Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys: How to Select a Website Designer

So you've found a Web host and you have purchased a domain or two to direct visitors to your new web presence. Now comes the part where you actually have to put a site up so visitors and potential clients have something to come to besides an "under construction" page. One of the largest debates now will come down to firm strategy, website goals, and cost - using a freelance designer or a full service company.

There are some great companies out there that can provide you and your firm with a fabulous full service website. Companies like FindLaw and LexisNexis provide firms with a variety of services ranging from basic packages targeted for solos, to multi-dimensional programs for large firms. But there are more than two firms to choose from when it comes to website design and development. There are many mid-tier companies that are experts in the legal web-space, as well as a plethora of freelance designers, who can give your firm local flavor that may appeal to your target audience.

If you are not prone to choosing either of the companies above, here is a list of some other companies that build law firm websites. Each offers a variety of packages to fit your specific needs. All of these companies will be able to build you a basic website, or a more robust one.

Freelance Designer vs. Web Design Firms

The decision to use a web design company vs. a freelance designer comes down to features. If you are looking to build a web presence that is complex, and includes extranets, portals, and high level scripting, you may want to choose a company that has resources to expedite these projects. Its not that you can't find a freelance web designer/developer to do this; many designers are expanding their skills to include a variety of scripting languages such as PHP, Ruby, AJAX, and .Net. However, there are many designers whose portfolio does not include this expertise.

Benefits of Using a Freelance Designer

If you've been scared about using a freelance designer in the past, here are some recommendations on why you should consider using one to design your website. Freelance designers can be found all across the country. The challenge for you is to find one whose work you like and one that understands the legal marketplace. A good choice will already have done some work in the legal industry. In some cases though you will have to educate them as to the level of professionalism you desire and emotion you wish to convey from your visual elements. The biggest advantage to hiring a freelance web designer is that they will bring contribute fresh ideas to your project. Unlike companies who are focused solely on the legal profession and all of its stereotypes, a freelance designer will bring a diverse set of experiences and designs from which you may choose. They will focus on giving your website a personality that reflects you, not necessarily the industry norm.

Freelance Designer Skills

If you are not familiar with web design, following are a set of skills I would suggest you look for when hiring a freelance designer, and why.

XHTML & CSS. The web has entered a new era in standards and what was acceptable last year is not today. Table-based layouts are a thing of the past and XHTML and CSS are the norm. This is not just because they are the "in" technique, but they have proven value in giving you, as the client, flexibility to change the presentation of your entire site in a matter of a few files vs. re-coding every page. They also lend themselves very well to search engine optimization, ADA compliance, and multi-device compatibility.

Scripting and Programming Languages. Ideally you will want a web designer that has some programming skills. If they are not current on the latest techniques, there are many resources out there where they can find scripts to create the functionality that you desire. Depending on whether you want a database-driven website, or static files, you will want to see programming languages like PHP, .Net, Ruby, ASP, and DOM.

Graphic Design. Many web designers come from a design and art background, while others come from a programming background. More and more this line is blurring and there is really no distinction between the two. Having someone with some graphic design background will benefit you when it comes to visual display.

Where to Find Freelance Web Designers

So now that you know what to look for, where do you find these elusive freelance designers? This is a challenging task, but well worth the effort in the end. More often than not, you will find freelance web designers through your contacts. Ask your clients if they know of anyone who does professional freelance work. Another consideration is whether you feel comfortable with a designer working remotely from another city. If you don't necessarily need to meet in-person, you can conduct a web search for freelance designers, and find a range of results. If cannot locate anyone that meets your criteria off the bat, don't be afraid to post a message to a Web Designers online forum specifying your requirements. To get you started, here are some online communities that web designers "hang out" in:

  • SitePoint - Their Marketplace has an area for those looking to hire a designer or developer.
  • CSS Beauty - They have a jobs board area where you might want to post a request for work.
  • 37Signals Job Board - Here you can post a job for 30 days for a nominal amount. Many from the web design and development community look at this listing.

Experience and Portfolios

Once you find a couple potential candidates and before you send out an RFP, you should explore their resume and portfolio. You want to hire someone who has valid experience building professional websites, not sites only for friends and family. Take a look at their personal websites; look for details and errors. Most freelance designers will have some sort of portfolio online. Many will also have a services page which outlines what type of work they provide, which usually has a direct correlation to their experience and skill set.

RFPs and Contracts

Depending on how much time you have or want to spend on this project, you may want to put out a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) to a couple of freelance designers. This RFP will give you a good idea of the cost differences between the designers. Be sure to outline exactly what you want from website, and expect the designer to provide. One of the worst experiences for both a freelance designer as well as a client that they are not on the same page regarding the scope of work, and skills required. As part of the RFP process, don't be afraid to ask for references. Check up with current and past clients to see if they were satisfied with the designer's work, process, communication, and delivery. This will help you narrow down your choice more quickly.

Once you have decided on a designer, you will want to draw up a contract. Most designers will already have one ready to present to you outlining the scope of work, rates, what additional work will cost, deadlines, maintenance, etc. Be sure to have an area in the contract that outlines sign-off points, by you the client, on approval of work. This keeps both sides accountable, and keeps surprises at a minimum.

Maintenance

One aspect of using a freelance designer vs. a full service firm is the aspect of maintenance. Who will update your website? Will you have to pay for each additional change, or will you work out a monthly flat rate for website maintenance? This is something the designer will probably bring up during the contract negotiations, but you should be prepared to make the decision. The biggest question for you is: do you want to do the updates or just send them off to have someone else do them? If you decide to have your web designer do the maintenance, understand that they may not be able to perform the updates as quickly as you may desire. Most freelance designers have day jobs. Those jobs prohibit them from making updates during their regular work hours.

If you don't want to pay for maintenance, you should consider building into the contract that the development will be done in a way where you can use a third party program to do updates. One example is Adobe Contribute. Adobe Contribute will allow you to navigate through your website in a browser-like environment and then allow you to edit the content online, directly from your web server. Contribute has a set of toolbars that are very similar to Word or WordPerfect, which allow bolding, italics, link creation, bulleted lists, and more. If this sounds appealing to you, then make sure you contract with your designer to build templates to accommodate this environment.

Conclusion

Working with a freelance Web designer can be a great experience. For those who are looking for a professional web presence that is not a cookie-cutter design, freelance designers can be the dark horse that gives you a competitive edge. Knowing what to look for in a freelance designer is half the battle. The keys to having a good freelance designer relationship are communication, your contract, and an explicit scope of work coupled with realistic deadlines. Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your website. Next month, I will give you some ideas on how to enhance your website to get visitors to come back and engage your firm.