No one can deny the effect of the Internet, and company websites in particular, on marketing and promoting professional service providers in recent years. It’s no wonder that almost every large- and medium-sized law firm in America has built and launched a website. But how valuable is a website for a small law firm or solo practitioner? For a smaller law office with less financial resources, is a firm website worth the effort and expense?
First of all, consider that regardless of the much publicized “Internet Boom and Bust” of the late 1990s, Internet use continues to grow in America and internationally. Currently more than 50 percent of households in America have computers and web access. Moreover, a vast majority of businesses, whether they are a division of a Fortune 500 company or a small-town auto body shop, use e-mail and the Internet on a daily basis.
Business use of the Internet to promote products and services will continue to grow simply because websites have definite advantages over other communication and promotional mediums like Yellow Page listings, printed ads, and directories. On a practical level, websites can be accessed any time from any connected computer in the world. The 24/7 nature of websites means that they offer immediate gratification to potential clients seeking information and options on legal services. On legal sites, more practice information can be placed online than in any typical printed directory. Company history, practice area expertise, and attorney biographical information placed on a website can allow prospective clients to familiarize themselves with a law firm and its lawyers in an anonymous and noncommittal way.
Prospective clients who have no background knowledge of a law office may feel intimidated by the first call to a law firm. They may expect to be subjected to a hard sell by a lawyer whose background or expertise is not even the right fit for the problem or case. They may feel that they will be wasting the valuable time of a lawyer with their generic questions about the firm (which may be very true).
Conversely, a potential client who has reviewed a firm’s website feels knowledgeable and empowered. Armed with facts about the firm and its legal expertise, he or she can evaluate more seriously how a prospective firm can help with a case or a legal problem. If a call from such a person does result, there will already be a sense of a right fit—the prospective client will be primed for a serious discussion and ready to become a client. Websites can also promote first communication to the firm via an e-mail link.
Often, businesses or individuals in search of legal services will receive several leads or referrals from colleagues or friends. In a case where an individual has five leads but can review the qualifications of only two firms online, the firms without company websites have a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, the decision to hire a law firm often rests on a group decision. In both family and business law matters, the decision to hire a law firm may rely on the approval of several individuals within a company or family. Especially in the case where individuals within the deciding group are not all in the same region of the country, the ability for all parties to review a law firm’s website may be key to obtaining agreement on choosing a firm.
Any lawyer who evaluates products or conducts legal research online can appreciate the power and convenience of Internet-based tools. So, it’s not hard to understand how seekers of legal services might favor lawyers who provide firm information online.
In a 2002 American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center survey, 100 percent of firms with 50 or more lawyers and 85 percent of firms with 10–49 lawyers possessed websites. The percentage of solo and small law firms (fewer than 10 lawyers) with websites was significant but averaged less than 50 percent. As the use of Internet search and online professional service evaluation grows, law firms without websites will increasingly be at a disadvantage.
Aside from the practical advantages of having an online presence, a well-designed website can be an important branding and image tool. An attractive firm website that present’s company information in an organized and competent manner leaves a much better first impression than that of a firm that can only provide a phone number or legal services listing. Moreover, unlike directory listings, websites can present in-depth information like firm philosophy, case histories, and lawyer profiles in a way that builds confidence and elicits a positive reaction.
Internet use and promotion via the Internet is here to stay. Because websites are viewed as information resources rather than traditional advertising vehicles, large- and medium-sized law firms will continue to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to respectfully promote their firms online. The cost of custom-developed websites for small law firms usually runs between two and eight thousand dollars.
Recently, however, legal website packages have been introduced that provide smaller law firms attractive and fully functional websites at substantially lower costs, making the package affordable for smaller offices. A quick Yahoo or Google search with keywords such as “websites for lawyers” or “attorney websites” will yield turnkey solutions for attorneys who want to get their law firms online. Companies like lawyersites.net and LegalWebDesigner.com can get a company online for a few hundred dollars. Lawconnects.com offers a package with no startup or development fees.
Erik Chan is president of bConnects LLC, a software company focused on developing reasonably priced website solutions for small law firms and other businesses ( www.LawConnects.com). Erik can be reached at 925-837-8226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Wallace is a practicing attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to running his solo/GP practice, he is a founding partner and general counsel of bConnects LLC. Previously, David was vice president and general counsel of rStar Corporation, a publicly traded Internet networking company.