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Law Firm Marketing - So your firm's got a website. Great. But is it stuck in 1997? or 10 Things to help your site not...stink.

By Andy Havens, Published on April 24, 2005

Andy Havens, Marketing Management Consultant and co-founder of Sanestorm Marketing. Questions, comments, and criticism welcome. Contact Andy at 1.877.SSTORM1 or andyhavens@sanestorm.com.

It took awhile for law firms to catch on the Internet. That’s OK. The web wasn’t as obviously integral to the practice of law as it was to many other industries initially. But as time wore on, firms caught on, and now the very few shops without websites look kind of like those poor souls who keep wearing shiny polyester sports coats with wide lapels while loudly insisting that they’ll be back in style any day now.

If you are one of those firms… seek help. If you still don’t have a website – and I don’t care if you’re a sole practitioner, a small, boutique shop or a large mutli-national practice – and you think that the Internet is irrelevant to your practice, you are whistling in the dark. Find a 12-year-old child and have them explain how the world works to you.

For those of you lawyers and firms with websites, though, I’m going to make a broad, sweeping generalization – they stink. I know you’d like to think I’m talking about everybody’s site except yours, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that yours does, too.

I get flack from lots of my peer group of law marketing consultant buddies for being this… er… “direct.” Some call it “rude.” Some call it “abrasive.” I don’t mean to be rude, I mean to be honest. I never want any of my vendors or consultants to varnish an unpleasant truth about my operations. If something is broke, calling it fixed doesn’t make it fixed. Calling it “broke” at least brings the proper attention to the problem.

So… with apologies to the delicate sensibilities of all the lawyers in the audience, here are the “10 Things to Help Your Site Not… Stink.” These are in order of ever increasing importance.

10. Fix sick pixs with quick, slick tricks

OK. So maybe I should cut down on the rhyming and alliteration. That’ll be the end of it for this column. What we’re talking about here is bad attorney bio pictures on your website. First of all, they need to match. Need, need, need. Having some in black-and-white and some in color just screams, “We can’t get organized!” Second of all, they really should be in color. I know… the one in black-and-white was taken in 1979, and you had hair back then… but in California that could get you in trouble for false advertising. Color communicates friendliness, authenticity and depth. B&W communicates the fact that you couldn’t get your older partners to sit still for a portrait in the last 15 years. Also… you should update the photos every 5-10 years.

I’m often asked if I think firms need to put attorney pictures up on the site at all. Frankly, I think it’s a waste of time. What you look like has nothing do to with how well you practice law. But so many firms do it that it has become de rigueur. If you don’t do it, you run the risk of clients wondering why you don’t do it. So, if you’ve got to do it, do it right. Make them in color, make them consistent, update them.

By the way… you don’t really need to use an expensive portrait photographer for your web shots. The resolution is so much lower than for “the good stuff,” that you can do a fine job in-house with a digital camera, a standard, cloth back-drop and decent lighting. Just be sure to take a dozen or so pics and choose the one you like best.

9. Bio hazards

Close on the heels of unruly headshots are unruly bios. I love to browse through firm bio pages where one partner goes on for page after page, running down his entire career in glorious detail… and then the next partner – of relatively the same vintage – simply states her areas of practice, where she went to school, where she clerked and what boards she currently sits on. 2,500 words vs. 250. Wonderful.

What does that say about the firm? Again, that it’s disorganized. Your firm bios should all be relatively the same length and cover the same topics. “But wait!” I hear the partner-on-my-shoulder cry. “Why and how can a first year associate have the same amount of space as a partner with 15 years experience?” Well, because it looks nice, speaks well of your organizational ability, and puts forward the skills that your associates do have, rather than just letting them sit there looking like unformed clay. Of course the items on an associate’s bullet list will be less sophisticated than those on a partner’s, and they may not be about client service, but more about experiences from college and law school… but those will still help inform readers about their potential and why you hired them in the first place.

Also… biographies are a great place to cross-link like mad. Make sure that every article an attorney has on the website is listed and linked to from his/her bio page. Link to their practice and industry areas. Link to the “Community” page if they do work in that area. Link to the schools they attended. Besides being useful and a potential cross-selling tool, live links on a web page make it look highly “connected,” which gives an impression of activity and energy.

8. Pass the Spam

One of the loudest and most frequent complaints I hear from attorneys about the price they pay for connectivity is spam. Even with spam filters, blockers, Wizards and secretaries working to keep the stuff from getting to their in-boxes, lawyers tell me they’re inundated with the stuff. Well, I can’t cure the problem, but I can offer some treatments.

