What Does the “Good Enough” Phenomenon Mean for Solos?

There’s been a discernible silence in the legal blogosphere over Robert Capps’ recent article, The Good Enough Revolution:  When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine from Wired.com.  Perhaps it’s because uber-trendspotter Jordan Furlong wrote about the Good Enough trend a full year ago and the topic is already yesterday’s news.  More likely, lawyers haven’t been discussing this issue because we’d prefer to avoid acknowledging that sacred legal services can ever be “cheap and simple” because that would lead to competition based on price and a race to the bottom.

Or would it?  Because my take away from the Wired article isn’t that cheap and simple means compromising standards.  Rather, at the core of cheap and simple is to deliver value by providing the key features of a product that matter most to consumers. That’s why, for example, consumers favor the ubiquitous Flip Camera over pricier versions with higher picture quality and more features:  the Flip lets people easily and conveniently share and post videos that previously remained unviewed and unloaded off their cameras.

And in the legal world, that’s why online, unbundled services are gaining traction.  As ABA Legal Rebel Richard Granat, who’s quoted in the article explains, online services don’t address every contingency, but for a majority of cases — shareholder agreements, uncontested divorce or wills — they’re good enough.  For that reason, Granat predicts that “Elawyering will be mainstream in three years…in five years, if you’re a small firm and don’t offer this kind of Web service, you’re not going to make it.”

Still, it’s not enough for lawyers to simply slap together a couple of forms from the Internet and hold themselves out as providing online services.   The quality bar for cheap and simple continues to ascend and customers now expect more even when they pay less. Take the $25 buses that serve the northeast corridor, giving commercial providers like Amtrak and Greyhound a run for their money.  These days, they’re improving their value even further, offering conveniences like free WiFi, cold water and online ticketless sales.  Likewise, consider the new Headway Premium Themes for blogs created by Clay and Grant Griffiths (who, in disclosure, is a friend and colleague but no affiliate fees here).  Headway lets novices easily build and customize robust, professional hybrid website/blogs for the cost of an $87 license.

So, what lessons should solos understand about cheap and simple?  Here are my thoughts:

1.  Cheap and simple isn’t synonymous with cheap or cheesy, especially if the costs of moving up a notch in quality are incremental. So, if you want to set up your own blog on a free server like Blogger or WordPress.com, pay the $6.95 a year for a domain name to forward to the site to avoid broadcasting that you’re using those services.  Similarly, for most collaborative, document hosting products like Google docs or Zoho, it costs just a few dollars a month to move up to a level that affords enhanced security.  Indeed, in many cases, failure to spend just a tiny amount to get a lot more may convey laziness or lack of tech savvy.

2.   Cheap and simple means volume, plain and simple. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of cheap and simple legal services in appropriate cases.  More than four years ago, I urged lawyers to find ways to compete with the low cost, non-lawyer document generation services rather than cede the low-end market.  But, make no mistake – if your business model relies entirely on low cost cases, you’re going to have to run a volume business to earn good money.

Consider Naftoli and Lapin, the lawyers profiled a few months back in the National Law Journal for their online, unbundled services for entrepreneurs.  The firm charges an average flat rate of $600 for various corporate services (other services may cost more or less) and according to the NJL article, the two partners handled 250 matters last year, meaning 20 clients per month.  That’s a total of $150,000 per year with 20 percent going to overhead, which means that each lawyer earned…$60,000.  Now as a side or part time business, $60,000 per partner is a nice take, particularly for routinized work that probably isn’t very time consuming.  To double that, you’d need to generate 250 cases per year; basically, one case a day, every workday 50 weeks a year – and that’s a tough sell for a solo only shop.  Which is why…

3.  True solos need to jump on cheap and simple now or risk being boxed out by large firms and mills. Once large firms and mill operations get whiff of the cheap and simple trend, they can leverage their resources to provide unbundled services at volume.  For example, the four person family law firm, Cowell Taradash generates $100,000 in revenue from its extensive Illinoisdivorce.com site which provides unbundled services ranging from $185 to $500.  For a well capitalized firm, the cost of setting up an online service site, staffing it with a paralegal and marketing the service online is chump change.

But fortunately, big firms aren’t very nimble and that’s why solos still have an edge.  If they can act quickly to incorporate some version on online services into their portfolio or team up with other firms to provide virtual services through a joint venture, solos can gain a first mover advantage over their biglaw colleagues.

4.  Cheap and simple doesn’t mean cheap and stupid. One final word before you jump on the cheap and simple bandwagon:  it doesn’t work for all practice areas!  For example, handling foreclosure cases, where people’s houses are on the line, for $150 flat fees without reading the file or trying to subsist on low cost, court appointed rates exclusively and trying to make it up in volume are excellent examples of cheap and stupid.  If you can’t tell the difference, you may want to avoid cheap and simple for a while.

5.  Cheap and simple may not be sexy, but it expands access to law. Many lawyers look down on cheap and simple, deriding it as unsophisticated technician work.  Truth is, that to be truly effective at cheap and simple, lawyers need the kind of fluency with a practice area that allows them to spot issues and pitfalls with ease.  That’s mastery, not mechanics.  But more importantly, cheap and simple gives clients access to legal representation and expands access to law.  Isn’t that what being a lawyer should be all about?