Free stuff abounds for lawyers starting or running a practice. From document sharing platforms to conference call services to websites to legal research, the cost of running a law firm is nosediving. Free products are also proliferating; my current slide deck on free has nearly doubled in size since my last from two years ago. [Note: the practice management platforms are not free though most offer a free trial period)
But is free right for your practice? That depends. My own view is that free of any type can play a role in any law practice, but mileage may vary. Below are some rules on when free can work — and when it should be shirked.
1. Free always works for experimental use There’s a reason that companies offer free trials – because it gives potential customers an opportunity to try a product and decide whether they like it. In a similar vein, you can use the free products listed in my slide deck to determine whether they might play a role in your practice. For example, are you thinking about starting a blog? If you’ve never blogged before, it doesn’t make any sense to drop a few hundred or a few thousand dollars on a top of the line platform that you might never use. Instead, you’re better off starting a blog on a free site like Blogger or WordPress and bumping up to a paid professional design down the road if the blog takes off. Likewise, you may have toyed with the idea of offering online webinars for current or prospective clients or a client newsletter but didn’t want to make what could be a considerable investment in getting started. With sites like AnyMeeting or MailChimp, you can have a webinar or newsletter up and running in an hour, it’s truly that easy. Sure, the free versions have advertising support but again, if you decide that a newsletter or webinar series can work for the long haul, it’s just a click of the button to upgrade a relatively inexpensive, paid version of the product.
2. Free doesn’t work for mission-critical, core law firm functions Free works for experiments because by definition, they don’t involve mission critical tasks. By contrast, free fails for functions that are mission-critical to your firm. Mission-critical is a subjective, fact-specific standard; what’s mission-critical to a criminal defense firm or consumer law practice may be entirely different from what’s critical to an appellate shop or regulatory boutique that competes with large law firms. For example, a national appellant practice is likely to need top of the line legal research tools, whereas a state-specific transactional practice might reasonably rely on Google Scholar. A firm that wants to make published decisions, regulations or published materials available to clients could use Dropbox or a non-secure portal to share information whereas a firm that gathers social security numbers and other sensitive data would want a more secure platform that is going to cost something.
3. Free needs to work for clients Some free services aren’t particularly easy for clients to use. Not all clients use Dropbox, and in order to share a document privately, they need to set up a Dropbox account, thus adding an extra step to the transaction. Many (but not all) paid services are set up in a way that clients can be granted access to documents without having to go through extra steps. On the other hand, lawyers need to be prepared to educate clients on the risks of free. For example, Gmail is a great way to send email – but you don’t want your clients logging in from the workplace because doing so could strip their emails to you of privilege. In my own case, I’ve had to put my foot down when clients who wanted to exchange confidential energy-related information subject to various NDAs on Dropbox. Since clients are mission-critical to all law practices, making sure that free meets our clients’ needs is perhaps the most important rule of all.
4. Free should make you look like a professional, not a pauper Remember Vistaprint’s “free” business cards with the Vistaprint logo on the back? How much confidence are you going to have in a lawyer who can’t afford $50 to order a stack of business cards? Lawyers can use free to enhance professional presence or make themselves look more impressive with a suite of useful free tools. Or, they can make themselves look like paupers who may not be able to keep the lights on for the duration of their clients’ cases. If you can’t use free to look professional, then don’t.