Giving Away the Secret Sauce

Most lawyers are accustomed to the idea of providing free legal aid to the less fortunate as part of their commitment to the pro bono ethic. But in a growing trend, some law firms are extending their generosity beyond needy individuals to include cash-strapped startups and entrepreneurs.

A recent article in TechCrunch examines new websites, established by law firms like Cooley LLP and WilmerHale, where startup staffers can download and customize basic legal documents at no cost. These are the same documents that firms once guarded closely as the products of their billable hours, but today there’s brisk competition among certain firms to give them away for free.

This development shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. The findings of Law2023 tell us that law firms and disruptors from outside the legal industry will continue to develop new digital tools, and the result will be radically lower costs for basic legal services. Those costs can’t get any lower than zero, but the firms that are showering startups with freebies are hopeful that the tactic will prove to be a fruitful business development effort. The document free-for-all is a way for a firm to build relationships with budding companies that might strike it big and have major legal needs down the road.

It may not be the right marketing move for every firm, but for those that are attempting it, there are clear benefits:

  • It’s relatively cheap. Law firms with a venture capital mindset can easily end up investing significant time and talent into startups that ultimately fail. But by creating a free online document library, a law firm can make lots of impressions with up-and-coming companies without the high cost of a more hands-on approach.
  • It’s targeted. The startup world is well aware of this trend, and odds are favorable that the company behind next big thing will incorporate or hire employees using documents found for free on the web. With startups actively seeking freebies, it’s the perfect opportunity for a firm to brand itself as the go-to source for startup legal services.
  • It demonstrates strength. Not every law firm has the depth of resources and talent it takes to build a do-it-yourself document portal for legal laypeople. And among those that do, only some firms will have the confidence to give it away without fear of undercutting their own business. This tactic can put a firm in an elite class in the eyes of startups.
  • It communicates culture. At many firms, support for business growth and the entrepreneurial spirit are core values. As these firms strive to practice Great Law, one of the most effective ways they can promote this part of their culture is to offer a leg up to businesses that can’t afford traditional legal fee structures.

While this tactic is currently trending in the startup space, it may have viable applications with other publics that need help getting started. If your firm is focused on developing business among small brick and mortar businesses, independent contractors, nonprofit organizations or other entities with limited budgets for legal services, consider what you might stand to gain by making a radically generous gesture.