First, although I insist that there be as many ways as possible for clients, potential clients, media contacts and the public in general to interact with you and your firm on its website, this doesn’t mean you have to post your raw, naked email address up there for every spam-bot to harvest. In case you didn’t know it, that’s why you are getting tapped by the Spam Reaper more often than Joe and Jane Everyman. Spammeisters send these little crawlers out across the web looking for strings of code that they recognize as email addresses; basically anything with “text@text.com” anywhere in it. You need to be reachable, but you don’t want the horror (the horror…) of spam. Here’s a couple ways to fight free.

First, don’t post your email address with your bio. Instead, post a link to a “contact” page on your site that offers a page where someone can type in text, choose whom they want to send it to, etc. You can also force people to choose what kind of message they’re sending, include an email address for a reply, etc. This can be helpful if you want to harvest your own data for marketing or vendor management. The back-end software that will eventually get the message to the lawyers at your firm need not keep their email addresses anywhere on the actual site. Spam-bots become frustrated, which makes us glad.

Also, if you want to publish articles, papers, PDFs, newsletters, etc. with the names and contact information for attorneys, include either the contact page for the firm, or “code out” the email address of the lawyer. For example, “johnsmith@mylawfirm.com” would become “johnsmith [att] mylawfirm [dott] com.” Most readers have been exposed to this by now and understand that all human beings need to band together to save email from the evil spammers that threaten to defeat one of the greatest tools of efficiency the world has ever known. 

I also suggest that every attorney at a law firm have two email addresses. One that they use for everyday email, public documents, the media, etc., and one that they use only for current clients. I then suggest that they set up a rule in Outlook (or with their secretaries) such that the client-only emails go into a special folder or get highlighted in some way so that they get the correct attention. You also want to make sure that that email address is not exposed to any of the firms spam filters. I have heard several scary stories about critical emails from clients getting eaten by spam filters because they happened to contain language that triggered the “this is spam” response from the email server. This is especially true in employment and labor law, when many of the issues themselves involve harsh and/or sensitive language.

So… don’t give up on email. Just do a few things to make it easier on yourself and clients, and harder on the spammers.

7.  Flash in the pan

I love Flash animation on websites. I love Flash ads. I love Flash cartoons, Flash editorial graphics, Flash games, Flash utility plug-ins and Flash enabled applications that don’t require downloads to a local PC.

That being said, I only love them when they’re done well and done for a reason, not just to say, “Hey! Look! We have motion on our website! That means that we are ‘hip to the coolest Internet jive, dawg!’

If you have a Flash “splash” page that sits in front of your actual website, pumping out some meaningless animation with swirly lines and collapsing maps and pictures of buildings… lose it. Today. It’s annoying potential clients and probably driving them away.

Here’s a quick way to tell if a Flash page is really necessary. If there’s a button that says, “Skip this,” or “Go to Main Page,” or words to that effect… the page is a waste of electrons to begin with 

Now… if you can use that money and your nice agency to produce an interactive Flash app that actually does something, great. Maybe a value calculator linked to how much money someone could potentially lose if they don’t get their Sarbanes-Oxley house in order. Or a game for potential summer associates.

But those “Intro” pages that are the equivalent of the “Welcome to our theatre!” slides you get to endure at the theatre? Burn ‘em down immediately.

6. Static cling

How often does your front page change? How often does it change substantially or noticeably? Let me ask you this question – how long would you continue to subscribe to a magazine that had the same cover and same headlines every week.

Yes, I know that a law firm isn’t a magazine. But if you want a website that does anything other than act as an electronic repository for PDF versions of your brochures, you need to change your content regularly, and you need pointers to that change on your home page, and you need to make the changes noticeable.

I like the metaphor of a magazine or a portal site. Have an area on your home page for “firm news.” Another for “industry alerts,” and one for “important cases.” Highlight important news in the cities where your firm does business. Local flavor always does well when people come visiting; everybody loves to see and hear the name of their own town. Why do you think comics and musicians always use the name of the city they’re in while performing?

How often should your content change? At least once a week. And by that I mean that everything on your home page should be brand new at least once a week. So you can do a whole turn-and-burn every Monday, or you can rotate out 1/5th of your stuff every weekday. Is that a lot of work? Sure. But nobody said being relevant and attracting clients to your firm would be easy. Your alternative is to keep being boring and stuffy. It’s entirely your call.

5. Navigational aids

I find it hard to believe, but there are still some firm sites that don’t keep a standard menu or navigational panel on every page of their site. This is inexcusably bad form. It’s the equivalent of having a 12-story building with elevators to the 8th floor, stairs from 8 to 9, an elevator from 9-11, and then an escalator from 11-12 that only goes up. You need to have consistent navigational methodology. Need, need, need.

4. It’s all about me. Me, me, me, me, me

If your site is only there to give information about your firm and not learn about visitors or give them a chance to contribute, you lose. And so do they. The Internet is the greatest “cool” mass medium in history. I use “cool,” in the way Marshall McLuhan initiated. “Hot” media are ones that allow for no interaction; they are like fire – you can look, but you can’t touch. “Cool” media allow for interaction. So… radio? Very hot. Conversation? Most cool.

