Sometimes, First Is Worst

Recently, one of my colleagues shared with me the success of a monthly subscription service that he’d recently launched for his clients, who are businesses in a relatively specialized industry.  He was surprised by the positive results because another one of our colleagues had tried a similar program a decade earlier with no takers.

There are certainly plenty of variables for why one subscription program worked while another didn’t get off the ground ranging from the prospects targeted to the look of the marketing materials. But I think that today’s business clients are also more budget conscious and a subscription service offered by a lawyer whom they know and trust (as opposed to a LegalZoom kind of arrangement) provides affordable access to legal advice. Plus, with client portals and Skype, lawyers can cost effectively deliver a wider range of subscription services now than ten years ago, when they’d have largely been limited to phone calls and email.

There are lots of other practice ideas that are implemented before their time. I experimented with client portals five years ago, but found that few clients would use them – partly because the technology was clunky and partly because they weren’t using that technology for other applications.  Likewise, I’ve written about how lawyers who’ve experimented with online scheduling  for clients haven’t yet seen much traction. Heck, I can remember a time when the cloud was called SaaS (“software as a service”) or ASP (application service provider) and no one would touch it.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, ideas are simply ahead of their time.  Malcolm Gladwell (of course!) has commented about this phenomenon, observing that it’s usually the “tweakers” – the second comers – who ultimately find long term success. Think Alta Vista versus Google; MySpace versus Facebook.  Second comers have the benefit of seeing flaws in the original model and then tweaking them to improve them.

When you experiment with new ideas in a law practice – whether it’s a client portal or online advertising or in-person seminars and they fail, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should forever check them off your list.  As your target clients change and as times change, you want to go back and revisit some of those models that didn’t take off. Because sometimes, first is worst; it’s the second or third time that’s the charm. And sometimes, you simply may be an oxymoron:  a lawyer ahead of your time.


  1. Stapler Confessions on November 15, 2013 at 10:16 am

    This is a really good point, but those start-ups that are using The Lean Startup model might be able to be both the first, second, and third — and best — version of the service. Constant experimenting and analyzing what’s working and what’s not working might be able to make the first one the best one, even if it’s the third version.

  2. Erin Austin on November 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Hi Carolyn. What is the distinction between providing services for a flat monthly retainer, which independent general counsels have been doing for many years, and a subscription service? Thanks.

  3. Jeff Gamso on November 15, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Of course, I’m something of a luddite (sure I have blog, but I can’t even get the paragraphing consistently spaced, and I have no interest in learning how) and don’t market at all (never have, and now that I’m a public defender . . . ). I am, however, an advocate of the traditional so-called “liberal education.” And so it is that really, underneath all the stuff I don’t understand here (including what a subscription service is), I note that you’re channeling Alexander Pope who, in 1711, in An Essay on Criticism, wrote,
    “Be not the first by whom the new are tried,/ Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”

  4. myshingle on November 15, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    In the case, the one who said it first, did say it best!

  5. myshingle on November 15, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    They actually are very similar. I think the subscription service isn’t entirely an on-call arrangement but typically includes a monitoring or status type of report. But you are right, it is not such a new idea though I do think it is gaining more traction.

  6. Jeff Gamso on November 15, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Pope can be really annoying, but it’s hard to beat him for pith and wit.

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