Talking With A Master Law Firm Web Developer, Part 2 of 2:
Including marketing "full service" law firms, narrowcasting, e-mail newsletters as "push," the Big Five challenge and more.
If you missed part one, please click here.
Brenda Howard (BH): One of Mark’s clients, Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, uses a "narrowcasting" approach, with separate web sites to support their toxic injury and mediation groups.
Mark Pruner (MP): Mitchell Rait, the Marketing Partner at Wilentz is the one to be congratulated on these resource centers. We re-did their main site and discussed how resource centers are developed, but they did these two resource centers. Once you understand the principal concepts and tools, the sites can be done internally if you have the right people.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): It takes both the right people and the right attitude. If you track the really interesting sites or sections of sites for law firms, you’ll generally see that one individual has taken ownership of the site. Any web site can be a mountain of work, but a successful one takes a lot of involvement. There’s an element of trust that comes into play and firms and attorneys have to think about incentives and compensation for attorneys who take control over sites. I’m not going to pretend the issues are easy. It’s an interesting dynamic because, as Mark suggests, one successful resource center can lead to multiple resource centers on a firm’s site.
Jerry Lawson (JL): This is exactly the approach I’ve advocated for years. Mark puts the concept into practice particularly effectively. Less imaginative lawyers trap themselves by thinking, "But we’re a ‘full service’ law firm, and that’s how we have to market ourselves." What they are overlooking is that the best "full service" firm is not mainly a gang of generalists, but groups of experts in particular areas of law. The narrowcasting approach that Mark uses so well draws in new clients who can then be cross sold other services.
BH: The Deregulation.com site also illustrates building virtual communities, as the firm sponsors an e-mail discussion group on that topic. How well has that been received?
MP: Deregulation.com has been very successful for Robinson & Cole. The Daily Deregulation News service summarizes deregulation news from the major Northeast newspapers each day. These summaries are e-mailed out to subscribers across the country. Several of the recipients of the DDN have become Robinson & Cole clients. Rarely is one factor the reason that a client selected a firm, but the DDN helped build the relationship on daily basis that ultimately resulted in the company becoming a new client.
DK: I love e-mail newsletters that summarize news and current developments. This approach can generate a lot of good will and goes a long way toward establishing expertise and identity for a firm in a particular field. The idea of branding is especially important as law firms see more competition from both inside and outside the profession.
JL: E-mail newsletters are a classic example of "push." Web sites are great, but with them, you are dependent on "pull." In other words, the prospective client finding and remembering to visit your site. By contrast, every time you send out an e-mail newsletter, you are reminding the subscribers of your law firm and its abilities, in a favorable context.
BH: Mark, I understand one of your areas of particular interest is competition from accounting/consulting firms. What do you see happening here that law firms need to think about?
MP: A variety of consulting organizations and investment bankers, as well as the Big 5 are taking a multi-disciplinary, multi-jurisdictional approach to professional services. Many lawyers work in these organizations and often do work very similar to what they did while they were in private practice. If a law firm has more than 100 attorneys, it really needs to have a strategic planning committee that is looking at these issues. Firms also need to look at what functions in their firm they can enhance with technology. Firms can still be in the vanguard with virtual document rooms, but it is firms like Holland and Hart, Womble Carlyle and my overseas favorite Morton Fraser of Edinburgh that are leading the way.
DK: Using technology and the Internet to collaborate with clients offers firms huge opportunities. Extranets, which are private and secure web sites for clients, are getting a lot attention and deservedly so, but there are a number of firms doing other innovative things as well. I’ll refrain from talking about my firm, but interested lawyers would be well advised to look into what John Tredennick is doing at Holland & Hart. John Alber is working on some impressive Internet applications at Bryan Cave in St. Louis that have gotten some great press for the firm lately. I attended a seminar he gave that showed some of their extranet developments, all highly client-oriented, and they have a great deal of potential. Let me emphasize that these types of developments are not simply forms of marketing; they are income-producers.
JL: My impression is a lot of lawyers believe that the ABA’s action (or, more accurately, non-action) last summer on MDPs means that they no longer have to worry about the accounting/consulting firm threat. It’s not going to be that easy. These new competitors are not going to just quietly fold their tents and go away. Part of the problem is that when someone like Anderson Consulting (now "Accenture") does it, the "unauthorized practice of law" is a victimless crime. The alleged "victim" normally winds up with high quality services at a price much lower than that charged by the average law firm, which is stuck with an archaic hourly rate billing structure and is technically unsophisticated by comparison.
