Jerry Lawson is the author of The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers (ABA 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 the Director of Legal Technology for NetTech, Inc., a St. Louis, Missouri based legal technology and Internet consulting firm, lawyer, and frequent speaker and writer on Internet topics for lawyers.
This Month's Topic: Basic Elements of a Simple Law Firm Web Site (Part II)
Q: If I do put up a simple starter Web page, what should I be sure to avoid?
Brenda Howard (BH): Well, in Part I of this article we gave people a list of what should be included on a starter Web site. What should be avoided?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): There's so much not to include. It boggles my mind that sites with zero content will have animations, advanced Web effects and lots of graphics. The same amount of time could have been put into basic content. Think about professional image. Does an animation of a little envelope for e-mail that takes a long time to load really help people hire you as a lawyer? Compare that to Jerry's suggestion in Part I of this article about simply including PGP keys as a simple way of showing both technological and professional savvy.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Animated graphics can be effective. One example is the LegalEthics Web Page (http://www.legalethics.com). Unfortunately, the level of good taste of Peter Krakaur, the owner of that page, is rare. For that reason, animated graphics are almost always a negative factor.
BH: Jerry, I have to smile about your comment on animated images. We all seem to be in agreement that they should be avoided, but one that you created for The Mediation Center (http://www.creativewriting.com/makeover) is another perfect example of how you can use this technology and do so with style.
JL: I guess it’s the Baptist preacher genes in my background. How can you denounce demon rum, or animated graphics, or just about any sort of sin, if you don’t know much about it?
I used an animated graphic on the Mediation Center project because I thought one could support the client’s message while still being tasteful.
If you absolutely must experiment with animation, one technique that may make it more palatable is to set up the graphic so that it cycles only once or twice, then stops. This technique was used on both the Legalethics.com page and the Mediation site animated graphic that you liked. This adjustment is easy to do with programs like Paint Shop Pro Version 5.
BH: I suppose this example supports Dennis's point though. Most lawyers creating a simple site do not have the necessary graphic design skills to do this well. As such, they end up using many of the "free" pre-created graphics that are available on the Web. Unfortunately for them, most of these are overused. It makes the law firm site look like a site created by the Elvis Presley fan that used the same image for the unofficial fan club email. Dennis, what do you think is worse than animation on a Web site?
DK: By the way, I really don't dislike all animation. It's tough, however, to do it well and there are better places to put your attention when starting out.
My pet peeve lately is any page where the designer chooses font colors and backgrounds that make it nearly impossible to read anything on the page. Unfortunately, the printout may not be any better.
There are good reasons that we've used black text on white pages for hundreds of years. Do everything possible to make your pages easy to read and print.
JL: Illegible pages are much more common than they should be. Part of the problem is that monitors and graphics cards are not fungible. Frequently, a page looks fine on the designer’s system, but lousy on most others. Test your site on a variety of types of equipment, browsers and software settings (especially color depth and resolution).
DK: One more point: if you can't pay much attention to a page, avoid counters and "last updated" dates. Over time, they will embarrass you.
JL: I can't imagine a situation in which it would be appropriate to include a counter on a law firm Web page. Even your average junior high school student today understands why they are the epitome of uncool.
DK: Unfortunately, though, you may be at a firm where a managing partner, who typically will lack the Internet sophistication of the average junior high school student, thinks a counter is cool. There are better ways to get traffic statistics.
JL: Right. Counters are not just unstylish (though that alone would be reason enough to avoid them), but substantively bad. They are inaccurate (most typically making your page look much less popular than it really is), make your pages download slower, and fail to provide the level of detail you need about who is visiting your site and which pages they are reading.
BH: As a Web host myself, when I see a counter on a page hosted by someone else, that tells me that the Web hosting company isn't providing the appropriate statistical reports for their clients. Since it is imperative to know how many visitors are coming to your site and what pages they are visiting, a law firm should check to make sure that they will receive statistical data from their host before deciding on that particular one. If you do decide to go with a Web host that is more economical, thereby not providing statistics, do not advertise this fact on your Web site by using a counter.
DK: Here’s another one. Every site should be in the process of construction. Avoid the "under construction" signs. A better approach is to say "Coming Soon" and list some of the cool things you want to do. That gives a much better feel to the site. Jerry, is there something in particular that gets on your nerves?
JL: The top items on my list of cringe-inducing gaffes are probably poorly selected clip art and garish colors. Brenda explained the evils of animated off-the-shelf clip art, and I would extend the same rationale to include nearly all non-animated clip art in the questionable zone. If you feel you absolutely have to use clip art, make sure to use only compatible styles.
The colors and general ambience are critical. Too many law firms have sites that make the same type of impression on visitors as Herb Tarlik, the tacky, polyester-clad salesman on the old television show WKRP in Cincinnati. Remember, you're a lawyer. Your Web site should look like it belongs to a professional.
The free law firm sites at Findlaw are not fancy, but at least they use professional-looking templates. The lawyers who use them are still responsible for avoiding an unprofessional appearance through typos, etc.
DK: Brenda, what's at the top of your avoid-at-all-costs list?
BH: When I teach HTML or FrontPage classes, I always make my students go to Jeffrey Glover's Web site. His site, Top Ten Ways To Tell If You Have A Sucky Home Page, has been up since 1995, and yet people are still doing some of the same things. Dennis mentioned the "under construction" sign and it's Number 4 on the list. For some reason, people are still using it. This site usually brings out the laughter in the class. Yet it provides them with a visual representation of what they do not want to do.
JL: Glover’s page is a classic. Another popular site with a similar approach is http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com, with a popular accompanying paper book by the same name, Web Pages That Suck, by Flanders and Willis.
BH: The only other advice I have is to avoid "fad" sites. What I mean by this is that a couple of years ago, every body and his brother had a site with black backgrounds and neon colors for text. While this was really cool and everybody enjoyed it for a while, market research showed us that the text was hard to read and the colors detracted from the message of the site. Stick with one of the template type sites that are professional in appearance and you won't go wrong.