Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in theIntellectual 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.
Q: What Should Your Firm Look for When Hiring a Web Designer/Firm?
Brenda Howard (BH): Hiring the right web designer/firm can mean the difference between spending more money than you need to or not spending enough and getting what you paid for. Meaning that it can be a costly decision.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Amen to that. Brenda, as the owner of a web site design firm, how do you deal with prospective clients who approach you?
Brenda Howard (BH): Not all clients that come to my company end up utilizing my company for their web site. I ALWAYS recommend that clients get several proposals before making a final decision. This is in their best interest. If an extremely large site, like Amazon.com, came to my firm to have their site created, I would recommend that they go to another design firm that can handle a site of that magnitude. Again, it's simply in their best interest.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): I always like finding people honest enough to tell you that they are not the right choice for you. Fortunately, we're now in an era where you can find web design firms with track records and portfolios, unlike the frontier days of 1995-97, and many of today's firms have developed niches, and, with luck, you may find several that fit your niche. Remember, it's the Internet and you are not limited to using firms in your locale, which can be a big help when shopping for a designer.
JL: The Internet Lawyer magazine web site, http://www.internetlawyer.com, maintains a list of companies that have designed at least two sites for law firms. This is a great resource, but of course not every capable firm is on their list.
BH: Saving money by making the appropriate choice is imperative. A perfect example is a client that priced web design firms and decided that it would be too expensive to go with a professional firm that had experience. Instead, the decision was made to utilize the skills of a college student that had put up a couple of "vanity" sites of his own.
JL: Ooops! A red flag if ever I heard one. I think I know how this story is going to turn out.
BH: The project went on for five months and the site still wasn't finished. In addition, the college student used graphic images for all the text because he didn't know how to manipulate the text within the HTML code. This resulted in a non-professional site that took two minutes to load on every single page. The client increasingly became frustrated and came my way by virtue of a reference. We evaluated the needs of the business, the design styles preferred, the functionality needed and completed the project in four weeks. This client is obviously very pleased.
DK: And we can only hoped they learned a lesson. By the way, my friend Chris Gilsinan's site (http://www.solaw.com) is a great example of a site done by the son who is a college student that really is done well, but generally you're taking a big chance going that route. Let's get to the basic question, though. In the year 2000, does it make any sense for a law firm not to go to a web design firm? I vote "no". I don't think it makes sense to do it in-house, unless, of course, you add the designer to your staff. Jerry?
JL: There are some exceptions, but as a general rule, I think it's better for lawyers to stick to doing what they do best, practicing law. Leave the technical issues to someone else. On the other hand, it is essential to have lawyers -- lawyers who understand the Internet -- making the key decisions about the web site's content and presentation. What criteria should be used in choosing a design firm? I have one starter suggestion: don't make cost the be-all and end-all criterion. In web site design, it's not true that you get what you pay for. Some of the most expensive designers tend to produce the least effective sites.
BH: Since there isn't a "bar exam" for web design firms, the "starting line" is missing. Everybody and his cousin can create a web page, indicate that they are web designers and they are in business. Hanging out the "shingle" simply isn't hard nor is it costly. Having said this, there are some guidelines that can be used:
4. Check for background or applicable education
DK: I feel like the real estate agent - it's portfolio, portfolio, portfolio. You want to see what someone has actually done. More telling is to look at the sites they are proudest of. You're looking for a match between what they've done and what you want. And you want to see what they are capable of doing. Frankly, I'd take a risk on talent over experience. Michaelangelo had to do his first sculpture for somebody who didn't insist on experience. Don't forget, some web designers are really young. Also, the designer you want must have some law firm or other professional sites in that portfolio. Law firm sites, especially because of the ethical nuances, really are different and there can be serious disciplinary consequences from simple "design choices." Finally, I suggest checking out how well the sites the designer shows you are doing - get traffic stats if you can and see what sites link to them and how they come up in search engines. You want someone who can help you with the whole package.
BH: Let me change my rankings a bit. I agree that the portfolio of a designer and/or the design firm is the best guideline to use. Judging how many clients, the quality of the work, performance of the web site will give one an idea of the years of experience and the level of competence. It is definitely the age of "show me your work". This can be misleading and I've seen that happen, but it's not the general rule. A solid portfolio is hard to fake - either you have work product to show or you don't. Jerry, do you agree with this?
