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Extras - Internet Roundtable #14: A Continuing Discussion of Law Firm Marketing on the Internet - Validating Your Web site: How can web sites gain the trust of potential clients?

By Jerry Lawson, Published on November 15, 2000

Jerry Lawson is a lawyer and author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA LPMS 1999). Mr. Lawson operates the Internet Tools for Lawyers Web site.

Brenda Howard is the owner of CreativeWriting.com, LLC, a Web design firm in the Metro DC area. Ms. Howard is also a Corporate Software Trainer specializing in the Internet.

Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site

Guest Panelist: Larry Bodine is the operator of the LawMarketing Portal. A lawyer and marketer, he is the community leader of the LawMarketing online discussion group.

Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center

Dennis Kennedy (DK): The first order of business this month is introducing our guest panelist, Larry Bodine. Larry is one of the best-known and respected legal marketing experts in the country. He was the director of marketing for one of the country’s most prestigious law firms, and for years he has moderated the country’s premier online legal marketing discussion group, under his alter ego name, "Uncle Lar." Most recently, he developed the prize-winning portal for law firm marketing, http://www.lawmarketing.com. Larry, it’s a pleasure to have you with us.

Larry Bodine (LB): Thanks, Dennis, I’m looking forward to the discussion. I understand the topic this month is how to use the Internet to gain the trust of potential clients.

Jerry Lawson (JL): That’s right, and our starting point is a new study with a surprising conclusion: Contrary to popular assumptions, in some situations, consumers tend to trust information that they find on the Internet more than information they receive through conventional media. For example, 54% trust CNN.com, the Internet site, but only 40% trust the broadcast version. The ABC News web site is trusted by 44%, but only 29% trust the ABC television news. This study is from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a well-respected nonprofit organization. You can read the details of the study at their web site, http://www.people-press.org.

This unexpected finding raises a big question for marketers. When and why do consumers tend to trust information more when it is delivered over the Internet, even though it originated from exactly the same source? Understanding this paradox can help law firms maximize the value of their web sites.

Brenda Howard (BH): A little historical perspective may help. Until recently, the Internet was primarily a repository of educational and resource material. Most of the content came from libraries and universities. It wasn’t until 1992 that the commercialization of the Internet became possible because of the World Wide Web. Before that, people encouraged other people to use the Internet because you could find things like the entire works of Shakespeare. It is obvious that this reputation still exists.

JL: Your "residual reputation" theory is excellent. Here’s another possible explanation: the web sites frequently provide visitors the option to obtain more information than the TV versions provide. Giving away information is not just a way of attracting visitors, it is a way to "validate" your web site, making you more credible. I've come to call the process of causing people to trust your web site, and by extension, your law firm, "validating" a web site.

LB: You're on point, Jerry. Web viewers can also validate the news they see online by visiting another news site, and making sure the information checks out.

DK: In part, this is the Matt Drudge phenomenon. Especially with breaking news, I find that I now go to the Drudge Report site because he’s likely to have assembled links to the latest news on a given story, giving a fuller picture than the terse one-paragraph summary you find initially on many news sites. As the news reports on other sites start to reach the level of reporting that Drudge has found, I start to feel better about those other news sources. I realize that those comments are blasphemy to many people, but I think that my experience is becoming more common – Drudge gets millions of hits. The point, though, is that on the Web you have ways to test the validity, accuracy and timeliness of sources in a way you never could before, giving you a power you never had when you had three network news shows and one newspaper. Then, you were stuck with not only what they gave you, but how they presented it to you. Now, you can be more active.

JL: I think another reason why consumers trust Internet sites more than TV shows is that on well-designed web sites, the user is in control. Internet users are decision makers, not passive consumers, and this gives them a more positive feeling about web sites. What's the relevance to law firms? Design your web site's navigation features to give users flexibility in exploring it.

BH: Interactivity does make a difference. News reports are "fed" to the viewer on TV. On a web site, the visitor gets to pick what they want to read. This is empowering and gives the visitor a sense that they are getting what they want – instead of the other way around.

DK: Precisely. It used to be that it was OK that you could get the weather forecast at 6:20 or 10:20 on the local television news or maybe hourly on the radio. Then came the Weather Channel and you could get the local forecast, as they said, "on the 8s", every ten minutes. Forget the local news - now you had control. Now, even that’s not enough control - we can get the forecast whenever we want on the Web. Soon, the time it takes to turn on and boot up your computer will be too long of a delay. All of this has created an expectation of control and it’s important on any web site to facilitate some sense of control for users, often by providing a number of paths to the same information.

