Power BI – Should it be your firm’s dashboarding solution?

Law firms are making investments in BI technology. Some are upgrading first-generation systems while others are allocating new budgets in order to run the firm more like a business. As with every technology investment, there are a number of choices, and the familiar name of Microsoft is present in this conversation, especially as it relates to visualization. Legal BI isn’t new as firms have been doing financial reporting for years with a handful of available tools on the market including Microsoft products (Excel/SSRS/SSAS), however, they also invest in technology for visualization as the current class of lawyers and financial staff demand dashboards to visualize the data in the office and on mobile devices. Current BI vendors offer a broad range of functionality and licensing – making it difficult for law firms to decide which solution provides the best combination of functionality and value. Adding to the confusion, there is a market of buzz around Power BI. Law firms are familiar with the Microsoft stack, and as more firms adopt Office 365 every user gets free access to a Power BI license. It’s natural for firms to ask, “Should we be using Power BI for our dashboard solution?”

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer. Power BI is a powerful solution, and Microsoft continues to invest. In my opinion, Power BI will become a compelling BI solution in the market. That said, I don’t see Power BI replacing existing dashboard solutions. Despite its flexibility and the brand reputation, its licensing model, coupled with the strict security needs of law firms makes it expensive to deploy and support.

Law firms require a dashboard solution that is highly performant including:

  • Providing access to all data through one interface for traditional and mobile experience
  • Ensuring that only the correct individual can see various slices of data (role-based security)
  • Delivering multiple forms of output (Excel, PDF, PowerPoint)

Power BI offers this functionality, and the product design is elegant, intuitive, and user-friendly. The main challenge is that some of the above features require an upgraded Power BI Pro license. Here are some of the features that require an upgraded license for each user:

  • Securing data within a live connection using roles (deal breaker!)
  • Collaboration/sharing features within Power BI
  • Creation of PowerPoint and other outputs

On the surface, Power BI Pro looks inexpensive at $10 per user per month. However, the costs add up quickly as a firm with 100 timekeepers would pay $12,000 per year just for the Power BI licenses, and then they need to make additional investments to build cubes and dashboard content. The Legal BI vendors typically have no “per user” license requirement, and they are offering out-of-the-box solutions that provide value on day one. Additionally, several of those vendors offer solutions that can be customized based on firm requirements. The Power BI Pro license requirement adds too much to the total cost of ownership, but that cost pales in comparison to the cost of using internal development resources.

For example, I attended a legal BI conference last year, and one of the presenters was the Application Development Manager for an AMLAW 200 firm. He proudly showcased his in-house developed solution based on Power BI. I will acknowledge that it looked pretty good based on the screenshots that he shared. After his presentation, one of the conference attendees asked him about the size of his internal BI team. He proudly responded that he was managing the team, and there were five developers and one business analyst working on the solution. Since they were based in a major metropolitan area, the fully loaded cost of their seven-person team was probably at least $700K/year. And that doesn’t even include the cost of the Power BI licenses! Most of the legal BI vendors offer solutions that are priced at a fraction of this annual cost. I think that this is a perfect example to highlight the real value of a Power BI based solution.

That said, I am a huge promoter and an avid learner of Power BI. Even though Power BI isn’t the tool I use to build client dashboards, I still find it can be constructive for consulting, and I encourage everyone working within Legal BI/reporting to become familiar with it. I cannot stress how many times Power BI has been useful to me – from being able to quickly show how a proposed solution will function, to delivering management presentations via a Power BI report set (instead of a traditional reporting package). Power BI helps to bring the data alive.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly easy tool to use. Its functionality resembles much of what Excel users are familiar with but with many more options for the types of graphics/visualizations at your disposal. And with each monthly release, Power BI is becoming easier to use, more efficient for rapid prototyping, and is improving the integration with the Office suite – making it a very appealing solution for many law firms’ needs.

So why use Power BI today?

  • Rapid prototyping
  • Experimenting with KPIs, charts, and animations to better visualize your data
  • Management presentations and client report packs
  • To keep up to speed with a solution that is disrupting the BI industry

It won’t be long before licensing evolves into a more cost-efficient solution for law firms, so firms would be smart to start becoming familiar with Power BI. The technology may not become your internal dashboarding tool, however, it can still provide value to your firm. As part of the Office suite, it allows for collaboration and data sharing. Power BI also provides a solid tool for ad-hoc reporting and creating dashboard mockups. For the time being, Power BI is unable to replace existing BI solutions for law firms… but it certainly offers users some useful and exciting features and benefits.

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