Increase Your Solo or Small Firm’s Impact on Access to Justice

By Forrest Carlson

We who practice law in solo or small firms face common barriers to having a meaningful impact on justice outside of the day-to-day work we do for our individual clients. Running our own practices means running our own businesses. Our time is scarce, split between practicing law and everything else that’s required to keep the doors open. We discover early that operating a law firm is more than a full-time job, just as we learn early to guard our limited free time. Money is scarce, too. Even after a big win or during a boom period, we closely watch the cash flow to make sure we’ll have enough for when things slow down again. We spend our hard-earned extra revenue to grow our firms or pay down our student loans. Because we’re alone or in small teams, we struggle more than larger firms to absorb the workload when things are busy and to keep the operation going during downtimes.

Increase Your Impact on Access to Justice

Increase Your Impact on Access to Justice

In other words, we always have less time, less money, and less energy than we would like, even (perhaps especially) when things are going well for us. This is the nature of solo and small firm practice, and it stands in the way of our contributing as much as we would prefer to causes that increase access to justice, whether that means donating money, taking on pro bono cases, volunteering in our communities, or encouraging others in our firms to do these things. To have the greatest impact, we in solo and small firm practice need to find ways to do more with less to leverage our scarce resources.

My proposal to maximize our impact on access to justice is a simple one: We should all put time toward writing useful legal information and publishing it online for anyone to access for free. Publishing free legal information online is a force multiplier. Consider that taking just one hour of your time to write and post an article explaining a commonly misunderstood legal concept or guiding the public through a common legal process could help thousands of people in your community. Every time you repeat this, you stand to help thousands more. Compare that to the impact of donating an hour’s worth of your income. Compare it to what you can accomplish donating that same hour of your time at a local legal clinic. When you only have a few hours to spend, publishing free legal information can have a tremendously wider impact for each hour you invest. (I by no means want to suggest you stop donating money or volunteering your time at clinics or in pro bono cases. You should keep doing those things. But you should also publish free legal information online.)

Below is a real-world example of what I mean, taken from personal experience.

Publishing Free Legal Information Online Is a Force Multiplier

In 2015 John H. Varga (now my law partner) and I published the initial version of a legal website called Washington Wills (wa-wills.com). The website provides estate-planning information, a legal glossary of will-related terms, a handful of document templates (including one for writing a simple Washington-based will), and explanations for how to complete the will template yourself without the assistance of an attorney. The website, templates, and instructions are all free—no strings attached. The templates and guidance on the website are the same kind of thing you would expect to find in a form book in the law library, except now they’re online for anyone and written in plain English.

Our thinking was that making the information available on the web in an easily accessible format would make people’s lives easier. We knew we could put in the design and drafting work up front. After that, we knew keeping the website running and up-to-date would require only minimal maintenance. We wrote the content and templates in our scarce free time over the course of a few months. Then we published the site and held our breath hoping people would actually use it.

We didn’t have to wait long. There was an initial trickle of site visitors in the first few weeks that quickly turned into a steadily growing stream. Now, three years later, Washington Wills enables our two-attorney (zero-staff) law firm in Seattle to provide free, detailed estate-planning information and guidance to about 3,000 Washingtonians each month—a total of about 72,000 Washingtonians since the site launched. (These are unique site visitors measured with our analytics software as of October 2018. Our analytics data and feedback from site visitors also confirm the site visitors make many repeat trips to the site, spend significant time on the site, and engage meaningfully with the content.)

Some of the site’s visitors go on to contact and hire us. Most just take the information or help they need, and we never hear from them. While gaining a few new clients for our effort is great, it’s not the point. John and I wanted to make helpful legal information accessible. We wanted people who couldn’t afford to hire us to be able to have enforceable wills that were properly and thoughtfully drafted, and in that we have succeeded.

Washington Wills is like a permanent 24-hour wills clinic. That’s the nice thing about websites; once a resource is on the web, it’s available at every hour of every day. Washington Wills is open when John and I are out of town. It’s open on weekends, holidays, and at three in the morning. (It’s a heck of a lot more helpful at three in the morning than I would be.)

More than that, the website is useful. It answers common legal questions. It explains the nuances of certain legal edge cases. It dispels common misconceptions about legal processes surrounding property and death. It is a confidential resource to people in distress and in emergencies. It is equally available to those who can afford to hire an attorney and those who cannot. The site’s visitors are grateful that it exists. (We know because they tell us so using the site’s contact and feedback forms.) In short, the website has helped thousands of people, far more people than John and I could ever have hoped to help in one-on-one engagements. With occasional maintenance, we expect the website to aid many thousands more Washingtonians in the coming years.

My hope in telling you about Washington Wills and the data we’ve collected about its impact is that you will see the value to lawyers of publishing legal knowledge online. There may be no better way for a lawyer to leverage time for maximum impact. A single valuable piece of legal information uttered once in a client meeting may help the one or two people who had the privilege of hearing it. The same information online may help thousands, maybe millions. Publishing helpful information online isn’t a new idea. It isn’t difficult, and it shouldn’t be controversial. It is simple and impactful, yet few of us in solo or small firm practice do it. If there is one great missed opportunity to maximize your impact on access to justice during your legal career, it is likely that you aren’t sharing your legal knowledge with the public online. Your impact could be great.

