Make Your Own Groupon: Sell One, Donate One

While some may disagree, I stand by my original opinion that Groupon isn’t a great way for lawyers to market legal services. As I noted in the comments, a business model that requires any provider to share 50 percent of already deeply discount services doesn’t strike me as a viable business or marketing model, irrespective of how much exposure it produces.

On the other hand, I’m not opposed to lawyers discounting services or working for free, provided that the benefits of their labor inures to their firm or serves the common good rather than enriching someone else. For that reason, I was intrigued by this company, Timbooktwo‘s novel concept:
for every video they make for a tourism company, Timbooktwo will produce another free for a charitable organization.

Could Timbooktwo’s idea work for law firms? For certain practices, why not? For example, a law firm that incorporates small businesses could offer to create a basic LLC agreement for a client referred by a Community Economic Development Project or other similar organization. A law firm handling family law or estate planning matters could handle a pro bono divorce, adoption or will for lower income clients vetted by Legal Aid.

The concept could be applied beyond the “twofer” concept. A firm representing green tech or renewable companies (as I do) could propose to donate a percentage of legal fees to a clean energy non-profit or to a charity of the client’s choosing. An immigration firm might contribute to a charity that assists new immigrants with resettlement and education. The possibilities are endless.

Offering 2-for-one services or charitable contributions entails free work — but it’s a unique, feel-good ideal that could generate local publicity for your firm. Of course, the success of this program depends upon your client base; many clients who need to scrimp together their pennies to afford your retainer might resent a firm that donates its time to others for free. But by that same token, a twofer proposal can also help attract more generous or civic minded clients who won’t begrudge others less fortunate who qualify for free work even if they don’t.

Lawyers also need to make clear that a twofer service isn’t a way for two friends to get legal services half price by claiming one of the pair as the “charitable beneficiary.” Rather, to keep things clean, any free work or donations provided should go to clients referred by an independent, bonafide legal aid or pro boon organization.

Finally, under most scenarios, a twofer program would likely be ethical. Although most jurisdictions prohibit lawyers from paying or giving something of value for a referral, the twofer offer is targeted directly at clients, not referrals. Thus, from that perspective, it is no different than offering a client a discount or gift for doing business with the firm (not an ethics problem where I practice). Now, if the twofer was targeted at the pro bono group, e.g., the lawyer says “We’ll do free work for your pro bono clients for each paid case you refer,” the outcome might be different because in that scenario, the lawyer is offering “value” (free work) in exchange for referrals. (Note: The Arizona Bar has discussed the ethics of making donations to a charity to extract referrals). Other ethics issues could arise if for example, the lawyer doubled his fee for identical work that would be done under the twofer arrangement without telling clients that the cost would be half as much without the twofer.

Twofer arrangements may not be appropriate for your practice, and that’s fine. But if you have a hankering to work at discounted rates, you might as well feather your own nest rather than someone else’s.