Dennis Kennedy (DK): Many web sites make it too hard to contact the firm or lawyers in the firm. While the worst sin is simply not putting contact information on the front page of a site, many sites do not include e-mail addresses, phone numbers or other contact information at places where you would want to contact them. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but it’s also a bad business decision and one of the most common mistakes we see on web sites.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Contact information may seem at first glance like an A-B-C level elementary topic, but there are some subtleties that may not be apparent at first glance.
For example, there’s one significant possible refinement on e-mail handling that some firms will want to consider. Many firms, without really thinking about it, include the direct e-mail address of every one of their lawyers.
Is this really a good idea? I’m not so sure. There are advantages to having all incoming e-mails generated through a web site forwarded to one central e-mail screening person for the whole firm. Have a known-to-be diligent person screen the e-mail and forward messages as appropriate.
Brenda Howard (BH): That would help avoid one notorious problem: lawyers who don’t answer their e-mail. Sometimes this is due to laziness, and other times due to lawyers being sick or on the road where they can’t easily access their e-mail. Whatever the cause, failure to respond to e-mail can have adverse consequences.
JL: That’s right, and there are also ethical advantages. It helps prevent the formation of unwanted attorney-client relationships. The person answering the e-mail can screen for conflicts before deciding whether to forward a message to one of the firm’s lawyers. For example, I have been told that in some jurisdictions, a person considering a divorce will contact all the best divorce lawyers in town and talk to them about the case, with the idea of disqualifying them from representing their spouse. Of course, similar tactics could be used by phone calls or personal visits, but the Internet seems to make it more tempting to those who would abuse the system. My method makes this technique a little more difficult.
My method would not necessarily shield a law firm completely, as in some jurisdictions information known only to a member of a law firm’s support staff could disqualify a whole firm. However, at a minimum, it should improve the equities in favor of a law firm that uses it. It would show they acted in good faith to try to avoid conflicts.
Another practical advantage of this method is that it reduces the time your lawyers waste responding to completely off the wall questions that are unlikely to lead to new business for your law firm.
BH: Your technique could also reduce vulnerability to computer viruses, and cut down the time lawyers waste dealing with spam.
DK: Anything that cuts down on spam can’t be all bad, but I’m not completely enthusiastic about funneling all e-mail from your site through a single “firstname.lastname@example.org” e-mail address. It’s important to think about the logical contact for each site. For a department page, that’s probably the department chair. For resumes, it will be the hiring partner. And, this is important, for an article, it has to be the author. It’s silly to read a good article and then find that you can only send a comment or question to the author by means of the “info” mailbox. The only thing sillier, which happens far too often, is not providing an author’s contact information on the same page as the article. If you are doing that, you’ve missed the point. For many pages on your site, there will be a logical contact. Think like a user and you’ll handle that well.
I understand your desire to reduce barriers between lawyers and clients, or prospective clients. However, keep some points in mind:
a. If you have someone competent screening the e-mail, the screening process will be transparent to users most of the time. Yes, resumes should go to the hiring partner, and they can be forwarded rapidly and efficiently - and the hiring partner will appreciate having the junk filtered out, like resumes from people you would never hire.
b. Screening can be combined with multiple e-mail addresses. In fact, that is probably the best way to do it. You can have e-mail to hundreds of accounts funneled to one or more screeners.
c. Your lawyers can still have direct e-mail addresses. The difference is, the central-screening method gives them control. They can give out the direct contact address to clients and others they want to allow to contact them directly. All other mail can and should go through the screening process.
It’s a worthy idea, Jerry, but some issues should be considered, especially if you have an “info” e-mail address to which correspondence off the page is directed. Who attends to that mailbox? Must it be a lawyer? Have you trained that person to recognize what messages are important and the ethical implications of responding or not responding? I think that, as a general rule, you want to acknowledge and respond to all legitimate e-mail you get from your site in a reasonably prompt fashion. Are you equipped to do that?
Don’t underestimate the ethical issues involved in the contact process. Check the rules in your jurisdiction about appropriate disclaimers and incorporate e-mail contacts into your formal client intake and conflict checking process. Jerry’s suggested procedure is certainly a good starting point.
JL: The concerns you raise are all legitimate. Law firms should not adopt my suggestion without planning it carefully first, and selecting the right people to implement their plan. However, I think that law firms that do follow through may find my suggestion results in major improvements over the inconsistent, every-lawyer-for-himself procedures presently in place at most law firms.
DK: Moving on, one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability principles is that if the major sites such as Yahoo or Amazon.com use a certain type of functionality, it becomes a user expectation and you should probably adopt it on your site. Many, many web sites have an “About Us” or “Contact” button and I automatically look for one as a way to get e-mail addresses, phone numbers and addresses. Don’t forget that many times people come to your site as an easy way to get your address or phone number.
One of Nielsen’s columns called “End of Web Design” expressed this idea particularly well. His “Law of the Internet User Experience” is that:
“Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know. This Law is not even a future trend since it has been ruling the Web for several years. It has long been true that websites do more business the more standardized their design is.”
Sometimes making people stop and think is a good idea. In this situation it is not a good idea. Unless you are designing a web site for the rock band U2 or something similarly arty, use a navigation scheme that will be instantly obvious to users.
BH: This is correct. Even sites like U2.com should adhere to the standards that have evolved. Much in the same way the Table of Contents always appears at the beginning of a book, users have come to expect that there will be buttons marked Home, Contact Us, About Us, Jobs and a button for the product or service being offered. A little known navigational tool is to link your logo to the home page of the site. If you are ever on a site and need to get back to the beginning, just click on the logo.
