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Legal Departments, it’s time to think the unthinkable - goodbye Excel

Excel has been on our desks for over 30 years – an astonishing feat in its own right - and in that time it has become the indispensable go-to management tool in thousands of contexts; including law firms. For a long time, Excel has helped many legal departments make sense of their data and help manage their departmental budgets.

In those 30 years, it has matured and expanded, but it is still fundamentally a broad-brush desktop data manipulation tool. And whilst it has all the familiarity and comfort of an old armchair, it may be time to think the unthinkable: perhaps that comfort is hiding the fact that the world has changed. Perhaps it’s time to look beyond Excel.

That will sound like sacrilege to some lawyers and legal operations professionals, but the key trend is undeniable: Excel is a victim of its own versatility. It comes from an era when specialist software came at specialist prices, making generalist packages like Excel a functional and economically attractive compromise. But cloud-based systems are now propagating into every niche – specific to that niche and therefore superior in design, functionality and user experience to the generalist option; all at a reasonable and predictable cost.

Fifteen years ago, sales leads might be tracked in Excel. Today, they will live in a CRM platform – the most notable being Salesforce. HR would list salaries and review dates in Excel, now the HR leaders are Workday and Workable. Even CFOs are getting replacements for Excel, from FinancialForce at the enterprise grade to Xero for small businesses. Almost every business function now has specialist tools designed for each role. Legal departments should not be the exception.

New tools are not just connected: they’re connected in real time, whereas Excel was designed at a time when data sat in isolated stores, on individual PCs. Now legal departments need to collaborate with law firms, CFOs and other departments but we don’t have time to email spreadsheets to each other. Each new version means the previous one is out of date – so someone is by definition always using the ‘wrong’ one. Errors creep in – sometimes dangerous ones (In 2003, Fannie Mae, the American federal mortgage business, accidentally overvalued their equity by $1.3BN because of a single mistake in a single cell in a spreadsheet). In fact, a whopping 88% of spreadsheets contain errors.

Yet because Excel is primarily a personal productivity tool, rather than a connected collaboration tool, we find ourselves doing more error-prone (and mind-numbingly boring) data entry than necessary – because sometimes it’s easier to just ‘start from scratch’ than chase down an existing spreadsheet or try to import data from an unconnected piece of software from another supplier.

More subtly, often only the original author truly understands the underlying mechanics of an Excel spreadsheet. As versions proliferate and users butcher templates for their own purposes, the propensity increases for errors to not just creep in but to become normalised. In this respect, Excel becomes a silent danger to the business: after all, it’s the errors we don’t spot that do the damage! And all the time, collaboration has never got off the ground.

With SaaS tools, however, there is one version of the truth. Data has only been entered once (usually by the person best qualified to enter it) and only into one system, because with APIs, your SaaS tools talk to each other. This data is always current and accurate, and updated in real time. Everyone can see the data presented in formats designed for their role, making dashboarding, business intelligence and decision-making much easier.

And when everyone’s looking at what is guaranteed to be the same data, in ways relevant to their role that allow them to have a meaningful discussion… that’s a true definition of collaboration.

Die-hard Excelistas will have their hands in the air right now. Excel via Office 365 is collaborative, no? So are Google Docs, surely? Well, they solve the real-time access problem, but they don’t guarantee one version of the truth. And that’s because they use the instinctive but outdated idea that collaboration means people working on cells at the same time. Yet anyone can still re-save shared documents, and anyone can rearrange data, formulas and columns, amending the integrity of not just the data but the underlying logic: Excel via Office 365 and Google Docs both still create “spreadsheet decay”. Whereas using our modern definition of collaboration above – the ability to use relevant views of real-time data to support meaningful decision-making – both still fall far short.

Excel is a tremendous productivity multiplier for the individual, but as a spreadsheet becomes more complex it becomes inherently more exclusive to that individual and more isolated from the modern needs of a business: collaboration, reliable real-time data and tailored surfacing of essential management information. Despite all this, many legal departments continue to try and track all their legal spend in a single spreadsheet, including matters in different currencies, exchange rates, write-offs, adjustments, and WIP statuses, hoping not to break the formulas or miss any data.

It’s hard to countenance giving up the comfortable armchair of Excel, but only through the lens of familiarity. The legal business is rightly conservative, but is consistently discovering the same SaaS tools that other sectors now treat as the norm. It’s time to think the unthinkable: for some applications, the demands of modern business dictate that it’s time to move beyond Excel.

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