Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts on the what, why, and how of subscription legal services. You can find our first post “What are subscription legal services?” here. Our second post, "The 'why' of subscription legal services (Part 2)" is here. The third post, The ethics of subscription legal services (Part 3) is here. We at Gravity Legal recently launched a suite of tools that make offering subscription legal services easy. If you'd like to learn more about the tools we’ve built, contact us.
We also have three episodes of our Financially Legal podcast featuring lawyers who have built and are offering subscription legal services. Check out those episodes with Jon Tobin, Beth Lebowitz, and Kimberly Bennett. You can also hear me and Megan Zavieh discuss the ethics of subscription legal services on her Financially Legal podcast episode.
If you have decided to move forward with a subscription-based legal plan, your mind is probably swimming with possibilities. What services should you include? Should there be different tiers of service? Will existing clients want to move over to the new model?
Better yet, where do the limits on the new service end? Does this present an opportunity for upsells? And finally, do you need to do anything to protect yourself and your firm before you launch?
Like any new and exciting entrepreneurial venture, the questions and possibilities stretch as far as your imagination can take them. But you’ll also want to reign in that out-of-control imagination and sketch out a minimum viable product that excites your users, delivers enough to retain subscribers, and yet, does not absorb so much of your time as to make the model untenable or unprofitable.
So where do you start? We will walk through many of the above questions, as well as the planning steps of developing a launchable product.
Excited? Ready to jump in and start offering subscriptions?
Before you do, you need to plan. The first thing to consider is the scope of your subscription offering. If you’ve read our prior posts in this series you know that the fear of being overwhelmed by a flood of work from subscription clients is one reason some lawyers and law firms hesitate with subscriptions. This risk can absolutely be managed but it’s important to take the time to consider what you want to include as a part of your subscription offering - what’s “inside” and what’s “outside” your subscription “box:”
Once you have a grasp of your offering, you may want to consider separating it into multiple pricing tiers. After all, one size rarely fits all. Some firms definitely do not do this — Jon Tobin’s Counsel for Creators only offers a single $95 per month plan for unlimited phone calls and document reviews. On the other hand, Willie Peacock’s QDRO subscription for legal professionals includes two tiers: a base plan that includes calls, consultations and retirement plan research and a higher tier that includes unlimited drafted court orders. And we’d be remiss not to mention Erin Levine’s HelloDivorce, a start-up that sprang out of a traditional family law firm that offers four tiers of service to its consumer clients - from a basic software-only package to higher tiers with drop-in assistance from legal professionals.
Next up are the terms. Now that you know what services should be included, you need to draft the subscription agreement, highlighting the vital terms and limits in your marketing materials and on your website. Make sure your terms of service include terms of termination as well. You want to be able to deal effectively with problem clients, non-paying clients, etc. If you need inspiration or guidance on how to structure your terms, many of the services that we’ve mentioned in this series have their terms on their respective sites.
You will also need to line up your tools. We won't cover that here but we’ll delve deeper into it in the next post.
To justify your recurring subscription cost, avoid issues with unconscionable fee agreements when clients fail to use your legal services (we discussed this problem in post #3 in this series), and to differentiate your subscription legal services offering, many subscription law firms also include a bank of online tools and resources for subscribers - ebooks, webinars, and calculators are examples of these tools. Adding these tools will reduce subscriber churn and may actually reduce the amount of time your subscribers need your in-person help.
Here are some examples of existing subscription legal services offerings that provide these additional tools and resources to their clients:
If you are going to offer these evergreen resources, you’ll need to build or create them before launch. Consider including tools that are handy on a regular basis such as online calculators, educational and reference materials, and forms.
Most law firms are built to bill slowly, by the hour, not for efficiency or volume. In order to shift to a subscription business model, you will need to rethink how you approach your service delivery. This may include adopting document automation, systems for communicating proactively with clients, billing systems, and other systems. These tools and others like them will be addressed in the next installment of our series on subscription legal services.
Tools aside, you should consider whether you need to set up additional firm infrastructure before launching your subscription service in order to avoid administrative overwhelm. Tobin, for example, spent a solid two months building systems and coding to prepare for the launch of his firm’s subscription service, automating much of the rote background work that drowns out lawyers’ days with “admin time.” Depending upon practice and your offering, you may not need to do something that complex but thinking about how you may need to shift your workload to associates, paralegals, or legal assistants, considering whether you need a receptionist (virtual or in person), and exploring a new practice management or lead generation system may be appropriate.
There is an old saying in business development: the best clients of the ones you already have. First, if they are current clients, they are probably happy with you. Beyond that, current clients represent an opportunity for additional revenue without significant additional marketing expenditures or sales efforts.
But do these existing clients represent a potential base for your new subscription service? Interestingly, Tobin reports that very few of his clients were interested in making the switch to his subscription service when he launched it, despite invitations to do so. Our conversations with Jeff Birken revealed the same, even after she explained to them that they'd likely be money ahead if they made the switch. You may need to consider the possibility that your existing clients won’t want to access your services in a subscription fashion.
You may also be concerned that moving your existing clients to a subscription might result in revenue lost as they consume your hourly work at a new subscription rate. Of course, you don’t have to offer your subscription plan to your existing clients, especially when you’re just starting out and testing it. But as you do think about opening it up, remember you can fine tune your offering so it works for your business before opening it everyone.
That said, the most overlooked benefit of a subscription-based law firm is that your pool of subscribers are not only a recurring source of subscription revenue, but also a source for potential larger matters and upsells. Ideally, whether a subscription client is new to you or one you’ve had since before your subscription offering, whenever that client has a need that goes beyond the limited services that are included in the subscription, the first lawyer that they are going to call is you — the person they have an existing relationship with.
As we’ve discussed above, build your legal subscription plan around minor services and consultations. Then be sure to draft the terms of your legal subscription plan to reflect those boundaries. That way, you can offer to handle other matters that generate substantial billable hours - and should not be offered for a few hundred dollars per month - as an upsell to existing subscription clients. You can even build a discount on larger matters into your subscription offering so that subscription clients feel they’re getting a good deal.
With all the talk of planning, and with most lawyers being extremely risk-averse, your biggest trap is waiting indefinitely to launch in favor of planning, planning, and more analysis leading to more planning. While there are certainly some steps you should take before launching, like making sure you have a viable product and clear terms of service, don’t let fear of the unknown or a torrent of unanswered questions and possibilities prevent you from taking action.
Something tech startups often learn is that you have to move fast, launch a minimum viable product, and improve incrementally and rapidly. Applied to legal subscription services that means putting together a few resources as part of your subscription, outlining the basic terms, and signing a couple - but maybe only a couple - clients to start gathering data so that you can iterate and improve based on your needs and the needs of your clients.
In other words, launch.
The next question you’re asking is likely about tools. The good news is that you don’t have to build it all from scratch - we’ll look at tools to jumpstart and run your subscription service in our next post on subscription legal services.
Read Part 4, Tools for your subscription legal services offering. Or, download our in-depth subscription legal services white paper which combines this 5-part series into one digestible guide and includes bonus tips and suggestions.