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.
Q: What techniques do successful law firm Web sites use?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): Here's my simple advice for law firms: look at a lot of law firm sites, think about what you like and don't like in those other sites, and then work to make your site more like the ones that you like than the ones you don't like. Having a successful Web site doesn't require that you "reinvent the wheel." There are many good models to follow.
Most of the successful law firm sites don't really show a lot of what most people consider "technique." The legal profession is not known for flash and the use of fancy graphics. Excessively flashy Internet programming can be disconcerting on a law firm Web site.
Successful sites evolve based on experience. Successful sites look like the firm cares about the Internet experience it gives clients and potential clients. Successful sites also "give away" a lot of content and, perhaps most important, give people plenty of reasons to return on a regular basis. In essence, successful sites create a brand name for the firm and use techniques that reach that goal rather than concentrate on flashy graphics and effects.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Great observations. One of the most common markers of a poor Web site is an excessive use of graphics. They are bad in themselves for a number of reasons, but perhaps worse, there tends to be less substance at the graphics-heavy pages.
I particularly liked your observation about there being many good models to follow. One of the more promising models is what I call "narrowcasting." It's part of a natural evolution in mass communications.
In the 1950s, and for decades thereafter, TV watchers had limited choices. There were three major networks, and that was about it. In that environment, each show tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator, in search of mass audiences.
Today, things are very different. Cable and satellites allow viewers to choose from scores of choices--probably hundreds of choices in a few years. There are channels devoted to animals, "speed," aviation, history, military history, home maintenance, travel, and so on and so on. Further, advertisers care less about total audience than they do the demographics of their audiences: who is watching? For example, advertisements on the travel channel can be sold at a premium, because the audience is a self-selected group that is known to have a high interest in travelling.
Audience fragmentation is high in today's broadcasting environment, but the Internet takes it to a whole new level. Instead of scores of "channels," on the Internet there are literally millions. Each Web site is really a different "channel."
Some marketers, who are still operating with vestiges of a 1950s type mentality, consider this an unmeetable challenge. For those who understand the Internet, it is an opportunity.
If you want to be heard by the audience you seek, narrowcast. Conceptualize your Web site to be one or more specialty "channels." If you are a large firm, or don't have a single specialty area, remember that it is technically trivial to put many different sets of material that can actually look like different sites on the same server. Each should appeal to a different segment of the legal market that you are targeting.
If you do this well, it can be an extremely powerful marketing approach.
Brenda Howard (BH): This is one question that brings up another question. What is the definition of success? I find that it's different for each of my clients. Some might view success as having thousands of "hits" on their site each week. Others view it as having information available in an economical format that they can use with their clients.
I had a friend whose spouse relocated to another State. His ex-wife sued him in that State for an increase in child support. He used the Internet to find an attorney in the State in question. Being a Web designer, I was particularly interested in why he chose the attorney that he did. After looking at the sites that he viewed, I could see that this particular site probably wasn't geared for lots of "hits". In talking with my friend and viewing the site, I realized that the site was "client centered," a point that Jerry brought up in an earlier Internet Roundtable. This site was able to convey a sense of concern for the client.
Even though that Web site might not have gotten a whole lot of "hits" for that law firm, on that particular day, their site was a success. It garnered a dollar revenue from its content. As such, it is easy to see that the definition of success is paramount to determining what design considerations should be made.
JL: That's a very useful insight. You have to know clearly what you are trying to accomplish before you can measure your success.
BH: Sure. Some of my clients view success as having many hits to their site. As such, additional emphasis and dollars are placed toward marketing. Some clients view success as being able to provide information in an efficient manner - saving them dollars in the long run. Some clients do not care if they only have 10 hits a day, as long as those hits generate some type of interest and potential leads.
The ideal site would balance all of these definitions of success and try to accomplish them all.
Q: Should law firms to do their Web sites in house, or contract them out?
JL: It depends. Let's talk about graphics and technical work first. Greg Siskind, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet, started his highly successful Web site himself when he was a junior lawyer who had a shortage of clients and a surplus of time. It made sense for him. It does not make sense for most lawyers. Do what you do best, and leave the technical work to those who do it for a living.
On the other hand, if you want your Web site to be successful, it is essential that lawyers be actively involved in planning the content. A very good consultant can help, but there is no substitute for the hands on involvement of the lawyers in the firm.
DK: Size of the firm, practice areas and technical savvy of the attorney all play into this answer. So, it really does depend. As a general matter, higher-end graphical design and advanced features will put the job out of the range of all but the rarest lawyers.
The answer to this question has changed in the last two years. It used to be that even large firms could have homegrown Web pages done by one of their attorneys. The bar has been raised. If your competitors are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Web sites and adding e-commerce and extranet features, you will find it hard to have a Web site with simple features built from a standard FrontPage template.
On the other hand, especially for small firms and solos, a "handmade" site can still work quite effectively, especially if it is highly personal and fits the marketing image.
Your Internet image is becoming more important. It's an unfortunate development for do-it-yourselfers, but I'd suggest leaving the business Web pages for the professionals and learning and using Internet programming skills for your personal pages.
BH: I agree with the "it depends" answer. I usually ask my client one question. Do you have more money or more time? Based upon the answer, it's easy to determine whether or not the client will be able to create and maintain their own Web site.
To keep it in perspective, most lawyers would agree that clients with simple, small estates could write a simple will and usually not create too many problems for themselves. However, there's not an attorney in the world that would agree that clients should represent themselves in major commercial litigation. So, if you are planning a Web site, you need to decide on its scope: If all you want a Web site that provides contact information, then it's easy enough for an attorney that has the time to act as a do-it-yourselfer. On the other hand, if you need a Web site that provides searchable content, quality graphics, database information, and other functionality, it might be time to talk to a professional.
JL: Dennis, what do you think is the most important thing for lawyers to keep in mind about this issue?
DK: Remember that your site is creating an image of your firm. Lawyers must be heavily involved in approving appropriate design, determining content and promoting the page. Don't leave any of those areas to the discretion of a Web designer.