal activity performed by lawyers. They will instead be tasked with projects that deal with supporting operations such as document management, billing, or implementing a new CRM. On the occasions that BAs are brought in to look at legal operations, they will often be treated as “order takers”, and expected to simply translate requests into system requirements.

As a profession, we actually come armed with approaches, tools and knowledge to get stuck into the detailed workings of legal processes. Firms can unlock real value by directing their BAs to work with lawyers on the things their customers are paying for!

Off-the-shelf-products don’t encourage out-of-the-box thinking

Many of the systems used within law firms are bought “off the shelf” and then configured or customised. These include practice management, time recording, document management, CRM, digital dictation, and knowledge management. For the majority of these, firms will either adapt their ways of working to the new system, or they’ll pay the supplier to tailor the system to the firm’s needs.

Rarely will a business analyst be tasked with facilitating a root-and-branch re-design of the business processes in question – and senior stakeholders may have no idea that they could ask for this support. If the firm is lucky, the new software forces some best practice ways of working.

The one area that BAs may get involved in process design is in the development of case management workflows. Many large law firms will have teams dealing with high-volume, low-value cases (such as whiplash claims), and will essentially put the legal process “on rails” with workflow tools. As mentioned above, BAs are not often being invited to think creatively here – instead they are called upon to simply document designs.

Immature business change practices

While there has definitely been a maturity growth in IT development practices – particularly with some strides towards Agile practices – wider business change practices are a long way behind other industries. This means business analysis in the legal sector lacks the rigorous contextual setting that comes with mature change practices.

Some of this may in part be down to the structure of law firms. Most law firms have a partnership structure, and while they may elect a Managing Partner or other leadership roles, the command-and-control structures are rather more nebulous than say, an insurer or a bank. Decision-making requires more consensus-building among the owners, and therefore strategic planning is often less straightforward.

This filters down: it’s harder for firms to decide which initiatives to prioritise, or to evaluate which programmes and projects will really help the organisation meet its strategic goals. Change practices around choosing the right problems to solve and selecting the best solutions can end up being simply a case of “whoever shouts loudest”. Initiatives are only treated as projects once IT are brought in. The company’s portfolio of change only exists in written form as a collection of IT deliverables.

Benefits realisation – actively monitoring and measuring the real value created from implementing changes – is rarely undertaken in any depth, and there is often little accountability for showing that a project really brought the expected benefits.

Other roles in Legal are now doing business analysis

The LegalTech sector – law firms, developers, innovation hubs, and consultants creating new technology solutions to transform how legal services are provided – is a massive growth area in terms of investment and new jobs. Lawyers are learning skills in app development; firms are creating in-house hubs to foster innovation; coders are partnering with knowledge managers. Here in Bristol, the sector is growing rapidly, and some really exciting ideas are being generated. New job roles, such as ‘legal engineer‘ are being created. These roles typically sound a lot like the role of a BA!

An image of a man thinking, or possibly innovating.

Despite the fact that a whole industry is growing rapidly around understanding problems and creating innovative solutions, ‘business analysis’ does not get a mention. The same skills are being deployed, yet nobody is talking about things in ‘business analysis’ terms, and BAs are not being invited to the party – even when the innovation is happening in the same building!

Salaries

As a general trend, non-lawyer roles in law firms are not very well paid. The role of business analyst is no exception. I’ve seen BA vacancies advertised at ~£20k less than identical roles in industries such as Financial Services. This is no doubt a reflection of the other points I’ve discussed above. The average BA salary in the UK currently seems to be around £45k. BA salaries in the legal sector don’t come close to this. As an aside, legal engineers are typically well above this range though!

This squeeze on salaries is counter-productive. It discourages more experienced business analysts from joining firms and bringing their skills and knowledge to tackle the problems lawyers (and their clients) need solving. Those BAs that are working in law will often take their talents to a more rewarding industry.

So what needs to happen?

This may all sound rather pessimistic! However, I think to some extent the Legal world is simply 10-15 years behind other industries with regards to its understanding of business analysis. The lot of the BA in Legal could well improve, but there are some changes that may nudge things in the right direction…

  1. Champions for business analysis in the legal sector. There are some great BAs out there, and some leaders that truly ‘get’ how the role can help. Their voices need to be heard by decision makers! That means talking on LinkedIn or the industry press. We need case studies!
  2. Law firms need to place BA more roles outside of IT and closer to where strategic decisions are made.
  3. Consider more attractive salaries. Hiring a quality BA pays for itself again and again!
  4. Get business analysts involved in innovation. They’ve got all the skills you need to engage with customers and other stakeholders and facilitate idea generation and solution-finding.
  5. Get business analysts talking to clients. Every law firm wants to get closer to its client’s goals and needs. This is a space where BAs can really come into their own – partnering analysts with lawyers to engage directly with clients could create massive value for firms.

I’ve been really lucky; I’ve worked with some people that really understood what good business analysis can bring to a law firm. Some of these have worked within IT, while others have been lawyers or leaders. They’ve supported my career and development, and the practice of business analysis within their organisation. In turn this has helped them generate value for their firms and their clients. This hasn’t been typical of the industry as a whole though, and it feels firms (and BAs!) are really missing out.

I’m really keen to hear others think – if you’re a business analyst working in the industry, does this chime with your experiences? Maybe you’re in a different role within Legal and see things quite differently.

Feel free to leave a comment below, or get in touch if you’d like to discuss anything you’ve read here.