LB: Another advantage of a Web site over TV news is that you can't print out a TV show. But when you print out a Web page, it's reduced to writing. There is something very credible about a written document; it's just more believable than an anchorman talking on TV.

DK: Maybe that’s part of the end of the Walter Cronkite era. I agree that there is some sense that the written word has more credibility, but that may be a generational thing - will that view continue to hold as time goes along? The fact that you can print, though, is another aspect of control. The web site becomes portable and tangible - something you can access when you want and in a variety of ways. I hear people say that the web will move to a more television-like experience, but I don’t see that, for now at least.

JL: It's a good idea to avoid trying to make your web site like a television experience, through animations or providing highly structured trips through sections of the site. Users don’t like to have their choices limited. Video can and should be used in ways that adapt well to the Web.

LB: I agree. Hughes & Luce in Texas has several of their lawyers giving online video seminars at http://www.commercebynet.com. A viewer uses Windows Media Player to view them. Brobeck Phleger & Harrison in California has more than 20 videos of clients giving them favorable testimonials. They're each recorded at four different speeds, to accommodate the viewer's online connection. And the advantage over TV is that you can skip ahead in the video.

DK: I like Brobeck’s easy-to-remember URL, too. Seriously, though, I love the videos of presentations that come with PowerPoint slides now found on many web sites. Click on the point on the slide that you want and you skip right to that portion of the video. Lawyers are starting to record standard subject matter information and putting the video on their web sites. If you do any kind of presentation to a group, it makes good sense to videotape it and get it converted to streaming video for your web site. That’s becoming much easier and much cheaper to do.

BH: Just as important is the "choice issue". They can choose which videos they want to watch, versus the television show that goes on through a series of topics that only contains one news story of value to the person watching.

JL: What other methods can law firms use to build trust through their web sites?

BH: Oddly enough, one of the "web site trust" factors is response time to e-mail that is sent from web sites. There’s a new study out by Rainier Web Index, http://www.rainierco.com/survey_2000/index.htm, that indicates that response times to e-mail requests from the web sites of Fortune 100 companies ran anywhere from one week to two weeks – with some never responding at all. Law firms are not specifically mentioned, but the fact is that trust begins to erode as every day passes by without responding to the visitor. Dennis, do you think there is this same type of problem with law firm web sites and their response times?

DK: A few years ago, a law firm spent a significant amount of money on a direct mail piece that apparently went to most lawyers in St. Louis announcing the firm’s new web site and how it was going to be a major resource for St. Louis lawyers. I sent them an e-mail from the site with a question and never heard anything back. I predicted, accurately, that the site would not get much attention from that firm after the big public launch. You really squander the benefit of a web site by not responding to e-mail. Answering e-mail promptly and responsively is vital to establishing trust. Run your site like it matters to you.

JL: While it's important not to overestimate their importance, graphics can also help in establishing a web site's credibility. It’s like the difference between a car with a nice paint job and expensive leather seats versus one with a cheap paint job and cheap seats. The appearance of some web sites sends the message: "unreliable, a marginal operation," while another "look" sends the message: "reliable, established."

BH: I have to agree. First impressions do make a difference. Whether the client is walking through your front door or going to the home page of the web site – there is an initial impression made on the potential client – based solely upon what’s presented to them. Just like a professional building that is clean and maintained reflects as the person walks into your office, a sharp looking and professional web site determines whether the visitor stays or "clicks away". Credibility begins as the page starts to load in their web browser.

DK: Don’t get me started on silly graphics and animations. Create a theme, keep it professional, fit the graphics to your image. Here’s where a professional can really help you. Details matter. Every choice you make on your web site has meaning. In many ways, poor graphics can as much damage as a page full of typos.

JL: Typos, misspellings and poor grammar are deadly. They destroy the message of reliability and competence that you need to project.

BH: Jerry, deadly is the correct use of the word in this case. While misspelled words are cute when you receive a card from a 5 year old, they are killer when appearing on a law firm web site. People simply do not "forgive" typos.

LB: Just as the printed page is more believable than broadcast news, typos are more damaging than misspeaking. There is a permanent quality to something that's written. When a person reads misspellings, he secretly thinks the writer can't spell or is stupid.