Conventional law firms will still have some types of work solely to themselves, but it is naïve to think that bar associations are going to be able to prevent new competitors from skimming the cream of much previously lucrative legal business. The typical bar association disciplinary official seems to have enough trouble handling paralegals who draft wills or disbarring some poor lawyer with a drug or alcohol problem. Relying on your local bar counsel to protect you from a sophisticated organization like PriceWaterhouseCoopers is like expecting Bambi to thrash Godzilla.
Instead of relying on the government to continue to protect them via a monopoly, savvy law firms will protect themselves, by becoming more efficient competitors. Expanding into ancillary markets like the examples Dennis noted is a promising way for law firms to stay in the game.
DK: As I see it, Mark, one of your biggest strengths is understanding that web site development is not solely, or even primarily, an exercise in graphic design. It seems to me that the top question in your mind when you develop a site is not, "How can we make this site pretty?" but "What can we do on this site to provide concrete benefits to this law firm?"
MP: Well I’m not opposed to making a site look good. [Laughs]. I’ve always liked the opening for the Titanic Virtual Trial site, but too many sites are over designed in my opinion. The worst are the sites that chop up the pages into scores of small images. If any one of these images hang, and during the Internet rush hour from 3-5 EST one image almost certainly will, the page can take forever to load. For example deregulation.com started out with a beautiful image map, but it was dropped, because it took so long to load.
DK: Well, it’s been a short transition from Courier type to Times Roman fonts to full-fledged web design for many firms and talk about working with designers makes many attorneys nervous. The marriage of form and function is a worthy goal. I think that 2001 will be the break-out year in law firm web design, especially as firms realize that professional doesn’t mean staid and boring. Already we’re starting to see some nice use of Flash animation and good design and usability principles appearing on law firm sites. The era of big image maps of the front pages of sites is probably coming to an end. Unfortunately, many firms forget that many visitors to their sites are using only 28.8kbs modems and don’t want to wait for the picture of your reception area to load or to see a bunch of little pictures load.
JL: Don’t get me started on Flash, which is almost always a detriment as used on law firm sites. I’ll save my complaints about that for another day. Mark’s point about the drawbacks of using multiple small files is well taken. Total size is important, but it is unwise to ignore the problems created by using too many small images on a page. I recently came across an otherwise-pretty-good Hawaiian law firm law firm site that had one page with 50 separate images files.
BH: There are drawbacks, but if you want a great design, you’ll want to slice (cut up) the images and it is better to do this than to have one huge image in place. The secret to successfully doing this is to make sure the check the loading time of the design – before and after "slicing" the design. Market research tells us that a site must load in under 30 seconds – or we’ll lose that visitor. As long as the design loads in under that time limit, the visitor will stay. It doesn’t matter if the images are "sliced" or not. It’s the time it takes to load the whole page – not necessarily whether or not the images are sliced. A slow loading site is a disaster – whether or not the reason is because of slicing a huge design. It’s difficult to get a client to say that they want a "Plain Jane" site – especially when you can give them a great design and still meet the needs of the visitor with a quick loading site. One has to admit that an attractive lobby does a great deal in making a potential client feel comfortable. The same goes for the web site. Being attractive really has its advantages.
JL: Brenda suggests 30 seconds as the maximum allowable load time, and this number has been bandied about as a rule of thumb in the industry for a long time. Some newer research suggests that 10 seconds is a safer maximum load time. I strongly encourage people to aim for a load time of 10 seconds or less over 56K modems. Being attractive is important, but the world’s most attractive site is worthless if visitors are "bailing out" before they get a look at it.
MP: While there is nothing wrong with sites that look good, it is probably more important that they are functional, interactive and help drive the firms’ marketing.
DK: You just have to be careful in thinking that a picture of your attractive lobby on the front page of your web site has the same effect on a visitor to your web site as the actual lobby has on someone who comes to your office. The underlying principles are the same, but your execution should be different on your web site. Mark’s ideas and the web sites he’s designed create inviting spaces that work for firms. We’ve all admired Mark’s work and it’s been our pleasure to get to have this conversation with him.
JL: Definitely. It’s always a pleasure to talk to Mark, because he illustrates the difference between being a "designer" and a "developer." "Designers," who approach web sites as primarily vehicles for displaying fancy graphics, are a dime a dozen, and tend to produce the weakest web sites. It’s harder to find what I call a "developer," someone who understands that while appearance is important, it’s a relatively small part of a successful law firm web site.