Data Don’t Vote – Disrupting Big Data


While recently watching the news I saw a segment on the 2016 Presidential election.  In this segment the reporter was asking a community leader in Detroit why Donald Trump won the State of Michigan after so much pre-election polling data had shown Hillary Clinton with a lead, in some cases substantially.  The community leader had a straightforward answer – “data don’t vote”.

This answer reflected back on our focus on data, sometimes ‘big’ data and analytics is used by many law firms in developing marketing, practice and billing strategies.  Firms collect, look at and rely on data and analytics to identify things like who visits their websites, profitability of matters, hours worked and billed by teams and practice areas and Partners.  They assess and extrapolate the data to make critical decisions regarding the future of the Firm, the future of practice areas, relationships with clients, billing practices (AFAs as an example), hiring, the future of Lawyers in the Firm and more.

While the data and analytics are useful and in some ways important in making these types of decisions, there may be an over reliance on data and analytics for answering all of these types of questions and providing a direction for Firms.

Instead of only pouring over binders of data to make these decisions, firms should consider adding the concept of ‘small’ data to the process.  According to Martin Lindstrom, in his book, Small Data: “{In customer research, small data is} “Seemingly insignificant behavioral observations containing very specific attributes pointing towards an unmet customer need. Small data is the foundation for break through ideas or completely new ways to turnaround brands.”[.  This concept fits well into the culture of law firm planning and management when considered along with the views of many CLOs that their outside counsel don’t adequately understand their businesses or needs.  At a minimum, there is significant anecdotal evidence that CLOs and GCs feel this way.  Why is that after years of this type of feedback?  It may well be that the answer to these issues is not always in the big data and analytics upon which Firms are relying, but rather it may well be in the behavioral observations and better understanding that Firms should have of their clients – the small data.

Many, if not most law firm Managing Partners, practice group leaders, relationship partners and CMOs pride themselves on periodic meetings with clients.  Sometimes it is an annual process with the Firm’s largest clients, sometimes it is at the end of a major matter, sometimes it is a casual call with a client and that is the extent of it.  The concept of small data would take this much further.

Lindstrom gives several examples of how the concept of small data and seemingly minor points led to interesting and breakthrough developments, including;

  • How a noise reduction headset at 35,000 feet led to the creation of Pepsi’s new trademarked signature sound.
  • How a worn-down sneaker discovered in the home of an 11-year-old German boy led to LEGO’s incredible turnaround.
  • How a magnet found on a fridge in Siberia resulted in a US supermarket revolution.
  • How a toy stuffed bear in a girl’s bedroom helped revolutionize a fashion retailer’s 1,000 stores in 20 different countries.
  • How an ordinary bracelet helped Jenny Craig increase customer loyalty by 159 percent in less than a year.
  • How the ergonomic layout of a car dashboard led to the redesign of the Roomba vacuum.

What does this mean for law firms?  Law Firms should spend less time focused on the data and invest more time in better understanding their clients, the industries that their clients are in, cultural changes that can impact their clients, cultural changes that could impact their clients legal team, cultural changes that may impact the law firm and the legal industry.

I have observed some limited focus on the small data concept in a few practice groups in firms in coming close to critical changes based on the concept of small data.   These practice groups seem to have some things in common that may be helpful to understand.

  1. Practice group leaders that reward innovation
  2. Ongoing and meaningful collaboration with clients, at all levels, from the GC to the junior lawyers.
  3. Ongoing and meaningful collaboration with all members of the practice team
  4. Practice group leaders who have an understanding of how even small unrelated events may be important and making an effort to observe and understand them.

The key though is in investing the time and having the interest in their clients and as part of that, small data.

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