DK: Or is careless or doesn’t pay attention. Neither of which is a good thing. After years of receiving e-mail riddled with misspellings, I’ve started to wonder if people know how to spell anymore, but find that I have developed some tolerance. It is ironic, though, that the kids in my daughter’s kindergarten class seemed to be better spellers than some college-educated e-mailers I know. Watch your grammar, too. How many times have you seen an "it’s" used in place of an "its"? Sometimes your IS people are not your best copywriters. You need to supervise the content going onto your site.

JL: Photos are not just an ego trip for the firm's lawyers, but another form of credibility builder. They tend to humanize a web site. They cause potential clients to think of you not as anonymous lawyers, but as human beings, someone easier to trust.

BH: Jerry, it goes to that theory that "seeing is believing". You may say that you have 20 years experience in a law firm, but when you see the photo of the senior partner and he has that graying hairline and the laugh wrinkles that show that he’s a warm person that enjoys life, you no longer have write the words that convince the potential client – they’ve seen it for themselves. The strength of new ideas and energy is conveyed in the photos of the young associates that have an energetic sparkle in their eyes. Photos of the attorneys do more than just personalize the web site, they create an atmosphere of "being there" for the client – even though they’ve never met in person.

DK: One of the things I can’t understand these days is the willingness of people to put up black and white pictures on web sites that simply aren’t flattering or look like they were taken by the bank camera during a robbery attempt. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by having a brother-in-law who is a professional photographer take my pictures, but having your photos done right makes a world of difference. Even better, the pros have techniques that can really enhance your picture. I had a picture where I didn’t like the way my shirt collar looked - next thing I knew Dan had straightened out the collar in the photo, adjusted the lighting and was asking me if he should touch up the gray in my hair. Don’t use pictures that work against you, or, even worse, ones that make you look untrustworthy.

JL: As a sort of extension of the photo idea, I think many law firms would be well advised to do more to use their web sites to promote key rainmakers. Give them a section of the web site to themselves. Why not play to your strengths? Build "cults of personality." Again, this technique is a way to give clients and potential clients a human face that they are more likely to trust.

LB: I don't see this happening. Law firm internal politics will in most cases prevent "favored" lawyers from being featured on a site. Promoting individual "stars" goes against the consensus style by which most law firm partnerships operate.

BH: Larry, it’s sad to think that this is true, but you are probably right. Unfortunately, this is a "missed opportunity" for law firms to "shine" when they should be "shining".

DK: Ah, this is one of Jerry and I’s favorite topics, probably because we’re the only lawyers we’ve ever found who agree with this approach. Taking this approach does require an element of trust that everyone has the good of the firm at heart. Interestingly, many lawyers with great individual web sites had to do them on their own because the firm wouldn’t support them, and, ultimately, their firms probably benefited more than the lawyers did. There are so many plusses of focusing on individuals – it can make a big decision at the moment a potential client makes the actual decision to hire or not. Unfortunately, I have to agree that we’re not likely to see many firms adopt this approach.

JL: A key barrier to trying this is fear: "Why make any of your key lawyers more attractive in an era when there is so much lateral mobility anyway?"

My experience has been that the best way to attract and retain top talent is to show that you are a place where that talent is appreciated and can grow. Giving a star lawyer feature treatment on a web site is one way to do this. It might not be right for every firm, but this a dynamite strategy for firms that can find a way to get over the internal political barriers.

Would David Boies have left Cravath after the Microsoft trial if Cravath had been more willing to feature and promote him? There’s no way to know for sure, but common sense tells you Cravath’s chances of retaining this money-magnet superstar would have been better if their corporate culture hadn’t gotten in the way of promoting him more effectively.

BH: So, the added benefit could be one of retention. It never ceases to amaze me when a benefit for the potential visitor can also be used as an internal benefit to the web site owner.

JL: The benefit is retention, and also, if you play your cards right, recruitment. This is a way to demonstrate to the most aggressive, ambitious and hardest-working young lawyers that you want, the potential superstars, that the firm is a place that will help them reach their maximum potential.

DK: And that message will show through on the site itself, which will probably give the visitor a greater feeling of trust. Trust is something that you earn and something that you can’t fake. But, on the web, there are ways that we’ve mentioned that you can enhance the level of trust you are creating – Jerry’s notion of "validation" of your site - and a great number of ways to fritter away the trust you’ve worked so hard to earn. Take a fresh look at your site in this light and I think you’ll find some simple things you can improve that will lead to results that you’ll like.

Larry, thanks for joining us.