A few weeks back, I read Chris Anderson’s book, Free which is also available free in a variety of formats, including a sponsored paperback and audio. I’d been meaning to write a couple of comprehensive posts about how lawyers might incorporate the concepts in practice but hadn’t been able to find the time. But biglaw firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe‘s recent release of a free term sheet generator and business form contracts (H/T to Start Up Toolbox) spurred me to toss out these preliminary thoughts on the concept of “free” and its impact on competition between biglaw and solo and small firms.
Let’s take Orrick’s term sheet generator as an example. On one level, Orrick’s free term sheet generators and business form contracts can be seen as a way of helping the competition. Orrick’s forms come without strings attached – there’s no cost to use the forms and no registration required to download them. Thus, lawyers everywhere are free to adopt the forms as their own and use them to serve their own clients.
But there’s a method to Orrick’s apparent madness. Orrick’s freebies help it capture a segment of the market which either couldn’t afford to hire Orrick or if they could, would not have been worth Orrick’s time. Consider the example of a small business — typically the type of client outside of biglaw’s demographic. The business might download and fill in Orrick’s incorporation form and then say to itself “I’ve already filled out the data. How much could it cost to pay an Orrick attorney to look this over?” Likewise, Orrick could charge far less to eyeball a completed form which it prepared itself then if the firm were to begin the incorporation from scratch (in which case, it would have to invite the client to the office, interview the client, gather the data and prepare the incorporation papers). Sounds well and good, until you realize that some of the clients that Orrick is capturing are those which may have previously used a local law firm for routine transactional matters.
Lawyers need to recognize that we are fast reaching a point where the kinds of forms that companies like LegalZoom offer – such as contracts, leases, incorporations and wills – may be available online to all for free. Moreover, the forms will have been prepared by, and made available directly from prominent law firm, thus vitiating the prevailing “you get what you pay for” criticisms that many lawyers level at LegalZoom. Indeed, this is exactly the danger that Susskind predicts for solos and small firms in The End of Lawyers? referenced here: the influx of low cost (even Susskind didn’t think free) alternative methods of sourcing by larger firms or alternative providers will drive costs down to the point that some solo and small firms won’t be able to compete.
In spite of the potential adverse impact of “free” on solos, I don’t oppose the concept. No matter the motive behind free (whether it’s sheer gratis or an effort to grab a share of market), I support any measure that increases potential clients’ choices and expands access to law. Rather than deride free or try to challenge it, we solos and small firms must educate ourselves about the concept of “free” and find ways to make “free” work to our advantage. Reading Chris Anderson’s book Free is a start, as well as Jay Fleischman’s suggestions for “moving the free line” over at Legal Practice Pro. I hope to add my own thoughts in a follow up post, but feel free to share your thoughts on free below.