Will Work for Free

Nearly every artist, professional, and entrepreneur struggles at some point with whether to offer work for free. Law students often volunteer at legal services clinics. Sometimes they even pay tuition to do so. Authors and publishers offer some books free to obtain reviews and get the word out. Businesses send promotional items. (My favorite is a pen I received free with my law firm name on it and a flashlight at the end – not that I’m starting to find it hard to read menus in dim light or anything). Knowing when to work free and when to hold out for pay, especially when starting a new career or venture, can be a challenge.

When I was sixteen, I aspired to be not an author or lawyer but a singer-songwriter. My friend and mentor, Mark Dvorak, who went on to make a living as a folksinger, gave me solid advice on when to work free. Though I ultimately didn’t pursue music as a career, I’ve found Mark’s rules helpful throughout my professional life. No doubt Mark stole the rules from someone else, but I hear that’s part of the folk process, so I’m guessing whoever originated them won’t mind my giving Mark the credit. Mark told me there were only three reasons an aspiring professional ought to work free: (1) to gain experience; (2) to gain exposure; or (3) to gain potential future paid work.

(1) To Gain Experience: There’s a reason most authors, myself included, have a stack of unpublished novels in a trunk or on their computers, why aspiring doctors spend years studying medicine, and why beginning musicians jump at the chance to perform before live audiences for nothing. My cases tend to be large class actions that take a long time to get to trial. So despite having practiced law for years, when I can fit it in, I try cases with a criminal lawyer I know. Working one or two days free now and again is worth it to me to sharpen my trial skills. (Also, it’s fun.) Similarly, when I started submitting short stories to literary publications, I didn’t care whether I got paid. Seeing how my work looked in print and getting feedback from editors and readers helped me learn about writing and marketing.

Offering published books free provides good marketing experience for independent authors. If your downloads are few, your cover, book blurb, or sample pages may need polishing. You also may need to vary the days you run promotions. When I offered my occult thriller The Awakening free during 3 weekdays after Christmas, I had fewer than a thousand downloads. Over Halloween weekend, though, nearly 7,000 people downloaded the book, and on the Friday and Saturday before Easter there were about 4,500. As I otherwise did all the same things (same cover, same blurb, same marketing tweets, listings in the same venues), I’m certain the difference was due to weekends versus weekdays and to the Halloween tie in.

Knowing when you really aren’t getting experience:There are times you don’t need further experience or won’t get it from working free. To go back to my music example, if you’ve played several times on stage in front of a hundred people, and many times in small coffeehouses, you don’t need to play at your neighbor’s barbeque free just to get some practice in front of a crowd. Along the same lines, I write and argue a lot of appeals in my practice, so while I will do a short trial to gain more experience, I don’t handle appeals free.

(2) To Gain Exposure: Offering a service or product, even a good one, isn’t enough to generate paying work if no one knows who you are, what you do, or whether your work is any good. That’s why businesses, professionals and artists often offer a limited amount of work or product free.

For indie authors, this usually means offering free sample pages, or even an entire book free for a limited time. Enough free downloads can put the book on one or more Top 100 free lists. For instance, The Awakening reached No. 1 on Amazon’s Free Horror and Free Occult lists. Following that, more than 100 people put the book on their Goodreads shelves, which was one of my goals, and it gained about 25 additional reviews. This exposure led into category 3 – future sales – as well.

For medical, legal, or other professionals, working free on occasion can also provide exposure. Speaking at seminars, getting featured in articles or writing them, and networking at business events all help people become familiar with your name. It may not result in business right away, but if someone recommends you, it helps if your name already sounds familiar.

