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Extras - Client Centered Web Sites

By Jerry Lawson, Published on June 1, 1998

Jerry Lawson is an Internet consultant for attorneys and
designer of the Internet Tools for Attorneys Web site, http://www.netlawtools.com.

How many times have you been stuck at a party with someone whose favorite words were "I, I, I" and "me, me, me"? Not the best way to rank high on your list of preferred social partners, right? How would you like to buy something from that person, or, even worse, retain them as your attorney? Not an appealing prospect, right?

Too many law firm Web sites are disturbingly similar to cocktail party boors. This is a key reason why so many are less successful than their owners would like.

Most law firm Web sites feature attorney biographies, contact information, a "Message from the Chairman," and other material of marginal interest. Some of them make gestures toward "content" by including a few articles written by their firm's attorneys, usually on what appear to be topics chosen more or less at random.

This approach is typical of what I call law firm centered Web sites. They inspire a reaction similar in potential clients similar to yours when you encounter a self-centered boor at the party.

There's nothing wrong with having biographies, contact information, a history of the firm, etc., at a law firm Web site. Indeed, we'd think the site was incomplete without it, just like we'd think there was something wrong with someone at a party who could not hold up his end of the conversation when the subject turned to them.

The law firm centered approach is a major problem when these materials are the focus of a site. If you are interested in using your web site to attract new clients, your site should be what I call client centered. Client centered sites focus on information of interest to clients, instead of focusing primarily on the law firm.

The law firm of Siskind, Susser, Haas & Chang has a Web site at http://www.visalaw.com/. Designed by Greg Siskind, it is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful in the country. It averages over 300,000 "hits" a month. The firm has over 10,000 subscribers to the e-mail newsletter promoted via its web site. You can check out the firm's access statistics yourself at http://www.visalaw.com/usage/. The success of this site led to Siskind writing the popular book, The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet, published by the ABA's Law Practice Management Section, and becoming a sought-after speaker and consultant. There is a Web site associated with the book at http://www.lawmarketing.com/~law.

Why is this web site so successful? There are a number of reasons, but one is most important:

The Siskind site exemplifies the client centered approach.

While it includes the customary biographies and contact information, the focus is on CLIENTS, and what those clients are interested in. In this case, the subject is immigration law, and only immigration law. It is covered in depth.

Does this approach work? One indication is the number of other sites that link to Siskind's, over 950, by a recent AltaVista search. These links illustrate a key value of a client centered approach.

If done well, it will cause other sites to link to yours. More important, many of those links will be what I call "quality links," or ones that are likely to refer potential clients. Each such link amounts to an implied endorsement of the linked-to law firm.

For example, just in the first few search results returned, there are links from:

* The Brown University Foreign Student Office, surely a desirable source of referrals of prospective clients.

* A page that appears to be a major guide to Internet resources for Phillipinos, with alumni directories of Phillipino schools and more. Near the top of the page, among a group of links to major U.S. government sites, there is a link to Siskind's web site.

* A page that's all in German--except for a link to Siskind's Web site.

SIDEBAR:

Are you interested in seeing how another site compares? Go to the AltaVista or InfoSeek search engine and enter a search request in this format:

link:visalaw.com

(substitute the domain name you are researching for visalaw.com)

You will receive a list of sites that have built hypertext links back to the site you are researching.

Some have argued that the Siskind site is a special case, unique because his firm does immigration work, which is an area of federal law with an international base of potential clients. While this has probably been a contributing factor in Siskind's case, these factors alone cannot account for the level of success his firm has achieved. The proof? The client-centered approach also works for other types of practice.

Consider the Law Offices of Bertrand Harding, Jr. in Washington, D.C., whose site was designed by my firm. While this firm does many types of tax work, for the purpose of their web site they decided to focus on issues of heavy interest to a particular group of clients: tax issues affecting colleges and universities. They have yet to accumulate as extensive a list of endorsements/referrers as Greg Siskind, but among the existing ones are some gems, including links from the University of Florida, Wichita State and Illinois State web sites. The University of Utah hypertext link to the Harding site provides an enthusiastic endorsement:

"Bert Harding has an FAQ section in plain English... excellent!"

Press coverage is another sign that a site is "client centered." For example, the College and University Tax site was highlighted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, by far the most significant "trade paper" to its target market.

It's difficult to overstate the beneficial impact of this type of endorsement. Here you have many highly respected third parties who are well situated to influence potential clients, actively referring those potential clients to these law firms. When the endorsement is accompanied by the power of a hypertext link on a web page, of course it is even more valuable.

Does the client centered approach work only for small and medium law firms? Nope, not so long as the larger firm is willing to adopt the right mindset. One of my favorite examples is the Vacatur Center , a part of the web site of the large Anderson, Kill and Olick. Vacatur is the practice of having a court set aside an unfavorable ruling, sometimes having it withdrawn from official reporters, by making a financial settlement with the other side.

The reaction to this imaginative site demonstrates the rewards that can come to a large firm that is willing to break out of the large firm mold. In just its first few months, this site attracted extensive press coverage, including the Washington Post (full page story in business section), WCBS-AM (5 broadcasts), AmLaw Tech (2 pages), CNET Radio (featured) and perhaps most important, many insurance related trade journals and on-line items and links. The value of this favorable publicity alone was probably enough to pay the development costs of the site.

Why did this section of the Anderson Kill site strike such a nerve? Because it was client centered, of course. Vacatur is controversial. Companies that have been hurt by the "dematerialization" of judicial precedents that would have helped them are concerned about it. The Vacatur Center helped Anderson Kill with both these clients, and those on the other side who were impressed by Anderson Kill's creativity and aggressiveness.

The client centered approach can work wonders for large firms too, if they are flexible enough to adopt it.

Law firm Web sites need not be mere "cyberspace business cards," or the equivalent of a paper law firm brochure. The Internet lets you go beyond these conventional marketing models.

When I went to law school, more years ago than I care to remember, lawyer advertising was not legal. We were taught that lawyers "marketed" by doing a good job, which would cause their expertise to become known, thus causing clients to come to them.

Greg Siskind and a handful of other attorneys among the thousands who now have web sites are proving that intelligent use of the Internet can let law firms skip step one. You can use the Internet to prove your expertise before a massive audience. If your Web site is truly client centered, it will attract new business for your law firm. As more law firms learn the difference between client centered and law firm centered sites, the number of highly effective law firm Web sites will continue to grow.

This article was originally published in the Internet Lawyer, January 1988.