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The Migration Consideration for Law Firm Data

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Migrating data can feel overwhelming, but it’s a necessary step in making helpful improvements with legal tech — learn the essentials so you can navigate toward better systems in your law practice.


This article was written by Roberta Tepper, lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, and Laura L. Keeler, practice management advisor at LCL Massachusetts, and originally appeared in The Leadership Issue (November/December 2021) of the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine.

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As our offices reopen, lawyers may be thinking about upping their tech game to better suit their needs. If we’ve learned nothing else in 2020and 2021, it is that choosing and using the right technology is vital. We approve but know that new is not always better. To help you on your journey and avoid the “ugh, what have I done” moment, we’re exploring data migration and related issues. 


Getting Ready 

You cannot wake up one morning and decide to go live with a new system or new software in an instant; nor should you shop for new technology on a whim. If your goal is success, you’ll have to do some homework first. You must plan to dedicate time, energy and most certainly money to this effort. It may be an existentially painful exercise as you consider and reconsider your processes––what you do and how you do it––but it’s necessary for your new technology to work the way you intend.   

There are quite a few issues to consider. To avoid missing anything vital, we spoke to Allan Mackenzie, 2021 TECHSHOW co-chair and legal tech consultant, who helps lawyers and law firms transition to software that will best serve their needs.  


Getting in the Weeds 

Every rose has a thorn. It’s easy, right? Move all data into a new system. Well, that’s not the way it works. While your professional life will work more easily, data migration is complicated. Vendors may tell you that their price includes data migration, or that their consultant will handle it, or assure you that all data will transfer flawlessly––but caveat emptor. If it sounds too good to be true, it may be. A call with their tech team rather than a salesperson may avoid problems later. If you have IT help, have them on that call. If you are going to use the vendor’s certified consultant make sure you know if there is a cost and build it into your budget. Certified consultants may be worth their weight in gold, but you need the gold. 

What constitutes data? Data can be a generic term, so you need to know what is meant by using that word. Does data mean documents, files and contacts? Does it also include metadata, histories and the connections between individual pieces of data? It can be the difference between organized matters and chaos. 

How much data will you bring into your new system? Should you start fresh, leaving behind all “old” data? Or import only some data, and if so, how much? If you leave data behind, remember that you’ll still need document storage for a time based on statutory or rule-based requirements, possible discovery issues, and professional responsibility and/or liability issues; and yes, you’ll still need backup for all of that. Know how much storage you are buying; is it truly unlimited, or if not, what is the cost for more storage? 

NOTE: Being told that your accounts receivable will transfer may mean that only the balance due will migrate; your accounting/payment history may not. Be sure you understand what historical data will come over into the new accounting function. 

You may decide to not initially migrate all data. It may be preferable to maintain document storage for closed files and then migrate that data in a second phase. This is a good time to dust off your document retention schedule and, within the bounds of the law and ethical rules, clean up your files. For example, if your ethical rules permit you to delete (destroy) duplicate copies or drafts, this is not data you should migrate later. While migrating more data isn’t necessarily more expensive, depending on the document management system you use, there may be a cost to getting it organized. 

How is your data organized? While you may take disorganized data with you into a new system, you shouldn’t. Why perpetuate the mess? If you’ve been storing data in a variety of (perhaps haphazard) systems, you’ll need to impose uniformity before you can efficiently migrate data into a new system. Transferring data from multiple systems may be more difficult, or impossible, so be sure you know where the data you are importing lives. Then you will have to get organized by using staff (human capital), working with your new vendor (time) to make sure your ducks are in a row, or by hiring someone to help you (financial capital).  

NOTE: Make sure you understand how your new system organizes data. Is it on a matter level or a client level? In other words, will all matters you have with client Smith each be individual matters in your new system, or will they be a single client file in your new system. This is important for time and billing, among other functions, particularly if you bill by matter.  

Email anarchy. Does each current user organize their email the same way? The same folders, the same organization system, the same retention strategies? We are going to venture a guess and say no, and we think we’ll be right most of the time. Chances are that each user set up their email boxes/folders to suit their individual styles. When migrating data from more than one user, this situation can make it difficult to find all the data and be sure it ends up in the right place in the new system. 

It’s all in a name. It is important to understand how each system handles file names. Some systems have folder, file or path name character limitations. The path established by your current system may be too long to be easily moved into your new system. If that is true, one of the preparatory activities you will have to accomplish will be renaming files and folders so that the new system will be able to accept them. This is a task for which you should consider using that certified consultant.  

Come together, right now, over me. When changing systems, everyone should switch at the same time. Everyone should be accessing the same files and documents from the same system rather than having some still working in the old system and some in the new. If everyone is not in sync, you’ll end up with a variety of versions in different systems and start with a mess. Isn’t that what the new system is supposed to avoid? If you are initially moving only open cases to the new system, and old closed cases remain in “cold storage,” limit access to the old cases so that no one can alter anything in what is now your archive.  

Training. While this should seem obvious, the extremely user-friendly interfaces now available may give us a false sense that we know all we need to know. Make time for training––whether you are a true solo and it’s just you, or whether you have a large firm full of lawyers, paraprofessionals and administrative staff. Learning all about the new toy into which you’ve just invested time and money is key to being sure it works well for you and your firm for a long time to come.  

Create a guide. Can anyone look at the data structure you’ve established and understand where all data is stored? No? Then create a guide, a reference index (which will, by the way, be a great training tool going forward), so that you know where, let’s say, incoming correspondence not from a client is filed. Is it in correspondence? Is it under some other tab or category? Decide on an organizing scheme that works for you and make sure you it is documented. When it comes to data, order and consistency are good and will make your migration experience better. 


Data migration is not an insurmountable problem, but successful data migration requires considerable planning, time and organization to accomplish your intended goals. Don’t hesitate to seek out qualified help to assist or get you started on the right path. 


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Roberta Tepper is the lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, where she advises lawyers on all aspects of practice management including legal technology. She serves on the Law Practice Division Council and on Law Practice‘s editorial board.   

Laura L. Keeler serves as a law practice advisor for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. She enjoys exploring innovation and evolution in law practice management and technology, a passion fueled by ABA TECHSHOW. 

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©2021. Published in The Leadership Issue, Vol. 47, No. 6, November 2021, by the American BarAssociation. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

CATEGORIES: Law Firm Management | Technology

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