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Logos on Spec, Revisited

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shutterstock_81091828More than three years ago, I wrote one of my most popular and widely-circulated blog posts, Would You Work on Spec? Why Should Your Logo Designer.  My post listed several disadvantages to design contest sites like 99Designs (potentially poor quality submissions and possibility of stolen work), but mainly, I griped that it was hypocritical for lawyers to ask designers to work on spec – to prepare and submit end-run logo designs on the chance of a fee – when lawyers wouldn’t work on spec themselves.

Fast forward, and crowdsourcing sites like 99 Designs  are thriving .  Even more, design contest sites are frequently recommended as a design solution for lawyers by reputable LPM experts like
Lee Rosen  or Heidi Alexander of the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistant Program.  Most recently, Allison Monahan, a lawyer and creator of described her positive experience  in using 99Designs for a logo for her upcoming Catapult 2013 project.

All these experts can’t be wrong, I told myself.  Plus, I’ve had middling success with logo design, often spending considerable sums of money on results that don’t thrill me, but which I’ve accepted simply to avoid running up the meter any further. In that regard, 99Designs is awfully appealing; for a $200 or $300 prize, I could attract multiple designers who would provide endless iterations of logos.

Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that using 99Designs is hypocritical because (except for pro bono), I don’t work for free. While it’s true that lawyers (myself included) frequently devote considerable time to responding to RFPs, a bidding scenario differs because what’s being proposed is a concept, not the final product that the customer will purchase. The same is true for the presentations that ad agencies put on for prospective clients – they sell an approach, but not the actual campaign to be implemented.  By contrast, on 99Designs, contest participants aren’t asked for a concept, but for an end product. And then, when a submission suggests the right approach, but not the ideal look, designers are asked to refine and modify the logo to stay in the running. By the time the contest ends, the sponsor has several final products to choose from, yet only one designer gets paid.

Some might argue that sites like 99Designs aren’t so bad because many designers don’t invest much time in tossing their hat into the ring and thus, aren’t losing out or being exploited (truth be told, I don’t buy the exploitation argument; I assume that designers who participate in contest sites do so willingly). But a minimal time investment doesn’t change my opinion. Let’s say a company set up a site called 99Lawyers where consumers or businesses could hold a contest for a complaint letter or lease agreement.  A user would set a prize, provide a basic description of their matter and the end product needed (complaint letter, lease agreement, etc..). Participating lawyers would draft up the requested documents and submit them to compete for the prize. If the contest sponsor disliked the tone or a particular letter or wanted a different word choice, he or she could ask the lawyer to make the fix.  The lawyer who submitted the best letter would win, the others would go home uncompensated for their efforts.

Assuming that confidentiality issues and malpractice concerns were adequately addressed, would you participate in a site like 99Lawyers, or advise your colleagues to play?  If no, then tell me how crowdsourced design sites are any different.   And if you can’t, then explain why it’s OK for lawyers to use 99Designs when they wouldn’t do it themselves.  Also, does your opinion depend in any way upon the amount at stake? Would you be more likely to participate in a contest offering a prize of $10,000 rather than $100 (assuming of course that the larger prize would also require a more substantial submission like a research memo)?

Finally – am I crazy to avoid using sites like 99Designs? Is the view that it’s hypocritical for lawyers to use design contest sites even relevant to the decision about whether to use a particular service? In fact, is the view that working for free devalues what we do even relevant at all in today’s world, or is it a 20th century anachronism? I’m open to the wisdom of the crowds on this one so please, share your opinion below.

Pick Me photo courtesy of Shutterstock

  • Mike O’Horo

    I had a successful experience with Getting our logo done wasn’t the major value. Establishing a relationship with a designer who understands what we’re trying to communicate was the real value. For the designer, he got a client who now uses him for everything.

