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Practice Innovation

Want to Avoid Irrelevance? Put Data to Work

By Gwynne Monahan

At LexThink 2014, Gwynne Monahan started her six-minute speech on the given theme, “The End of Irrelevance,” with a creative analogy: Strawberry Pop-Tarts. What does the iconic breakfast pastry have to do with your law practice? You might be surprised. Here’s her take on how data can transform the way you look at, well, just about anything.

Walmart takes pride in efficiency. It recognized early on that to be efficient, it must help its suppliers be efficient. So Walmart built RetailLink and gave suppliers total access to information so they can track sales data and inventory across the stores that sell their products. RetailLink helps suppliers identify buying patterns and adjust accordingly. Those who use the tool to guide decisions continue to succeed.

Case in point? Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. Through RetailLink, Walmart and Kellogg’s found a pattern: Whenever there was a hurricane, Pop-Tarts sold out. From a practical standpoint, that makes sense. Pop-tarts are a nonperishable item and don’t require heating before eating. As we’ve learned from optical illusions and BuzzFeed quizzes, 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 that sold well. From this pattern, they can look for other patterns that also lead to success. For example, dig a little deeper and look for other weather-related patterns. Perhaps Pop-Tarts also sell well after tornados or other natural disasters. Perhaps disasters of any kind result in increased Pop-Tart sales, worldwide.

What Is Your Data?

You might be thinking, “Great, but I’m not Walmart. I have no product data.”

True. I don’t have product data either. But “data” can mean anything. For me, it’s thoughts. I track them in Evernote, where they’re tagged and sorted into categories that relate to specific “data points.” For example:

  • Books (because I read — a lot).
  • Lyrics (because there are always lyrics bouncing around in my head that often have meaning).
  • New (emerging thoughts).
  • Old (often destructive thoughts).

There are patterns within these, too.

Applying the Data, Or, Finding Your Own Strawberry Pop-Tart

It was my “old” thought patterns that caused a problem for me while playing softball last season. Everyone else at the plate hit better than me — even the less experienced players. That bothered me. If I can’t perform at the plate, I thought, I’m irrelevant to my team. If I’m irrelevant to my team, why am I even here?

Since my baseball stats demonstrated I wasn’t performing, I wrote down every thought I had whenever I stood at the plate, wondering if there was some connection. It turns out my hate-filled inner critic thrives when I pay too much attention to everyone else, and no attention to myself.

I knew I had to figure out a way to make my inner critic shut up. To do that, I needed to look deeper within my thought patterns to find my strawberry Pop-Tart. The data pointed to writing. My Pop-Tart. Looking even further, at the types of writing I do, I found my strawberry Pop-Tart: Documentation. The act of documenting and performing specific steps to achieve a particular goal removed the critical fuel — emotion.

So I tried an experiment. At each game, without the usual emotion, I talked myself through getting ready to bat:

  • Lining up door-knocking knuckles on the bat.
  • Lifting it to the shoulder.
  • Moving to the plate.
  • Lining feet a little up or a little back, depending on the pitcher.
  • Comfortable stance, sit a little.
  • Keep my eye on the ball.
  • Make contact.
  • Follow through on the swing.

I repeated this at every bat, one at-bat at a time. I got better. As the season wore on, I was hitting how I wanted. Once I stopped looking at what everyone else was doing, and looked within, I found patterns — one that needed to change and one that would help with the change. My strawberry Pop-Tart was the act of repeating specific steps to myself.

A Challenge for You

My challenge to you is to find your strawberry Pop-Tart. Block out all the chatter of innovation, change, reinventing law and other external factors. Instead, look within for patterns that work and patterns that need to change. Use what you find to make change.

To get started, write down who you think are your top 10 most profitable clients, then look each one up and see if you are correct. If they’re not your most profitable ones, find the clients who actually are.

Once you have your list, dig deeper. What makes them your most profitable clients? Is it the amount of time you spend on them versus time spent on the least profitable clients, or those for whom you write off time? Is the time spent on your most profitable clients spent well? What are the patterns that make them your most profitable clients?

Don’t stop there. Keep digging for patterns for success. Identify your fastest-growing clients, your most consistent referrers and your most profitable engagements.

Dig some more and learn what makes for fast-growing clients, consistent referral sources, even your most profitable referral sources and most profitable engagements. Then identify ways to replicate those patterns, ways to create a steady stream of profitable referral sources — and perhaps focus your time only on your most profitable engagements.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: The answer to avoiding irrelevance lies within your practice. Only you can look within to find the patterns for success.

Categories: Innovation, Law Firm Strategy, Managing a Law Firm
Originally published May 26, 2014
Last updated February 18, 2020
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Gwynne Monahan

Gwynne Monahan is a freelance writer and editor who follows the mantra: Write Well. Edit Better. Best known by her Twitter handle @econwriter5Gwynne follows consumer trends in technology, and how they may impact the practice of law. She helps connect the dots so lawyers can more effectively, and efficiently run their practices. Quick with a book suggestion, witty comment or a laugh, Gwynne also enjoys baseball, jazz, foods she couldn’t get in Canada (you’ll have to ask her) and the sound of the “L.” She earned her M.Sc., with honors, in IT and Privacy Law from The John Marshall Law School.

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