Free CLE. Free pizza. Free legal research resources. I saw a headline recently that described law librarians extolling free resources to teach legal technology. Nothing is free but it’s a frequent theme in law library service delivery. As our law library looks at some minor cost cutting in 2020, I was thinking about the impact of law libraries using the term free and whether we miss opportunities to highlight when it’s a benefit rather than an entitlement.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally understand the draw of free. But as I’ve written before, it hides the true costs and who is paying them. That conflict is more stark when the person getting the free item and the person deciding how much the law library is funded are the same person.

I suppose one could argue that the reciprocity bias might help here. For example, I avoid vendor-funded tchotchkes or meals or coffee to reduce the likelihood that it will create in me any conflict over haggling on a license. But I don’t think it does. It would be an interesting survey question for our researchers, but I think they feel entitled to what they receive for free.

This can be awkward. I went to a recent legal publisher workshop that outlined a roadmap for their product. It was a 2.5 hour session with a brunch. I ended up leaving the free branded journal and pen, skipping the food, and just drinking coffee while I listened. I figure the effort I put into threading that needle will scotch any warm feelings of reciprocity.

Not entitled in a bitter sense. But that the law firm is paying for legal research support, the law students are paying tuition, the self-represented litigant or bar lawyer is paying taxes or a dues amount. They’ve already paid the freight.

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You could even argue that the legal profession does this too, with pro bono. Free legal services. But it has a special name, and I think the name brings a virtuousness along with it that free doesn’t on its own. Free is commercial, a goods-for-exchange experience. Free doesn’t require anything in return.

But free has a cost.

Identify the Cost of Free

We just made a change to one of our services that used an embargo from the content publisher. We discussed it with the publisher and were able to eliminate the embargo, so now our researchers can use the content as soon as it’s live. It’s a positive service change.

The publisher is an internal unit too, so there was not real cost to the library. The cost was borne by the publishing team, but they decided that – revenue loss v. access – that they were no longer making the revenue they had when the embargo was initiated.

There’s no good way for me to communicate that cost out to the researchers getting the benefit. They have paid a subscription fee that enables law library use. The embargo was a detriment to that entitlement. By eliminating it, we have merely given them what they have appeared to feel was their due.

I won’t touch on cost recovery again or monetization. Even if you can accurately identify cost, recovery is difficult or impossible in many law library environments.

It seems as though this is a discussion to have with your funders. When we say free CLE, what is the actual cost of that? Do your funders understand that, for you to put on a program that generates no revenue (or even modest revenue), your law library has a not insignificant expenditure?

You have indirect, sunk costs,

  • salary for a librarian to gain the expertise
  • salary for a librarian to prepare the education seminar

you have direct costs,

  • expertise acquisition on the CLE topic, such as education costs for a librarian to participate in conferences and learn from others
  • promotional materials, marketing, handouts, room rentals, equipment purchases

and there are the hidden costs:

  • reduced staff coverage for service delivery, raising the burden on other staff or leaving a service gap
  • the projects you didn’t do so that you could put on a CLE

I’ve tried to stop using the term free for anything. Free-to-you is one alternative, but I often will say to licensees interacting with our research librarians, that the service is tied to their license fee.

The Hidden Cost of Free

When we teach lawyers about legal research services that are free or other products that are free, we may be erring. My own perception has been that, if I can show them something free, at least they won’t be inhibited in using it by a cost. But I think that also creates an assumption that somehow the practice of law should be free. And that law library services are part of that zero cost.

When a researcher is shown a new research tool, or a lawyer is introduced to practice management software, there is a cost. There will be time spent learning about the product. There may be time spent doing a comparison with similar products. If it’s an infrequently used research product, they may have recurring time loss as they re-introduce themselves to the interface.

It’s perhaps easier to see with software. I’ve had the same approach with open source software, which is free-to-acquire but not cost-free. I’m a huge open source software fan and it’s because the costs are primarily what you can put into it yourself. But those costs exist.

Which is all to say that giving things away for free is fine. But be clear about what the rationale is and look for any benefits you can gain from it:

  • is there an opportunity to create a feeling of reciprocity over time (free pizza)
  • is there an opportunity in your activity or marketing to highlight that it’s free because it’s paid for by something else, to flag a benefactor rather than an entitlement