Pay for the Product, Legal Service is Free or Pay for the Legal Service, Product is Free?

In my last post, I discussed different types of freebies that lawyers offer as incentives to encourage existing clients to send or refer more work. But lawyers — and quasi-legal providers like Legal Zoom — are also using free to generate new clients.

Many lawyers – from solos to behemoth firms – are giving away forms and templates free in the hopes of selling their services. As I posted here, large firms are offering small business toolkits replete with forms and term sheet generators at no charge. The firms figure that most start-ups aren’t going to be able to afford any law firm, much less a mega-firm. So rather than offer service for free, which can be a costly proposition, the firm makes available high quality forms which don’t cost anything to replicate once they’re developed. Clients who use these forms are more likely to seek out the firms’ assistance when they’re ready to hire. And because those clients bring forms that the firm prepared, the firm can help them more efficiently than if it had to revise someone else’s DIY product.

Of course, it’s not just mega-firms that give away forms; many solos offer forms free as well. Sam Glover makes free debt collection defense and FDCPA forms available on his Caveat Emptor blog while my free e-book on Landowners’ Rights In a FERC Pipeline Certificate Proceeding includes several sample interventions that landowners can copy and file at FERC. Making forms available not only increases the likelihood that landowners will hire me when they reach a critical point in the process, but it also ensures that when they come to me they’ve preserved their rights so that I can actually aid them effectively.

There’s nothing to lose in making forms available for free. For starters, as the cost of production approaches zero, consumers will be able to find forms free at any site – so it might as well be yours. Six months after I published my Landowner Guide, FERC (to its credit) has made available some fairly detailed sample interventions as well. Moreover, many of the consumers who seek out free forms either because (1) they have no intention of hiring a lawyer in which case you won’t get the work anyway or (2) they want to learn more about what is involved in the process, and will hire a lawyer if a form is too complicated to manage on their own.

On the flip side, Legal Zoom is taking the opposite approach to free. With Legal Zoom, consumers pay for the form (and assistance filling it in) – but for some of the LZ services such as wills, a lawyer’s assistance is included for free (well, for an extra ten bucks along with other upgraded services). So basically, LZ customers pay for the product and get the service free.

It’s always been easy to write off clients who go to Legal Zoom, since most likely they were never willing to pay for attorney services anyway. But now that LZ is giving away legal service, some of the clients who may have been willing to pay a lawyer even if it posed some financial hardship will look to Legal Zoom instead.

As I see it, lawyers have two choices. First, lawyers can simply refuse to compete with free by mastering their practice area so as to capture the market for the kinds of bespoke, tailored services that simply can’t be provided at no charge (just as a specialized, solo bankruptcy lawyer snatched a plum matter from a big firm working largely pro bono). Otherwise, lawyers need to accept that they’re going to have to give something away to compete with Legal Zoom or with other lawyers who are doing the same. Lawyers don’t necessarily have to give away forms free – they can offer free consultations to discuss options with clients; maybe even agree to review, for free, DIY documents and make recommended changes (for which clients will need to pay). Lawyers can even develop high quality forms and give away the service – for example, answering questions – as part of the package.
But at the end of the day, lawyers who don’t have a bespoke option on their menu need to, every once in a while, offer a free lunch. To paraphrase New Hampshire’s state motto, in world where clients are accustomed to powerful tools like Google Voice and dropbox and Gmail all at no choice, lawyers just may have to give free [legal services] or die.


  1. Jay Pinkert on October 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Free document downloads might not be enough of a response because even with forms, LegalZoom is giving away a higher level of service because of the guided process to complete them.

    Yesterday I was speaking with a judge about the growing number of pro se litigants she’s seeing in her court, and how the downloaded forms submitted to her frequently cause problems because they’re improperly completed. So there might even be a downside to providing free documents if they are perceived — even undeservedly —  to have been more trouble than they were worth.

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