When you’re really not getting exposure: Going back to the neighbor’s barbeque (not a good example for me, because I live in a condo, but still), if everyone there has heard you play and sing before, performing there for free does not get you exposure. Similarly, as an attorney, if you’re looking for work defending doctors against malpractice suits, it’s unlikely taking on your neighbor’s employment discrimination claim for free will bring you the type of exposure you need, especially if your neighbor’s work has nothing to do with medicine. Another thing to be aware of is that free sometimes results in negative exposure. If I know little about employment law but try to help my neighbor for free, it’s unlikely I’ll have the time or knowledge to do the type of job someone who concentrates in, and gets paid for, employment law would do. Worse, I could make a serious mistake and commit malpractice, which now harms my neighbor and my reputation, to say nothing of a possible lawsuit. (“But I did the work for free” is not a defense.)

(3) To Gain Future Paid Work (or Sales): As a musician, even once I started getting paid, I sometime played free at festivals because proprietors of coffee houses and clubs who hired musicians might see me. That’s a great example of working free to gain potential future work. In the writing world, free days can lead to sales. Following my last free days for The Awakening, there were enough sales for it to stay in the Top 100 Occult books on Amazon for nearly a week. Before that, the longest the book stayed on that list was two days. Right now, it’s off the list, but it’s still considered a best seller, and that helps future sales. On the other hand, I’ve been neglecting the marketing of my short story collection The Tower Formerly Known As Sears And Two Other Tales Of Urban Horror and it’s never been on any Top 100 paid list. So I’m hosting two free days this Saturday and Sunday (May 11 and 12, 2013).

When I started as a lawyer at a large firm (not the one featured in The Tower, of course, or I might not have survived), I attended client meetings whenever I could, even if I couldn’t bill for the time. Often, the “free” meeting led to the client asking me to do paid work, and many of those clients still send me work today. That’s why I’ll provide free consultations to existing clients if they need some one-off research or advice, even if it takes a few hours.

It’s also worth giving advice free to other lawyers on occasion.  When I started my law firm, a business colleague introduced me to a lawyer who’d started her own practice years before. Rima met me for coffee and spent over an hour telling me what she’d learned about computers, billing software, business development, and finding good employees. When I realized I didn’t want to handle the various filings required by the state and federal government for starting and maintaining a law firm, I called Rima and hired her to do it. I’ve also referred other small business owners and lawyers to her over the years.

How to know when there is no potential for future sales.When I started my practice, I used to talk with anyone who called for up to forty-five minutes if it sounded like a matter that might be in my field. Unfortunately, most of the people were looking for a lawyer who would handle an entire case free or guide them while they handled the case themselves, which is something I don’t do. Now when people call cold, after the first ten or fifteen minutes, I let them know that I’m happy to talk a little further at no charge, and even review basic documents to see if I can help, but if it turns out they want me to represent them, my fee is $___ per hour and I will need an up front retainer of $____ (usually my hourly rate times 10). At that point, most people say they are looking for someone to handle the whole matter free, and I refer them to a legal aid society. (I do some volunteer legal work, but only related to non-profit entities I’m involved with.)

Another downside of free is that people don’t tend to value something they don’t pay for. Every lawyer I know has experienced this. The acquaintance who asks if you can provide free legal advice is far more likely to forget to show up for the appointment, or reschedule repeatedly, than the paying client, even if you don’t typically charge a cancellation fee. Likewise, most authors I know find they get more negative reviews from people who get their books free than from those who buy them. When you think about it, if you don’t value your time or product, why should the other person? Many recipients on some level feel that if something is being given away, it can’t be worth much. That’s another reason it’s wise to limit free offers to a sample size, introductory consultation, or a limited number of days.

I hope the above guidelines are helpful in deciding when or whether to offer your work free. Comments about your experiences are welcome.

Lisa M. Lilly is an attorney and author of Amazon occult bestseller The Awakening, short story collection The Tower Formerly Known As Sears And Two Other Tales Of Urban Horror, and numerous poems, short stories, and articles. She is currently working on the sequel to The Awakening.

The Tower Formerly Known As Sears And Two Other Tales Of Urban Horror will be free 5/11 and 5/12 at http://amzn.to/nSGpew

Visit The Awakening on Amazon: http://amzn.to/pFCcN6