Free Doughnuts and Ethics

by Erik Adams
U.S. soldiers receive refreshments, including doughnuts, from an American Red Cross clubmobile in London. Soldiers today still resent a Red Cross move to charge for doughnuts.

Soldiers at a Red Cross Clubmobile in London
Library of Congress

Recently, NPR’s Planet Money podcast aired “The Power of Free” (originally aired in July 2012 as “The Cost of Free Doughnuts”). It relates the story of how many veterans don’t like the Red Cross, because for a short period during World War II the Red Cross charged GIs for the coffee and doughnuts served at comfort stations. At first the food had been free, but the U.S. government asked the Red Cross to charge a nominal fee because they were getting complaints from the Allies, who couldn’t get free coffee and doughnuts. The Red Cross complied, and earned the wrath of veterans for all time.

The podcast goes on to explain that when something is free it creates an unrealistic reference point for the cost. Even though the Red Cross charged a trifling amount for doughnuts, the fact that they previously had been free meant that any increase in the price was dramatic. Furthermore, shifting from free to not-free created a change in the nature of the relationship between GIs and the Red Cross: instead of a family member giving us free food, they became another crass vendor.

I’m reminded of this podcast when I get calls from associates asking for help. More and more frequently, the associate will explain that they “already tried Google but didn’t find anything useful.” Having exhausted free resources, they’re done and punting the research to a professional. Our associates have the usual online research tools at their disposal, but the shift from free resource to ones that we pay for feels like an increase in price, and that’s a hurdle that many are unwilling to jump.

This is a problem. For almost two years, Lexis has offered a continuing education program titled “Ethical Concerns and the Open Web.” A version of this presentation is available on YouTube and is worth watching. The presenters, David Dillenschneider and Brittany Nasradinaj walk through some of the problems with relying on resources like Google Scholar for legal research, including missing content, lack of editorial control, significant delays in updates to content, withdrawn opinions remaining available long after they should have been removed, and outright deceptive content.

A big part of my job at a law firm is showing attorneys which resources the firm provides, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and educating them on how to perform research in a cost-effective way. Like many law firms, my firm charges clients for some electronic resources, but not others, and being cost-effective way requires knowing which resources to use. But that doesn’t seem to be at issue with my associates: they aren’t worried about whether clients will pay, but whether there is any cost at all.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Google has done a good job of convincing people that they have all the world’s knowledge indexed and available, just a free-form search away. But, according to study cited by Dillenschneider, only about 2% of the information available online is available via the open web. No attorney would be satisfied with a search of case law if they were told it would only include 40 of the 2,000+ volumes of Federal Supplement.

To be fair, not all associates have this problem. For some, the question of free versus not free has shifted to “charged to client” versus “free to the client,” which is where it belongs in a law firm environment. We subscribe to a plethora of research tools that fall into both categories, and provide training on choosing between them. But the power of free now means that I also have to sell those research tools, and prove that the perceived cost is worth paying.


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