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The Death Star.

That’s what former pro David Millar calls Team Sky’s giant, black team bus.  There have been team buses on the Tour for years, but when Sky’s arrived, it was bigger, blacker and probably better.

It’s all part of the improved platform Sky have brought to the Tour de France.  The third P after my previous posts about people and process.

Part of the platform question is about the bikes: Pinarellos, Shimano Di2, PRO finishing kit, F’izi:k saddles.  Part is the kit: Rapha clothing, Kask helmets.  All add up in the ‘marginal gains’ process of improvement.  That’s what you see on the riders on the road.

But behind the scenes and less visible are key parts of the platform – technology delivering the data that is central to Team Sky’s approach.  Data driven racing isn’t always pretty (Vincenzo Nibali, the Italian winner of the 2014 Tour, commented after attacking in a race earlier this year that ‘when the science stops, the racing starts’), but it can be very effective.

Data – what is available, what it means, and what it shows – has been a massive issue at this year’s Tour de France, because some journalists have analysed assumptions about Chris Froome’s data and speculated as to whether it suggests doping – chemical or mechanical.  Sky eventually gave in and released some of the data of heart rate, watt power output, vertical climbing speed, gear rations, cadence in an attempt to quell the speculation.  As I write this, it’s not clear whether this has been successful.

So, three things for law firms to think about from Team Sky’s platform approach.

Measure the important metrics and recognise the patterns of peak performance

One of the notable things about the data released about Chris Froome was not only that from one specific climb, but also how his performance on that climb compared to previous climbs in racing and training.  They fitted this performance into a pattern.

Much is made of law firms’ ability accurately to predict resources likely to be deployed, in order to price work accurately – both fixed fee and time-based. Investing time and effort in setting up appropriate phase and task codes by work type, so that future matters can rely on those for accurate forecasting and improve performance further, is key to being able to identify patterns and learn from them. Rigorously using them will deliver significant benefits.

Be transparent – but how far do you want to go?

When releasing Froome’s data, Sky commented that they were giving away some of their competitive advantage – if his rivals know his physiological limits, they can try to work out when and how to attack him.  I’m not suggesting that you give other law firms your metrics, but how transparent do you want to be with your clients?

Tell them who is doing what and when, of course.  If not on a fixed fee, tell them how much it is costing.

But whether you are on a fix or T&M, will you disclose your profit margin?  Law firms will say that these are notoriously difficult to calculate on a matter basis, as you can’t attribute overheads and lawyer salary costs per hour when lawyers work such variable hours.  Which of course is nonsense in many cases. It is possible to do the maths, it’s just that firms don’t always have the finance systems to do it.

More challenging is whether firms should be embarrassed of their 20-40% margins, where clients in infrastructure or retail for example will be operating on wafer thin single digit, sometimes fractional, margins.  It’s a question clients are starting to ask, and firms need to have an answer to it, especially when the differently funded and structured ABSs may well be disclosing this.

It is an arms race – but law firms don’t have a competition-levelling regulator

It’s long been the bane of cycling teams that innovation is stymied by tight regulations on what a bike should look like and how much it should weigh, in the interests of those teams which are not able to invest as heavily in the race.

Sky famously and unsuccessfully tried to use a motorhome for their team leader to sleep in this year, to get closer to guaranteeing a good night’s sleep.  Apart from the likely congestion on the roads of 200 motor homes, there was a strong sense that just because Sky could afford it didn’t mean it would be fair to all to allow them to do it.

It’s different for law firms.  Our regulators are there to protect consumers and to ensure competition.  Preventing some firms from falling too far behind and going out of business is not part of our regulators’ remit.

Each firm has to decide how and where to invest – in new offices? lateral hires? technology? professional project managers? – but no-one is going to pick them up if they fall on their noses from making the wrong call.

24 Jul 2015



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