The Internet has the potential for high cool. But many firms seem to turn off the cool tap and just let the hot content flow out in a never-ending stream of “me, me, me.” That’s bad marketing.

When you give someone a chance to do something - to participate or interact – you immediately invite them to become more than a member of the audience. The become a player in the scene. And guess which kind of story people remember more? Ones they hear, or ones they live? Right.

So you need to put as much interactivity into your site as possible. Studies have shown that websites with games are the most “sticky” of any on the Internet. And while I don’t suggest that you put a Vegas-style gambling panel on every page of your firm’s site, I do suggest that you think about your site as a chance for interaction, rather than just a table to lay brochures on.

Can you provide various financial and/or industry calculators? Yes, with the necessary disclaimers. Can you have people answer a survey that will then put them in a high/medium/low risk category for certain types of legal action? Can you have new clients fill in a bunch of billing and contact information on your website and have that information populate your conflicts and billing software in order to make the logistics of doing business easier and faster? Can you offer RSS feeds of your blogs and newsletters?

Law clients are looking for attorneys who will listen to them and respond well to their needs. You can demonstrate a propensity for that by modeling that behavior on your website.

3. What the heck is a practice group?

A bunch of people working on their clarinet skills? I know that just about everyone in the legal industry understands what a “practice group” is. But are all your clients coming from the legal world? Are some of them coming from retail, commerce, industry, academia, not-for-profit and government? If so, using an industry-specific term as the most fundamental way to categorize your service is not good customer-focused marketing.

Even if visitors know what a practice group is, there’s still a problem. Organizing your services by practice area is a way of dividing up what you do in terms of how you see the business, not how customers see it. They have an industry, a sector, products and services, employees and problems. Not a practice group need. They may have needs that straddle several practice groups, or that don’t fit easily into one or another.

You’re always better off describing what you do in terms of how customers view it. Break your services up either by industry offerings or by the situations/solutions you provide. If you feel like you must include practice areas, make sure you do both that and the industry areas, too. Then, over time, have your Web Master get you the stats on how many visitors are hitting your practice area pages vs. your industry and solutions pages. My guess is that your practice area pages will be seeing much less traffic.

2. Price of admission

Strictly speaking, this is a brand issue, not a web issue. But since most law firm clients and audiences will see the firm’s brand materials on the web and nowhere else, I’ve got to mention it here.

If your mission/vision statement runs something like this:

“To provide outstanding service to our clients while maintaining the highest standards of professional ethics.”

Take it off and don’t worry about it. That’s not a mission statement, a brand statement or a tag-line. It’s a description of what all law firms are expected to do, right out of the box.

Because most law firms don’t take marketing very seriously, they tend to hire marketing agencies or consultants who cost less and/or don’t have much experience outside the realm of legal marketing. That’s OK; you’ve got to start somewhere. But law firm websites are filled to the brim with meaningless, glib marketing “blah, blah, blah” like the above statement. And it does nothing for the reputation of your firm or the quality of your site.

It’s like saying, “Our cars all have four wheels and go forwards and backwards.” Think of it this way, when you advertise your firm as, “Honest, hard-working and timely,” you are really only going to differentiate yourself from those firms that actively advertise themselves as, “Shifty, lazy and consistently late.” And while I’d get a kick out of designing that ad, I’ve never seen one like it.

If you can’t think of something to say about your firm that you wouldn’t be able to say about any other decent, well-run firm you’ve encountered, don’t bother. Just move on to the facts. Better yet, hire a good marketing agency or consultant to school you in what brand is really all about.

1. Blog

If your firm isn’t blogging, it needs to be. Blogs are to PR what email was to letters and desktop publishing was to the print industry. Blogging is public relations on steroids and a sugar high at the same time. And I mean that in a good way. And blogs are perfect for law firms.

I’m not going to go into details here – I’ve written an article here at LLRX on blogs for law firms and one for the American Lawyer Media’s Law Journal Newsletter, Marketing the Firm (full text of article here). Suffice it to say that I believe blogging is the most significant new marketing medium to come along for law firms since the web itself. Ignore it at your peril.

Conclusion

You need to think about your website as a living, changing, interactive community space. Not just a place to lump your articles, bios and press releases. You’re probably going to need to hire more staff to work the details and you’re going to need to let your attorneys know that they need to take more time to work on their web stuff. If you don’t, you’ll be losing business to the firms that do.

The first phase of the web involved pushing lots of information out at surfers who were delighted to be able to see text and pictures on their screen that they hadn’t been able to connect to before. The next phase, which really took off in about 1998, involved those surfers being able to interact with the web, not just passively read and look at it. If you’re not providing ways for your visitors to interact with your firm, I’m afraid your site is stuck in 1997.