As an ethics attorney, I am frequently asked about the ethics of subscription legal services. Analyzing them in theory and putting that advice into practice are two very different things. When launching my subscription-based ethics practice, the Ethics Advisor Program, all that theory got put to good use. Here is my story of how the practice hatched from an idea to a full-fledged service line.
The Idea Takes Shape
To be perfectly honest, the idea for offering a subscription service was hatched long before I could put the word “subscription” to it. In my world of attorney discipline defense, I frequently see lawyers facing suspension from practice for things they could have avoided. I lamented from early on that my clients should have put systems in place to protect against errors that lead to discipline.
However, the spark was not lit until much later, when I sat with attorney Jess Birken as she brainstormed and designed her subscription service for nonprofits. As I listened to her talk through the issues her clients faced and ideas for how she could best help them on an ongoing basis (as opposed to constantly putting out fires), the parallels to my practice became more clear.
I realized that my problem of not reaching clients early enough to prevent their missteps could be solved with a subscription plan.
Brainstorming sounds like a magical phase where great ideas percolate to the top and you end up with a beautiful and complete idea. But my brainstorming bogged me down to the point of paralysis.
I began by asking myself what issues I wanted to solve for clients, how I wanted to solve them, and what sort of income stream would make sense for me so that the subscription would be profitable and worthwhile. The result was an overly complex subscription idea. So complex, in fact, that I would have needed excessive technology tools to make it work smoothly, and navigating the product would have been impossible for users.
My process was to look at how the subscription plan should look from my vantage point — all the ideas were being hatched from my own head. That turned out to be a bad idea. I got so overwhelmed at this stage that I set the whole project aside because it seemed too daunting.
Market Research: What Do Clients Want?
After the subscription idea lingered on my Kanban board so long that the card faded with age, my assistant suggested that we reach out to clients who would be likely consumers of the subscription service. What would they like to see in the product? This was the turning point from overwhelm to an actual product.
In the past, some clients had specifically asked us to create a subscription. These clients were first on our list for market research. Others had not asked for it, but looking at how they used our services, we saw that they would benefit from a subscription. We created a set of questions, and then we asked these clients if they would be willing to spend 30 minutes on the phone with my assistant to talk about the subscription idea. They all agreed.
My assistant spent hours on the phone with our target audience. The results were fascinating. And, it was abundantly clear that staying in my own head was the absolute wrong way to approach the problem. What I thought clients would want was drastically different (and far more complicated) than what they actually wanted. Clients were also willing to pay more than I had thought, and their priorities were different. We also found a lot of variance in how they envisioned using the service.
Designing the Product
With our market research in hand and my own brainstorms largely tossed out the window, we sat down to design what the service would look like. This was far simpler with our client needs and wants in hand. Quite quickly, we sketched out how the subscription plan should work and how much it should cost. Then we hit another sticking point.
Executing the Idea
On paper, we knew how we wanted the product to look, but how to deliver it to clients was a whole tech issue we had yet to tackle. In theory, we could have launched the product without a tech platform and simply run charges each month for each client, allowing them to contact us to use their subscription benefits. But this was not our vision. We wanted a dashboard and a members-only portal where clients could access their subscription, schedule calls, upload documents, receive feedback on documents, and change their subscription plan.
We spent an unreasonably long time and far too much money on platforms that did not work for us. Without a legal-specific plug-and-play platform available, we were trying to hack platforms built for other purposes (primarily online courses), which led to a tremendous waste of time and resources.
A Simple Custom Solution
Like so many great solutions, ours came in the simplest way. My assistant was frustrated with trying to hack the online course platform we were trying to use, and her developer husband overheard. He offered to spend a couple of days to see if he could create what we needed. With her expertise and understanding of exactly what was needed and his developer expertise, Legal Subscribe was born. The subscription platform was exactly what we needed to deliver our legal subscription service to clients.
Details and More Details
Now that we had the platform in place, launching was just around the corner. The punch list of little pre-launch details grew, of course. The biggest concern, especially for an ethics lawyer, was that the terms and conditions be ethically sound, clear and complete. Like any other lawyer launching a subscription service, I was also concerned that I did not create a product where clients would not be able to take advantage of the plan. This is where being in my own head was the right place to be. I dug into all these terms in great detail, bounced ideas off my assistant, and worked to dial in every little detail.
Ethics Advisor Program Soft Launch and Rollout
With the platform in place and the details mostly ironed out, we soft-launched to our original group of market research clients. We slowly rolled the plan out over a period of months, selecting 20 to 30 past or existing clients at a time to whom we offered the subscription. After about six months, we offered it to all past and existing clients, and then a few months later publicly launched.
Never Done Iterating
Of course, the subscription product is not a static service we launched and then left alone. We continue to iterate and modify the offerings based on feedback from clients, issues that we realize as they come up on the horizon, and new opportunities based on changes in rules and practice. We have also streamlined some of our separate service lines (such as probation compliance) by wrapping them into the subscription rather than offering them as standalone services.
We have learned over time that the subscription is a great place to provide the ongoing ethics counseling I’ve always wanted for clients. We also learned there is a real divide between lawyers who have been through the discipline system — and thus immediately see the value of the subscription — and lawyers who have yet to be convinced, and we tailor our marketing to these two very different groups.
A Big Lesson From the Launch
We have learned a very important lesson from the two places we stalled in the development process. Nothing in the product has to be permanent. Once it’s good enough, go with it and see what works and what does not work, and change accordingly. The product line will never really be done; we will continue to take feedback, make changes and improve. That is actually a good thing.
Absolutely Worth It
While our development probably took longer than it needed to, in the end, it was absolutely worth the trouble to get the product off the ground. It is meeting client needs, serves as a safeguard against ethics violations for clients, brings in clients who otherwise would not have sought me out (because they are not in trouble), and serves as a lead generator for further work if clients ever do run into issues.
Related Reading on Attorney at Work
Ethics of Subscription Legal Services by Megan Zavieh
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