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.
Dennis Kennedy (DK): A number of people have asked me this question recently. Unfortunately, the conversation has usually stemmed from someone reading one of my articles. The person says that they understand that “content is king” and the importance of “dynamic” Web pages, but they also feel that their firm cannot provide good content or dynamic features or other reasons to return to the site more than once. As a result, they don’t think they can do a Web site at all.
No, no, no! Get a page out there! While I’m not going to back away too much from the elements of a successful site that should be your goal, it is more important than ever to be a player on the Internet. With rare exceptions, every Web site started from modest, if not embarrassing, origins. The difference now is that the bar, for large firms especially, has been raised.
But by using a standard Web page template from a program like Microsoft FrontPage or even a standard Martindale-Hubbell Web site, you can put together an attractive, functional starter site pretty easily.
Jerry Lawson (JL): Certainly Dennis is right, but this question, “Is a bad Web page better than no Web page at all,” is more complicated than it might appear at first.
My first reaction to the question is: “What do you mean by ‘bad’?” It is probably better to have no site than a site that contains elementary spelling errors, glaring technical mistakes and so on.
On the other hand, don’t assume that simple sites are “bad.” A simple brochure-type site may not be a client magnet, actively attracting large numbers of new clients, but if it is tastefully done, it can benefit your firm.
Of course, the ideal site should have plenty of good “content” AND be “dynamic,” but if you have to choose between the two, it’s better to have good content that’s seldom updated instead of garbage that’s fresh every day.
Even if you can’t update it frequently, try to have “content.”
DK: Discussions with many lawyers lead me to believe that people get confused over the notion of “content.” Too often, they think in terms only of previously-published articles and seminar handouts. “Content” can take many forms.
JL: This is a great observation. It reminds me of one law firm whose best content was a searchable database of jury verdicts in a particular area. This attracted attention – and referrals from other law firms.
Another example: some law firms provide free, downloadable copies of government forms in PDF format. This is particularly popular with immigration lawyers (Greg Siskind was the first I know to do this. His Web site is at http://www.visalaw.com). This is a form of public service that benefits the lawyer providing it because it gives prospective clients a reason to visit the lawyer’s Web site, where they will learn about the paid services available from the lawyer.
DK: Good examples. Consider your audience’s needs when creating content. Some of the traditional categories of content, such as “law review” articles, may not be what potential clients are looking for.
JL: Many types of “content” can be used appropriate, but if you want your site to actively attract new clients (instead of just being a brochure), some form of content is indispensable.
Most lawyers today pay lip service to the concept, but few really understand what good “content” is and how it works. You can see the proof by looking at the typical law firm Web site. A lot of law firms think they have the “content” card covered if their site contains what appears to be a more or less randomly selected group of articles written by their firm’s lawyers. This approach misses the mark badly.
Here’s an example that shows, in an understandable way, why content is so essential:
After getting mediocre results from a few years of print advertising, a Maryland lawyer I know decided to put up a Web site not too long ago. It was not a brochure-type site, but was “problem oriented,” with a lot of information about specific issues that the lawyer handled regularly. Within a short time, he had gotten eleven new clients, some of them high quality. Some of these new clients told him that they had visited the sites of many other Maryland lawyers before deciding to hire him instead. Why did they reject all the other lawyers and select him? One of the new clients explained:
“You were the only one out there that seemed to know anything about my type of problem.”
That’s why you need content.
If you want to actively attract new clients, you need to show prospective clients that you understand the type of problem that they are interested in. Decide what type of client you are trying to attract. If you “stock the pond” with material about the legal issues that interest the type of client you are trying to attract, you will more frequently hear the magic words, “You were the only one that seemed to know anything about my problem.”
Brenda Howard (BH): This is the point where I get to confess that I’m an idealist. There was a time when I only wanted my clients to have the very best. I know what they need to do to be successful and I didn’t want to settle for anything less. They needed to be committed to providing valuable content on their site that would change daily, weekly or, at a minimum, monthly. This ensures new visitors and repeat visitors.
At least, this was my view until I had a client say to me. “Brenda, I really want you to design my site, but I honestly cannot afford to go all out. Can’t I just start small? Wouldn’t that be okay?”
I realized that the client was correct. Much like buying a car, we don’t always get the luxury model as our first purchase. It isn’t until the dollars allow us the luxury that leather interior becomes the norm. Until then, you must still have a car or you won’t be able to go anywhere. The Internet is the same way. Even if your site doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, you should still have one as a resource.
JL: The car analogy is great.
With an increasing number of clients and potential clients, you are not “real” until you are on the Internet. A truly “bad” site, with garish graphics, spelling errors, and so on may indeed be worse than no site, but a simple site is not necessarily bad, and is better than nothing.
So, Dennis and Brenda, what conclusions do you draw from all this?
DK: Get out there and get started. Let your site evolve as you respond to the traffic you get and the needs of your target market. The so-called “brochure” sites are not ideal, but they make it so Internet users can find information about your firm, bios and the like. You may not be sending the best message about your firm, especially to law students you want to recruit, but at least you are in the game. Not having a page makes you look like you missed the whole game. Brenda?
BH: We’re using two different analogies here, but Dennis and I both are in agreement, get in the ball game so that you can play or buy that car so that you can drive. Either way, if you’re not on the Internet with a site, your law firm doesn’t exist in the virtual world and potential clients cannot reach you.