    I suspect that most of the participating designers view this as a big channel for demos or product-sampling. Those are the two oldest and most effective marketing tactics extant. All of e-commerce is based on some form of “try it, you’ll like it.”  Otherwise, what are the chances that I’d ever hear of a designer named Rick Campbell in Wisconsin?
    What I learned initially was that most of the submissions were pulled out of a drawer and posted, with little or no investment of time or creativity.  The initial list shrinks quickly. The quality of submissions also depends a great deal on the clarity of the spec the buyer publishes. The more you enable the designer to understand your intent, and the factors that will influence your selection, the better work product you’ll get.As for lawyers embracing (or, as you seem to feel, tolerating) such a concept, that’s like any other go-to-market decision.  If you’re well established, as you are, spec work has limited or no appeal. You already have reliable methods for getting the kind of clients you want.However, for those just starting out, particularly the thousands of recent graduates unable to find JD-requisite jobs, this may be a very attractive alternative to thumb-twiddling.  When you’re new, you need buyers. Not merely for revenue, but for practice.  This is a way for green lawyers to get experience. The bids they don’t win nonetheless require them to go through the paces of understanding the client’s problem, then thinking through and executing a solution. Each bid they see presents another practical iteration of the theoretical law they learned in school.The crowd-sourcing trend is also a cautionary tale for all lawyers, showing them what the future looks like if they fail to invest time and money to develop a more predictable, sustainable marketing and sales regimen.So, how does a lawyer avoid spec work?  Simple.  Come up with a better method of getting experience, clients, or both.

  • myshingle

    Thanks for an interesting perspective I see that you had a positive experience with 99designs as did Allison. I do remember that when I was starting out, I offered to do a sample work project free for several law firms so they could give me a test drive. None if them took me up on it though. I personally feel very guilty asking people to work for free but then again, I assume that if they’ve signed up for a website that they’re willing to do it.

  • Adam Kielich

    I think 99Lawyers would attract a lot of lawyers, honestly. Most of the designs on 99Designs seem to be stock designs that can be modified in minutes. It’s low risk/low reward but something productive to do in down time and/or on a casual basis. It would be substantially the same for lawyers who would take the request and post the requirements into a form document or software. If you already have the form or software available, it’s minutes to fill in and upload to the website. If you’re sitting at your desk with no work flow it would be a better use of time than posting personal comments on FB. It would probably outperform legalzoom, too.

  • Alex

    Alex with 99designs here.

    Thanks, Carolyn, for your your thoughtful and balanced article. I appreciate your reservations; however, I have to question your argument based on an analogy between graphic designing and legal work, because the industries are so very different. 

    If you’re going to compare them at all, I think there is one important element you must address.

    You say your issue is with spec – we’ll define it as doing real or virtually real work without the promise of immediate monetary compensation. But couldn’t you characterize law school in much the same way? Surely you spent a lot of time (and I’m guessing a lot of tuition money) to work alongside seasoned mentors and tenacious colleagues, developing skills and making connections that would serve your eventual career. Well, our design community treats 99designs in much the same way. Even if designers can’t always bank on immediate monetary reward, they appreciate the opportunity to compete with skilled colleagues, developing skills, building an impressive portfolio and rubbing elbows with potential future clients. 

    Again, I’m dubious that comparing two such different industries will yield substantial insights. Curious, though, about what you think of this alternative conceptualization of “spec.”


  • Nick Ortiz

    Avvo introduced a new feature asking attorneys to bid for services:

  • Catherine Tucker

    I tried 99 designs and I got a bunch of copyrighted designs and some incredibly poor submissions.  (Sperm?  What lawyer would possibly want sperm next to their name!)  

  • Catherine Tucker

    Sorry….hit return too soon.  I think that such contests are fine for logo design because the buyer is perfectly able to judge quality of the design on their own.  This is not so much the case for other professional services, such as the law.  How can a layperson judge which lease agreement is better, and in particular, better for their needs?  I don’t think that is truly possible and the required conversations (whether by email, phone or whatever) between the lawyer and client are the only way to really be able to perform legal services.  Such meaningful discussions cannot happen via crowdsourcing platform.  

  • Smeliot

    Imagine if a potential client went with a large firm rather than using your services simply because you don’t charge enough. How would you feel if he told you he didn’t think it was ethical to pay you your asking price, even though it is a rate you are comfortable with?
    The people who participate in these “contests” do so willingly because they are hoping to win the prize, and probably because they enjoy being creative. Because you think it is unethical to create such a contest, you are denying the participants the opportunity to do what they are WANTING to do.

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