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: If I do put up a simple starter Web page, what should I be sure to include?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): A surprising number of people now use the Internet to find addresses and phone numbers. Be sure that you have contact information on the front page of your site.
Jerry Lawson (JL): I also recommend a link from EVERY page of the site to the contact information — just a small, discrete link at the bottom should suffice.
While they are certainly not “essential” elements, I love sites that include driving directions, maps, or even better, easy links to dynamic, scalable maps, like at http://www.mapquest.com.
Watch for copyright issues. Don’t just make a copy of the map and add it to your site. It’s a myth that everything on the Internet is in the public domain. Some map sites license the right to use maps under certain conditions. For example, Microsoft's map site has an explanation of the conditions for using their maps for various purposes.
Brenda Howard (BH): Marketing research backs up both of your statements. The number one complaint from Internet users is that they get "lost" at web sites. Making sure that the appropriate links are found on every single page of the site helps your visitors get around. Once they are ready to contact you, make it easy for them to do so. Dennis, even though they could stop there for an "informational contact" type site, what do you think would be the next most important content item for a simple site?
DK: Biographies and pictures, with direct e-mail links, are also essential. Here's an example to consider. A friend of mine wanted to find an estate planning attorney in Indiana who handled sophisticated tax planning. I got some recommendations from a few Indiana lawyers and sent my friend the URLs of the biography pages of the lawyers. If a lawyer was not at a firm that had a web site with attorney bios, he or she didn't have much of a chance. Friendly and specific bios really help.
JL: I think it is smart to include pictures along with bios, but if you are contemplating doing so, be aware that there is some controversy about the practice.
Some women lawyers worry that this can make them vulnerable to harassment, such as selection for the "Babes of the Web" catalog, or worse. It is conceivable that something like this could cause a problem, and I would give lawyers the right to “opt out” of having their picture displayed, but my sense is that this is not a major problem that should prevent you from personalizing your lawyers in this manner.
BH: It is also important to remember that the Internet is a "people" place. Since you are not there to shake the hands of potential clients as they come to your site, make sure that it is has a warm and comfortable feel to it.
Listing every accomplishment that you have in your bio may impress your peers, but a potential client often just wants to know how many years you have practiced and in what areas of law. You could have a general "greeting" as a summarized statement at the beginning of the bio and then list all the credentials. This would allow the visitor to know what they need to know at the very start.
JL: Very smart idea. The more detailed bios could be a link from the summary bio. This allows the web site visitor to control the level of detail. At its best, Internet marketing is about providing choices.
DK: Some general description of practice areas is also good. If you want a good model for a very basic but professional-looking web site, look at the standard Martindale-Hubbell web sites at http://www.lawyers.com.
JL: While it is certainly not essential for a basic law firm page, I think it is very desirable to include the firm's PGP public key, or at least an explanation of how to get the PGP key along with your other contact information. This gives people who want to send you sensitive information the option to do so securely in an easy manner.
Don’t let the ABA’s recent advisory opinion that e-mail should be covered by attorney client privilege lull you into a foolish level of overconfidence. It does nothing to protect you or your clients from e-mail snoops who would love to use confidential information against you or your client outside any courtroom, in ways that make attorney client privilege a quaint irrelevancy.
Including your PGP key can help you even with potential clients who do not use encryption themselves. Having a public key and including it at your web site is evidence that you understand security issues, and believe in giving your clients choices. This sets you apart from the law firms that don't.
DK: That's a subtle, but important, point. There are so many young people who have started businesses who are at a loss over what to do about legal representation. They are troubled by not being able to find lawyers who understand technology, the Internet or their businesses. Showing some level of understanding of technical issues such as encryption can give you a definite advantage.
Jerry, is there one thing every firm putting up a web site should do?
JL: The best advice I can give is to look at good law firm sites and get ideas as to what works and what doesn't. Two knowledgeable experts, Erik Heels and Rick Klau, authors of Law Law Law On the Internet (ABA 1998) and the Red Street Consulting site have reviewed many law firm sites, both good and bad. Their reviews are an excellent guide to law firm Web site design. Nothing teaches as well as examples, and Heels and Klau provide hundreds of examples – all annotated.