DK: If someone is looking at your web site, unless they are doing so to get an address or phone number, they will generally want to contact you over the Internet, and that means by e-mail. Think about someone looking at your site over a dial-in connection at home. Probably the only way they can call you is to disconnect the modem. Otherwise, they have to find a pen, write down a phone number and call you later. That doesn’t make it easy for people to contact you and a good percentage of them will not.
Electronic business cards, known as vCards, are an interesting way to make it even easier for people who use Personal Information Managers, or PIMs, like Lotus Organizer 5.0 and MS Outlook 98 and later versions to contact you. If you use software that supports the vCard standard, you can save contact information about yourself in a standard file format that uses the extension .vcf. This makes it easy to import into the address books of compatible software. More and more new software recognizes and can use vCards. This makes it much easier for those who use PIMs will save your contact information.
You can test this from the “online pocket part” for my book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (URL in bibliography below) by going to http://www.lawyernetbook.com/downloads/Jerry_Lawson.vcf. From this site you can download my vCard. After you have saved it to a hard drive, if you have a vCard-capable PIM installed, clicking on the file name (Jerry_Lawson.vcf) should cause the vCard to load automatically. At that point, you will have the option of including it in your Contacts file. If you click on it, the file will be loaded into your web browser and you can see what a vCard file looks like "in the raw." Note that since vCards are all text, they cannot transmit a computer virus in an "infectious" form.
It is logical to include vCards on law firm web sites, to make it easier for potential clients who use PIMs to get in touch with you.
BH: If your web server is not already set up to handle them, you may need to tell your webmaster to configure the server to recognize files ending in .vcf as a “MIME type.” This will allow them to be opened automatically when downloaded by someone using a web browser.
That’s right. Also, if your web site is hosted on a Unix server, do not include blank spaces in the vCard file name. This causes problems. A better approach is to Include underscores instead of blank spaces in the name.
Many potential clients won’t know what vCards, or won’t use PIMs. It doesn’t matter. What you are doing is giving the more savvy clients and potential clients new options, an alternate way to store your contact information that will be more convenient for some.
DK: And you give them a very easy way to add your name to their contacts list. The simplest and probably best approach is to put all your contact information on every page, but at least put an e-mail address on every page of your site. Better yet, it is a simple matter of coding to put an e-mail link on a page that pops up the visitor’s e-mail program and address an e-mail to you. Even better than that, you can even include a bit of coding that will pre-fill the subject line of the e-mail message. This is a great way to see messages that come from your site or even from particular parts of your site.
For example, this formatting in an e-mail address would create a hypertext link on your page that reads simply “Bill”. When a user with compliant software click on the link, their e-mail software would begin a new message to the address email@example.com, and the subject line would say “Hi, Bill!”:
<a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org?Subject=Hi, Bill!">Bill</a>
DK: I like to pre-fill the subject line with a reference that indicates what article or page on my site that the e-mail is sent from and that helps me with managing e-mail.
JL: This is a very handy technique, but it won’t work with all e-mail software. The article “HTML Tips: E-mail Links” listed in the bibliography below explains this and related tricks in more detail.
DK: I’m much less enthusiastic about using forms on web pages rather than e-mail links. Forms may give the user the feeling that you are gathering too much information about them. In certain cases, however, forms may make sense, especially if you are registering users.
JL: You have a point. On the other hand, well-designed forms using pull-down boxes and error/omission checking routines may make it more likely that clients will provide information that lawyers need to know. This may be more important in some types of practices than in others.
BH: The secret to forms is to only require the name, phone number and email address. Let all other fields be optional to the user. I usually put a note at the top of a form that says, “All fields marked with a asterisk (*) are required fields and are necessary for us to respond to your inquiry.” Then the other fields are optional. That way, the person can contact you and they’ll be comfortable that you are NOT collecting data that isn’t necessary to open a dialogue.
DK: Here’s another subtle issue to watch out for: PDF files may not be a good choice for resumes and bios. Unless the person creating a PDF file knows what they are doing, users often can’t send an e-mail directly from the resume page. As a result, you make it too hard to contact someone and if someone has reached the point of looking at a resume, you want to make it easy to contact the person. A final point of PDF files: PDF files are meant to be printed. That means that someone may look at the printout later while not on your site. Don’t forget to put contact information on each page of the PDF file.
You are right that carelessly produced PDF files won’t contain hypertext links. However, let’s make sure everyone understands that hypertext links can be included in PDF files if you pay attention to what you are doing. See, for example the PDF file for my presentation on law firm extranets at NY LegalTech,
Much more important, though, your broader point about the undesirability of PDF files is definitely correct. Nielsen is on point again. In one of his essays, “Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading,” he says “Forcing users to browse PDF documents makes your website's usability about 300% worse relative to HTML pages.”
BH: This is correct. Users do not want to have to do anything except to start reading or contacting the person right away. Another problem with PDF files is that they were not searchable until Adobe Acrobat version 4.0. These pages fall through the cracks of search engines and will not be listed. This is extremely important from a marketing perspective. Even that version is difficult to ensure that they are searchable. Lastly, PDF files were not handicap accessible until Adobe Acrobat version 5.0. Many users still have version 3.0. Unfortunately, users are slow to upgrade to newer versions of software. If you cannot avoid using PDF files, then be sure to include a link to the free download of Adobe Acrobat so that they can go through the process if they choose to take the time.
DK: Thanks, Brenda and Jerry. This month’s discussion is a good illustration that even issues commonly taken for granted can contain hidden subtleties, traps, and room for increased efficiencies that would surprise most people. Don’t take even the simplest things about your web site for granted.