Apt to make apps? What you need to consider before jumping in

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Late last year, reported that the Apple App Store holds more than 700,000 available apps, and more than 600,000 apps for the Android platform crowd into the Google Play Store. But my recent search of the Apple App Store using the terms law firm and lawyer brought up just a few dozen apps. Do these comparative numbers indicate that lawyers are prudently sitting on the sidelines until they see where apps are going, or that they might be missing an opportunity to get into the app world?

It’s not an easy question to answer. In some ways the current app environment is reminiscent of the early days of webpages in 1995 or blogging in 2002 or 2003, when there was a small number of early adopters among the legal profession. For some, moving to the Web or blogging was a rewarding and successful step. For at least as many, it was a move that did not make sense. And for the majority, their efforts did not make much of an impact.

Unlike the early days of websites and blogging, app development requires substantial effort, and costs are measured in thousands of dollars. Apps, as small software programs, have to be coded, tested, submitted for approval and updated. Also, it’s likely that a law firm app would have to be free. You need to think carefully about the economics of creating your own app.

I downloaded, installed and took a quick tour through many of the law firm apps that I found. To oversimplify a bit, they seem to fall into two categories: big-firm apps and auto-accident-firm apps. You can see the big-firm apps as another Web channel large firms are using to reach their (usually large) clients, while the auto-accident apps have a more general appeal to a wide range of consumers. But remember, there’s only a small sample set, so my conclusions should be seen as very tentative.

However, these categories reflect the early days of law firm webpages, when the pioneers were large firms (especially technology or intellectual property firms) and individual lawyers who focused on reaching consumers. We might see a similar pattern with apps, albeit at a relatively slow pace.

Here are a few suggestions if you are thinking about creating your own app:

Sample the existing apps. I like the iOS app from Sidley Austin that makes the firm’s newsletters and updates available. Attorney bios are also used effectively. Some of the auto-accident apps are clever and good, with useful tools, but I wonder who would install an auto-accident app before they have an accident. You will want to think about the apps you actually use and why you use them.

Determine your audience and your purpose. Will the app be an extension of your Web presence? For current clients, potential clients or others? Just information? Provide tools, calculators, quizzes or games?

Get a sense of development costs and approaches. Developing a good app generally requires hiring a third-party app developer. Find one with a history of getting apps approved by the app stores. Costs will vary by project, geography and the like, but a budget of $10,000 to $20,000 can help you set realistic expectations.

There are some relatively simple app-creation tools and services, but they probably will not give you the features, branding and customization you would like. You might be better off letting a developer handle it, but get recommendations and do your due diligence.

Determine whether you have a good idea. Do you really have an idea that makes sense for anyone who actually uses a mobile app? Be able to explain who would use your proposed app, where, when and how.

We are still in the pioneer period for lawyers creating mobile apps. The cost of entry into the world of apps is not trivial, so this step is not one to take lightly. App development is certainly not for everyone, but you might get in on the ground floor among lawyers and law firms if an app fits what you want to do.

Dennis Kennedy is a St. Louis-based legal technology writer and information technology lawyer.

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