Washington Wills isn’t even that impressive compared to high-performing websites. By comparison to many sites, 3,000 visitors a month is a rounding error. But when you think about how John and I are just two attorneys in a small firm with a few dozen open client matters at any time, 3,000 people impacted every month is meaningful. For us, it’s huge.

John and I are both access-to-justice advocates. We see the value in traditional pro bono and low bono services, volunteering at legal clinics, participating on nonprofit boards, being active in our local bar associations, and donating to a righteous cause from time to time. We do these things (and so should you if you can), but we want to have an even bigger impact.

Writing for the Greatest Impact

When I say you should publish some of your legal knowledge, I mean something specific, so allow me to clarify: I am saying you should give away valuable information for free, information that the public can use without having to contact you for further help. Publish it without expectation of being paid for it or winning new clients with it. (You will win new clients because of it, but that’s not the point.) The goal is to create a public resource that people will turn to time and again, and that means creating something people value and will tell others about, something free.

This is, after all, an article about increasing your impact on access to justice. But there’s more to the concept of giving away valuable information for free than mere generosity and a sense of professional fulfillment: It’s part of a good web marketing strategy for a profitable law firm. Just ask your preferred search engine optimization expert if he or she agrees. (There’s much more to online marketing and search engine optimization than just giving away valuable information for free, but the details go beyond the scope of this article. Know that part of a good web marketing strategy will involve giving away valuable information. Consult a web marketing professional to assist you from there.)

There are thousands of law firm websites and blogs that read like brochures. They list the lawyers’ alma maters, years of experience, and practice areas, but they don’t teach readers how to do anything (except find driving directions to the law firm); they don’t give anything away. In other words, they’re not useful. This is not the kind of publishing I am encouraging you to do. In my experience, most law firm websites and blogs are “brochureware” like this. They’re advertisements. They serve nobody particularly well—least of all the attorneys to whom they belong—and they have no measurable impact on access to justice.

There are a handful of lawyer and law firm websites setting a good example of how to give away valuable information for free. I used Washington Wills as my example because I happen to know the details about how it came together and have analytics data to share. Spend a little time looking around, and you’ll find many more examples.

Deal with Your Doubts and Move Forward

When we were deciding what we wanted Washington Wills to be, John and I spent our free hours for more than six doubt-filled months learning about the required technologies, doing the design work, performing the legal research, parsing the ethics rules, writing the content, and crafting the disclaimers. At the time, we were two solo practitioners with a mere idea trying to keep our law practices running while experimenting with something new. We thought if we could take the same information about estate planning one could find in a book at the law library and put it online, it would help a lot of people. We didn’t have any proof this was true, but we believed it anyway.

When we placed a bet on Washington Wills, we were betting on a project we knew would require dozens of hours of our time over several months before we could publish it and find out whether it was a good idea. As solos, we felt the resource constraints as much as anyone. We had only so many hours to take away from our busy practices and families. We had only so many dollars (often zero dollars) we could afford to give away. Yet, for us, a big project like Washington Wills was within our risk tolerance.

There is no reason you need to take on a massive project like we did. You can start with publishing an article every now and then about a topic with which you’re familiar. You can write articles as a guest author on other people’s law blogs and in legal publications until you’re ready to start a website of your own. When you are ready to launch your own site, you can do it one blog post at a time instead of designing a massive website with hundreds of individual pages from the ground up like we did.

There’s also no reason your legal information needs to be in the form of articles or blog posts. Consider what you know that may be useful, then how you might put it into an online form.

Here are a few example ideas to get the wheels turning:

  • How often does your law firm turn away prospective clients who need services outside your areas of practice? You could publish a list of contact information for local attorneys you know and trust who practice other areas of law. Add the list to your law firm’s website. Then, instead of turning these prospective clients away, share the link with them.
  • How often do you find yourself explaining legalese to your clients? You could write out a glossary of common legal terms you use, publish it on your website, and include the glossary’s link in your engagement agreement.
  • Is there a relatively simple set of questions prospective clients must answer a certain way to qualify for legal relief? You could create a graphical flow chart and publish it to help people understand what they’re up against before they get on the phone with you.

These are just examples. The real possibilities are limited only by your creativity (and the rules of professional conduct in your jurisdiction). Whatever your strength is, use it to write something useful. Publish it for free. Then measure the impact you’re having on the world.

Forrest Carlson is a partner at Assemble Law Group in Seattle, Washington, where he practices estate planning, probate, and floating property law. He’s also a technology and design geek who believes lawyers ought to make better use of technology and the Internet to improve legal systems and experiences. He is one of the founding members of the Washington State Bar Association’s Low Bono Section and serves on its board. Forrest welcomes you to get in touch to discuss legal entrepreneurship and increasing access to justice through technology.