Financially Legal

The “why” of subscription legal services (Part 2)

Posted by Dan Lear on October 3, 2020
Dan Lear

Note: This is the second 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. 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.

“Subscription-based legal services? Stop right there.”

We know what you’re thinking. “There is no way that this can or should work for my practice.”

Indeed, for some practice areas it makes no sense. But if you can find a way to work it, subscription legal services carry a number of benefits including recurring revenue from the same clients, zero focus on increments of billable time, and a reward for efficiency over timekeeping.

Best of all, with a revenue model that sets you up as the client’s go-to, the subscription legal services model puts you in the role of proactive legal counselor far more than a model that tries to extract as much value from a client by the hour once everything has gone wrong.

Before you rush to toss the idea of subscriptions into the wastebin, let’s talk through the pros, cons, and variations of the model that may open your eyes to a new way of practicing law.

Does this work for my practice area?

What firms are obvious fits for the model? Think of lawyers that provide ongoing counsel to their clients — it is no coincidence that many of the lawyers mentioned in this series of blog posts and the pioneers of the subscription-based law model are business attorneys. Other practice areas where you might want your client to come back routinely include estate planning (perhaps an annual fee for document retention, plan updates, and advice on trust funding), employment defense law, insurance defense law — anything where there is a recurring need for your services as opposed to a one-time transactional matter.

Even if you aren’t doing contracts, incorporations, and other recurring transactional paperwork, think hard about your practice area and how it might be reimagined to fit a subscription approach.

  • Is there a recurring or long-term market for your expertise?
  • Are there recurring minor issues that may not justify a billable hour case on their own but for which a lawyer’s expertise is crucial? Examples include contract and document review, proactive planning, etc.
  • Can you offer help with minor recurring legal issues to a captive audience and, in so doing, build a source of ongoing revenue?

For instance, as a post-divorce retirement division (QDRO) attorney, most of Willie Peacock’s current clients have traditionally been one-and-done. But, before they come to see him, they have a divorce lawyer that sets the terms of the property division, including retirement accounts. Most of these divorce agreements’ retirement provisions are written poorly, omitting key factors (survivor benefits, market gains and losses) that can swing the value of a person’s share by thousands of dollars.

What’s the solution? Encourage divorce attorneys with a QDRO attorney before the divorce is final to avoid the poorly written, error-filled divorce agreements in the first place. Mr. Peacock offers a subscription to attorneys and paralegals — unlimited consultation on retirement division issues, property settlement language to address the finer points of pensions and retirement accounts, plus a discount on retirement division orders (QDROs).

This all seems pretty obvious, but acceptance wasn’t Peacock’s first reaction to the subscription-based model. Instead he thought: “Good idea, but terrible fit.” However, he spent a bit more time with the idea and he changed his mind: “It really is a win for all parties involved — the divorce lawyer covers himself from malpractice claims. Me, I get a steady ongoing revenue stream. And the clients don’t have to try to figure out how to retain yet another lawyer after their divorces are ‘final.’”

Admittedly, a subscription-based practice may not be a great fit for certain practice areas: if your clients are entirely the one-and-done sort, they have no recurring need for you and you will get no recurring revenue out of them. Fair enough. Personal injury cases? Probably not a great fit. Criminal law? We sure hope not.

Divorce? Your gut might say “People who could use a recurring subscription to a divorce lawyer are edge cases — not a business model.” But in an earlier post, we mentioned Lee Rosen, who offers his own subscription legal service for divorce. Koenig Dunne, family law firm launched UntieOnline.com not long ago and, while not a law firm, Hello Divorce offers subscription services to would-be divorcees.

The business case for subscriptions

It’s often said that your best clients are your current clients. Your subscription clients are a captive audience for marketing other services and for handling any crises that come up. Subscription legal services, while typically catering to contract reviews and consultations, may not seem like a money maker on their own. But who do those clients reach out to when a big billable case comes up? You, their subscription-based attorney.

Additionally, if your practice suffers from ebbs and flows, or has seasonality, the recurring revenue from a dozen or so clients paying a monthly fee means you will have a more predictable cash flow.

It’s also great for clients. Subscription billing encourages clients to proactively address small matters that may snowball into bigger disasters later. Jon Tobin, of Counsel for Creators, mentioned to the ABA Journal, is that after debuting a subscription-based model, he discovered that clients were more willing to come to him with small proactive measures — filing for intellectual property protections, or reviewing a contract — rather than waiting until the crap hits the fan or the house is burning down resulting in a need for a lawyer that will bill them tens of thousands of dollars. Subscribers are more likely to be in for an ounce of prevention, in other words, rather than a pound of cure.

One more benefit of a subscription-based model is the emphasis on operational efficiency. Billable hours always have, and always will, reward inefficiency: the slower you are at working, the more you get paid. And no matter how honest of an attorney you are, a system that routinely tells you to work slower and bill more is going to incentivize you to not invest in the sort of tools that will reduce costs for others in the system — meaning your clients. As Tobin notes, “This model forces us to stay oriented toward providing ongoing value rather than simply billing for time . . . .”

Speaking of billable hours, a final benefit of subscriptions may be the ability to get paid for the content you create and offer to subscribers and/or the advice you give as part of your subscription consults instead of segmenting your day into billable versus admin time and churning files to get paid by the hour. Subscriptions offer the opportunity to escape this churn.

Do you have the courage?

It’s scary taking that first plunge into the unknown. The safe route is the billable hour, doing what has been done, what’s comfortable. Of course, if safety is the primary aim, you’d probably be better off working for another attorney, as a salaryman, with a billable hour requirement of your own.

But if you’re reading this you are probably a lawyer-entrepreneur. You broke free of that system on purpose. You founded your own law firm. If you had the courage to do that, do you have the courage to try something else revolutionary — a new billing structure that rewards expertise, availability, scalability, and most of all, operational efficiency?

It may not work at first. You may set your subscription rate too low, and find yourself working overtime for no additional money, for too many clients. You may find yourself overwhelmed by one or two overly demanding clients, who expect you to work 80 hours per week for them alone, on a $100 budget. (These are the same people who go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and pound 20 plates of steak to get their “money’s worth.”)

You can address many of these concerns in a well-drafted engagement letter. Further, we’d never recommend going “whole hog” on a subscription legal services offering out of the gate. Instead, you can interview your clients, really understanding what they want, figure out how to offer that in a subscription package that works for you, and then start slow – maybe with only one or two clients.

But we’re already bleeding into the “how” of subscriptions. And that’s the territory for an upcoming post.

For now, evaluate the “why” of subscriptions described in this post and decide if it’s something that might work in your practice.

In the next post we’ll cover everyone’s favorite topic, legal ethics! Inevitably after a lawyer understands the what and why of subscription legal services they immediately convince themselves that the rules of professional conduct won’t permit it.

Au contraire!


Image credit: “Why?” by Anna Vignet is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Topics: Subscriptions

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Financially Legal is a twice-monthly podcast on the finance and economics of entrepreneurial law firms and lawyering. Host Dan Lear talks with law firm leaders, academics, business professionals (both in and outside of law) and thought leaders to provide compelling and provocative content at the intersection of finance, economics, and law.

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