Providing free legal advice

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, April 2001

The culture of the internet is such that expectations are that most information is free. But these expectations also extend beyond information to just about anything that can be delivered over the internet: including advice, documents, software to name but a few.

But if your business is the provision of legal advice, how do you meet these expectations and profit from your online business? If you have managed to tap into the much vaunted global market, how do you convert casual visitors to clients? How much advice should you give away?

What follows is not an attempt to tell you how to run your business, rather to highlight the fact that online business requires new thinking.

A problem to be solved

The online brochure, while an essential base, is inadequate in itself for developing productive online business. Most individuals who find your site, whether by accident or design, will have a specific problem which they want solved, and it should be your aim to help them solve it in the most effective manner. In general, describing your services, telling them you can solve their problem and providing contact details – even if they include mailback links – is not the most effective use of the medium. Web users want immediate gratification and to satisfy this need and engage them you must provide substance.

How much will it cost?

At this point it is worth stating that although people will expect some level of free information or advice, most will be willing to pay for services which they understand are not readily available for free elsewhere – provided costs are reasonable, competitive and so far as possible quantifiable in advance.

Thus, a key aspect of the information you provide, in general terms and in relation to specific matters, should be a clear explanation of the costs they will incur, ie your charges, with of course an explanation of conditional fee agreements, the Community Legal Services Fund and available free advice schemes.

Because the internet enables you to deliver services in many different ways and more readily to exploit technology, you should consider packaging your services accordingly by developing fixed fee services – to which web users are more receptive. The internet is ideally suited to providing automated quotations, so if you have fixed fee scales, no matter how complex the underlying calculation, you (ie your technology) can instantly quote the prospective purchaser a price, as well as advising all additional disbursements etc.

Free initial advice by email

A number of firms offer to provide free initial advice by email as a way of encouraging new business. But how much advice is ‘initial advice’ and is this business worth having? The user is unlikely to be satisfied with a cursory reply and an invitation formally to instruct you. But you probably cannot afford to give every enquirer the equivalent time you might otherwise have spent on an initial free interview in person. Because email communication is so easy, you may well find yourself being pestered for further advice from a user from whom there is no prospect of gaining business. If you do choose this course, it is best to be absolutely clear on what level of advice will be provided and/or how much time you are prepared to give for free, with a unit rate for (email) time thereafter.

Free online advice and documents

More widely employed is the provision of free information and documents online. The disadvantages of this approach compared with email contact are that you do not know precisely who is seeking your advice and do not directly engage them in a dialogue, but the advantages – if effectively implemented – are more significant:

  • You engage the user immediately.
  • The user remains in control.
  • You do not spend time satisfying visitors. In particular you don’t waste time on casual visitors and freeloaders.
  • The increased content on your site improves your ranking with search engines, and the likelihood that you will be listed in directories and ‘useful links’ libraries, thus generating additional traffic to your site.

I would say that you do not gain much unless you publish a substantial amount of information. Any form of summary, lacking detail, will leave the user dissatisfied, quite possibly with a negative impression of your site (ie of your firm). At the other extreme, you will probably believe it counter-productive to go so far as to publish a full DIY guide.

I would favour the structured checklist approach, ie a step-by-step description of the activities necessary to progress the matter, with references to appropriate forms, fees, agencies etc involved. The brevity and layout of checklists are ideal for the short attention span of the web user. Although you will author these yourself, there is also much useful information available on official websites to which you can link. Don’t simply provide links pointing to home or base pages as these will interrupt the flow of information and quite likely divert the user from the task at hand; establish the URLs of the specific pages or documents which directly complement or support your text and effectively incorporate them into your site. Examples might be specific forms and leaflets on the Court Service Forms & Leaflets site (see or information on the Community Services Fund on the Legal Services Commission site (see

Making it pay

Having provided a substantial and useful base of free information, you can then seamlessly extend the service, adding chargeable services, eg downloadable documents, chargeable email advice, interactive online questionnaires etc. Thus your free information service is transformed into a genuine online business.