Dennis Kennedy (DK): Elaborate law firm web sites can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They don’t need to cost that much and they can be done very quickly. This month we will examine ways that law firms, especially small to medium firms, can develop a high quality web site while keeping expenses to a minimum. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Kevin Ford, a lawyer in California, who raised this question in a recent phone call to me on this very subject.
Jerry Lawson (JL): One key insight can help: focus on content, not flash. Most potential clients are looking for value, not pretty pictures. Time and time again I see law firms invest most of their money and effort in pretty graphics, and only then decide what they want to do substantively with their site.
Brenda Howard (BH): It is important to decide what the “purpose” of the web site – then look at budget considerations. There are legitimate reasons why a web site could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, you are correct in suggesting that a small to medium size law firm should have a professional site that is informational in nature. This type of site should not cost that much.
JL: It doesn’t get any cheaper than free. FindLaw Office hosts simple law firm web sites at no charge. Even better, they have easy on-line setup. You can use your own graphics, but the default FindLaw graphics look better than those many law firms pay big bucks for.
DK: Burgess Allison explained exactly how to set up a FindLaw site in an September, 1999 article, available at the ABA Law Practice Management web site. I don’t know how many times we need to say this, but let me say it again: a simple site is better than no site. If you have no site, someone looking for you on the web will find nothing. If you have a simple site, a person looking for you or your firm will at least find contact information, biographies and areas of practice.
JL: What makes FindLaw particularly attractive is that in this case, “free” means free. FindLaw is not using their free sites as a come-on to sell you more expensive web site hosting or design. Even law firms that have more sophisticated web sites elsewhere might want to consider setting up simple “feeder” sites at FindLaw.
DK: As good as it is, FindLaw will not be right for everyone. Note, however, that West Group has purchased FindLaw and we’ll have to see what happens with the free sites. Which brings us to another inexpensive option: a West FirmSite(tm). Here you get a no frills, but professional, web site, with nice graphics and a reasonable amount of content of a very practical sort. It’s clearly built from a template, so your site might look a lot like some other attorney’s sites (as would be the case with FindLaw), but you are out on the web with a decent starter site.
BH: Right, but each law firm has to decide what site works for them. Some law firms have reservations about these types of sites.
DK: The main reservation lawyers have about the prefab sites seems to be that they do not allow you to have your own unique top level domain name (www.yourlawfirm.com). For that, the best choice is to have your own hosted site. I know that we’ll discuss the pros and cons of hosting your own site in another column, but it’s fair to conclude that for most firms using a third party host is the way to go. I’ve found a surprising number of lawyers who haven’t done web sites are worried about how they will host their own site. Once they learn that they don’t need to host their own site, they often get a site up pretty quickly.
BH: Web hosting is a good place to start when thinking about the costs of your own site. Hosting can’t be avoided. Your web site must be on the Internet and sit on a server somewhere, so you can’t get around this cost. How much does it cost to have a site with its own domain name hosted by a third party? Jerry, do you have any web hosting suggestions?
JL: I presently maintain three sites with a company called Interland.net. They charge $20 a month for 150 MB of space, with MS FrontPage support, CGI-BIN access, and some fringe benefits. I’m reasonably satisfied with them.
BH: I have to say, that is an excellent rate. Most hosting companies charge a little more for a little less space than the rate you are getting. It’s usually anywhere from $19.95 to $50.00 per month. It depends on how big the site is and how much traffic the website will have.
DK: Please permit a small plug for my friend Tom Bassett at CircleZ.net who hosts my site, but I think that a round number to budget for the hosting of a standard small firm site would be $25 per month, plus $35 per year for the domain name.
BH: Sometimes, though, cheaper isn’t better. It depends on the service that the web hosting company provides and whether or not the web site is available at all times. There’s a lot of competition out there and it’s not hard to get quality hosting for a reasonable price. Be sure to shop around.
DK: I’ll skim over the legal concerns involved with a hosting arrangement (service level and performance guarantees, backups, etc.), but there are a few practical considerations in hosting that I want to emphasize. Jerry mentioned FrontPage support. That’s pretty standard these days, but is vital if you are considering designing and maintaining a site on your own because using FrontPage is such an attractive option to use for site design and management. Getting traffic reports on a regular basis is very important. I’ve run into a number of people with small web sites recently who simply do not know what kind of traffic their sites are getting. Finally, e-mail direction for addresses based on your domain name is a great feature.
JL: If you expect your site to be very large or have an especially high volume of traffic, you will also want to study carefully how you will be charged for “excess” storage or traffic requirements.
BH: After web hosting, the next cost is the design of the web site. I’m a fan of providing some quality graphics. I don’t think that it bodes well to have the same clip art found on all sites on the Internet. A prime example is the animated envelope that used to represent an email link. For a while there, it seemed like everyone was using that envelope image. One should at least pay for some original graphic design. Jerry, don’t you think it’s worth it?
JL: While the importance of graphics is often overrated, it is essential to meet a certain minimum level of quality. In my experience, designing professional--looking graphics consumes a disproportionate share of web site development time for many law firms. Image Cafe is a solution that is right for some firms. They sell easily customizable graphics templates, complete with rollover buttons, for less than $200. You can pay extra and get web site hosting services from them, or license the right to use the graphics at a site of your own. Image Cafe is a service of Network Solutions, Inc.
DK: You can accomplish similar results with what’s available in FrontPage. The drawback to FrontPage is that many sites use the same templates. A couple of years ago, Jerry and I both had sites that used the same FrontPage template.
BH: A law firm might also consider using something like the templates at Bigstep.com. This is a free service for the basic web site, but they may convince you to get an ecommerce piece and other things that your firm may not need. It’s a great “do-it-yourself” site and the results are professional. I’ve referred clients to Bigstep.com, when I felt that it was in their best interest.
DK: Let’s say that your budget is very limited and you want to do it yourself. You can learn HTML, the programming language of the web, but I don’t advise that. Instead, spend $149 (or $99 if you can find a bargain) on Microsoft’s FrontPage 2000. FrontPage allows you to create web pages without learning the underlying HTML, simply and easily. It also allows you to manage your site in an efficient manner by simply clicking on a “publish” button, so long as your host has FrontPage extensions. Best of all, FrontPage comes with a large number of professional designed templates, clipart and wizards for creating standard sites. You can do a quality, simple site and have it on the Internet in a weekend with an investment of under $500 (a bit more if you want to add more graphics). Kevin Thomason, in an excellent article in Law Office Computing, also reached the same conclusion, although he gave $600 as the cost. I’m willing to go a little lower. That approach will give you a good base to work from when you later decide to move up to a more advanced site and hire a web designer.
BH: However, some lawyers simply don’t want to be this involved in the process. They want to know what’s going on and what the web site will do for them – but they don’t want to do it themselves.
JL: To return to our initial point, law firms are overpaying if their site is static, only contains information and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cost justifiably increases when programming functionality is added.
BH: True. An attractive site that is informational should NOT cost a fortune. If the information on the site changes frequently, as in a telephone directory, then you might want to pay the extra amount to have a web-based application created. This would allow a data entry clerk to go to a web page, make a change to the database and the change dynamically appears in place of the old web page. You should invest the extra dollars into this type of functionality because it will save you dollars spent on having your web design firm make constant changes for you.
DK: The thing to remember is that cost should not be a major barrier to getting yourself a solid web presence. It’s becoming easier and easier to get a site done and out on the web, and not as expensive as many people think. Remember: a big factor in having a great site is simply having it out on the web long enough to let it evolve into a better site. As they say: you can’t win if you don’t play.