JL: The portfolio is the acid test. What have they done before?
DK: One element of the portfolio that's especially worth taking a close look at is the designer's own site. Sometime this can be a bit unfair for a small firm, because they can get busy and their own site can suffer (we all experience this from time to time), but generally their own site will tell you a lot about their design philosophy and their approach to the web. I'm always wary of design firms that don't really seem to be trying to get business from the web.
BH: The list of references is another area you'll want to devote some time to. The site might look great in the portfolio, but you won't know until you talk to the client whether or not the project was completed on time, whether the design firm was responsive to the client and whether or not there were cost overruns on the project. Talking to the references will give you an idea of whether or not the design firm is too busy to give your site the attention that it deserves. The number one complaint about web design firms is that they are non-responsive.
JL: Brenda, web site design firms are not the only ones guilty of this. An ABA study showed that non-responsiveness is the number one complaint that clients have about lawyers as well.
BH: It is also the complaint that I get most often from clients that move from another firm over to mine. They indicate that they had questions or wanted to know the status of the progress and couldn't get an answer from their designer. Of course, every design firm that I know of is pretty busy these days. Do you think this is acceptable or should customer satisfaction still come first?
DK: It's your site. And we live in Internet time. And you want a professional site. Fast and professional. You want to work with someone who also is professional. That said, many times it's not the designer who is the cause of the delay. Many designers are waiting for "the content" to arrive from the client.
JL: One of the biggest headaches for professional designers is clients who don't know what they want. Law firms have a bad reputation in particular, since in many cases the "chain of command" is fuzzy or non-existent, and there is often a political element that makes it difficult to get decisions.
DK: Another thing that is important is finding a designer who understands the legal issues involved in a web site design project. Finding a firm that has a first-rate contract drawn up by a lawyer is a plus. That shows that they know there are issues. There are intellectual property, confidentiality and other issues galore in a web page design project and it'd be nice to find someone who understands that. You don't want to use a design firm that replicates your design for a couple of your competitors.
BH: How much weight should education be given? I'm of the opinion that the industry is too young and is just beginning to create viable educational programs for web designers. I do believe that education also plays a role, but not a significant one. I have an acquaintance that recently decided to change careers. She has taken all the web master's courses for her certification and is a certified Webmaster. Having said that, I would not hire her to create my web presence. The experience simply isn't there and the three-week course simply enough to prepare anyone for the dynamics of creating an attractive, easy to use and functional web site. Of course, no one graduates from school knowing everything, so it might be a good place to get an economical web site. Dennis, what do you think of the certification programs that are being touted as "training" experts in the web design field?
DK: It might be a factor to tip the balance if all things were equal. I'd give it more weight if I were doing a database-driven site or an e-commerce site. I'll take the shy kid whose portfolio, even if it's just their own site, blows me away, who "gets" the web and knows how to drive traffic to sites and who asks the right questions: basically, "Who are you? What do you want?" over someone with just a certificate every day of the week.
JL: Schools can give a start, but don't put too much weight on them. Few of the best designers acquired their skills through formal education. I would give education much less weight than demonstrated achievement.
BH: Does anyone have any final thoughts on hiring a web design firm?
JL: I think one of the smartest approaches for many firms will be to hire a designer, AND a design consultant who understands the legal market. Erik Heels and Rick Klau of Red Street Consulting are in the latter category. They are Internet-experienced lawyers who don't design sites themselves, but give advice on hiring a designer and working with one. They also do evaluations of existing sites and help prepare Requests for Proposals. They charge $400 an hour. Are they worth it? For many, maybe most firms, they, or someone like them, would be a very smart investment. An ineffective web site is no bargain, no matter how little you paid for it. If a few hours worth of advice from Erik or Rick helps you select a better designer, or makes your site more effective -- which for most firms, it probably would, then you are ahead of the game. Their web site is at: http://www.redstreet.com.
DK: Treat it as a long-term relationship or partnership rather than a one-shot deal. Try to find someone who can make your vision and your new ideas happen and stick with them. Also, consider an arrangement of tying the designer's compensation to actual results by either bonuses or holdbacks. Don't forget: law firm web sites are different.