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Free Wireless At Starbucks and What It Means for Solos

Yesterday, Starbucks Coffee announced that free, unlimited wireless internet access will be available in all company-owned stores in the United States effective July 1.  The Starbucks announcement launched 189,00 news stories – not because free wireless marks the start of a trend but rather because Starbucks came late to the party.  As  Starbucks belatedly realized, customers care as much about free amenities like wifi as they do about the quality of their coffee.

That’s one of the lessons that Starbucks’ announcement teaches lawyers: “free” sells.  As law practice management expert Rees Morrison recently blogged, a recent Eversheds survey reported that a whopping 87 percent of corporate inhouse counsel respondents said that “freebies” like CLE training, 24 hour hotlines or legal updates delivered via extranet are a crucial factor in determining which firms to use.  Just as customers are less likely to begrudge paying four bucks for a fancy coffee drink when they can enjoy it online, so too, clients are less inclined to balk about a law firms’ rates when something extra comes with it – perhaps a nice folder or USB drive to hold paperwork or forms for consumer clients or an ongoing webinar series for corporate clients.

Aside from affirming the zeitgeist of “free,” lesson, Starbucks’ announcement really won’t make much of a difference for serious solos in my view.  That’s because solo and small firm lawyers shouldn’t count on free wireless of Starbucks as the centerpiece of a bonafide law practice.

Working off-site and using free wireless as a convenience is entirely different from, and far more acceptable a proposition in my view, than relying on a coffee shop for a permanent office location.  For the short-term, wireless access lets solos who are stuck at the courthouse or away on travel check into a Starbucks to catch up on email or do some quick research.  And lawyers who work from a home office who are looking for a change of scenery or relief from isolation can escape to Starbucks to catch up on light work (like blog posting or organizing online files) that can be accomplished in a public spot without compromising  productivity or client confidentiality or running afoul of coffee shop etiquette rules.   All of these benefits help us stay more accessible to, and therefore, better serve clients.  But for solos who are wedded to the concept of “working anytime, anywhere” for the longer tmer,  then at a minimum, they should invest in the kind of equipment, specifically, a wireless access card, that facilitates their chosen work practices rather than relying on ad hoc hot spots.

For starters, wireless hotspots aren’t terribly secure.  While they may be fine for accessing LEXIS for generic legal research, you probably wouldn’t want to review your online law firm banking statements on free wireless at Starbucks.  Likewise, chatting on a cellphone with a client in coffee shop can also jeopardize confidentiality.

Though I now have a wireless card that lets me work anywhere, my work habits haven’t changed significantly if only because I don’t find working from a tiny lap top screen at a cramped table in a chatty Starbucks conducive to matters that demand intense concentration, like writing a complicated argument for a brief or reading through a 75 page contract.  (Though to be fair, I never found working in a law firm to be terribly productive either what with interruptions from chatty colleagues and phone calls and sensitivity trainings and birthday parties).  So with or without the Starbucks option, when I want to work off-site, I for one retreat, with my wireless card, to a decidedly un-hot spot:  the local law library.

What do you think?  Leaving aside confidentiality or appearance questions, can lawyers work as efficiently at Starbucks as in an office or library?  What are your coffee shop work habits?  And are the distractions we encounter at Starbucks simply human nature, or as generations of students grow up working on wifi connections in coffee shops, will we see adaptation to background noise?    Please comment below (we’re using Disqus for  comments now, but you don’t need to register if you don’t want to).