What strawberry Pop-Tarts and law firm data have in common

July 2014 Tech Translators

Strawberry Pop-Tarts - What does the iconic breakfast pastry have to do with law practice? Let's find out.

Walmart prides itself on efficiency. It recognized early on that in order to be efficient, it had to help its suppliers be efficient. To do that, it built RetailLink – a website that allows suppliers to track sales data and inventory across the stores that sell their products.

What RetailLink really helps suppliers do is look within, find patterns and adjust accordingly in order to steer clear of the whirlpool of irrelevance. Those who use the tool and look for patterns continue to succeed. Case in point: Kellogg's Pop-Tarts. Through RetailLink, Walmart and Kellogg's found a pattern: When there was a hurricane, Pop-Tarts sold out.

From a practical standpoint, that makes sense. Pop-tarts are a non-perishable item, and they don't require heating before eating. One can easily make the assumption that granola bars, bottled water and other non-perishable items also sell out when there are hurricanes. As we've learned from optical illusions and BuzzFeed quizzes, however, there is often more than one pattern.

For Walmart and Kellogg's, it wasn't just Pop-Tarts that sold well; it was strawberry Pop-Tarts. From this pattern, they can look for other patterns that also lead to success. For example, they can dig a little deeper and look for other weather-related patterns. Perhaps Pop-Tarts also sell well after a tornado, or other natural disaster. Perhaps, even, disasters of any kind result in increased Pop-Tart sales worldwide.

Pop-Tarts, then, are a pattern for success for Kellogg’s and for Walmart.

While lawyers may find that interesting, they often dismiss talk related to “big data” because they provide a service, not a product, so there is nothing to track. There is no inventory, no cost of manufacturing or other easy-to-measure data points to price a product and track its sales.

True, lawyers offer a service, not a product, but that service has data components. A fact that is often missed is that data can, literally, be anything.

For lawyers, data can include typical information such as hours worked. That can be broken down further into billable and non-billable hours. Data can also include number of active clients, number of potential clients, number of open cases, number of cases pending, trial duration, phone calls, discovery requests and any other task, event or interaction a lawyer has. Interactions create a sea of Pop-Tarts, so the trick is to find patterns – to find the strawberry Pop-Tarts.

An easy place to start: clients.

Every lawyer thinks he or she knows the top ten most profitable clients, and that is a data point that can be verified. Simply write down the names of those clients, and then look them up. If not all the names are in the top 10, find the ones who are.

Once a lawyer has a list, the task now is to dig deeper and find out what makes those clients the most profitable. Is it the amount of time spent on them versus the time spent on the least profitable clients, or those for whom time is written? Is the time spent on the most profitable clients spent well? What are the patterns that make them the most profitable clients?

Other places to start include identifying the fastest growing clients, the most consistent referrers, and the most profitable engagements. The more lawyers dig into their own data, the more they will learn not just who those clients are but what makes for fast growing clients, consistent referral sources, even most profitable referral sources, and most profitable engagements.

Once lawyers have found those strawberry Pop-Tarts, they can look for ways to replicate those patterns, ways to create a steady stream of profitable referral sources, and perhaps focus their time only on the most profitable engagements.

Finding patterns for success -- the strawberry Pop-Tart -- and then replicating them are how lawyers and law firms can succeed by using data.

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