FYI: Starting a Website

A solid, functional web site has become a necessity for law firms and legal organizations of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, the process of developing a web site is a minefield of potential missteps, wasted money, and wasted time. As your firm or organization prepares to build its first web site, or perhaps just to replace the old one, it's vital that you understand the whole process from beginning to end. Understanding the process will allow you to make better decisions in the technologies you choose to implement and the people you hire to handle the site's development. In this article, the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center provides a step-by-step guide to ensuring that your organization or firm builds the right web site the first time. We also provide a partial list of companies that specialize in website services for law firms.
Step One: Develop Content
You may hire the finest graphic artists and the most talented web designers in the country to actually build your web site, but ultimately you're the one that determines whether your web site is a success or failure. Well written, useful content is the core of any good web site. Indeed, recent studies have shown that the core purpose of the web for most users has shifted from communication to reading content. Taking the time to develop your content before you meet with the designer or developer will ensure you end up with the best possible end product. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you develop the content for your web site:
  • Think about your audience. Every web site has three basic audiences:

    • Primary -- the people for whom you are building the web site. A typical law firm builds a web site to attract clients; thus, the primary audience consists of potential and current clients. As you develop content for your web site, put yourself in the shoes of your primary audience and consider whether you're appealing directly to them. Do they want to read the forty page article you wrote in law school on the complexities of the Erie Doctrine? Probably not. Do they want to know what your practice areas are and how to contact you? Absolutely.

    • Secondary -- those who are likely to visit, but for whom you are not primarily building your web site. In the case of a small law firm, this group might include your past clients as well as your fellow attorneys. There's nothing wrong with adding content to your web site that appeals to your secondary audience, but remember that they're secondary; don't give them top billing.

    • Unintended -- the people you never intended to communicate with, but may very well find your site at some point. It's a safe bet that within a few weeks of uploading your web site, Google and other search engines will have carefully scoured it with their automated programs and everything you've put online will be available through a quick web search. For example, a Las Vegas judge pro tem (and former defense attorney) was removed from the bench recently after a prosecutor from his county discovered that he made derogatory comments about prosecutors on his MySpace page. The lesson: if there's anything you're considering posting that you don't want available to everyone, don't post it.

  • Organize. Eloquently written and edited content isn't going to help you if your visitors can't find it. Take the time to draw out a flow chart for your web site and know how the various pages should connect. Key information, such as your practice areas, should be accessible with as few "clicks" as possible regardless of whether the visitor has loaded your home page or entered somewhere else in your site via search engine.

  • Keep it brief. Web surfers tend to be an impatient bunch. Chances are they've come to your web site with a specific question in mind, and they aren't going to wade through walls of text to find the answer. Basic information on your firm or organization should be written in "sound bites" -- short, concise paragraphs with short sentences. Rather than describing your practice areas with five paragraphs of prose, use a simple bulleted list. Limit personal bios to the most important and relevant professional details. Never use twenty words for something that can be said in ten.

  • Make it timeless. Unless you have a dedicated IT staff to keep your web site fresh, much of the information you put on your web site will remain unchanged for long stretches of time. Avoid adding date-sensitive content unless you have a plan in place to keep it up to date. For example, it may seem like a great idea to post a listing of your upcoming speaking engagements when you first build your web site, but if that list isn't regularly updated, it might give readers the impression that you're no longer a sought after speaker.

  • Make it dynamic. While much of the content on your web site will be static and remain unchanged for long periods of time, adding dynamic elements will keep your site looking fresh and will help boost your site in search engine results. Here are a few good ways of keeping your web site fresh:

    • Add RSS Feeds: many news web sites and blogs syndicate their content at no charge via an RSS feed. Adding legal-centric feeds, especially feeds related to your practice area, can be a great way of attracting repeat visitors and keeping your web site looking like it was updated just minutes ago. There are numerous legal-centric feeds available today, including those from Law.com, the Jurist, and the ABA Journal. Read more about RSS in the LTRC's FYI: RSS.

    • Start a blog: blogs (or "blawgs" as they're often called when written by lawyers) can be a great way of building a reputation within your specialty and within the profession, and they also serve to keep your site fresh. For more information on blogs, check out these articles from ABA Law Practice Today, ABA GP Solo, and the LTRC.

    • Paid/custom content: another option worth considering is hiring a company to regularly add custom content tailored to your practice area, region, or specialties. Companies like LexBlog and Attorneys Online, among others, will prepare custom blogs and e-newsletters featuring a combination of original writing and links to the latest news from around the profession.

  • Edit and proofread. It may be a cliche, but it's true: you only get one chance to make a first impression. There are few ways of making yourself look more unprofessional and unreliable than a web site filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Treat the content for your web site like you would a pleading, brief, or journal article: make it perfect.

Further Reading:
  • A List Apart: Content
    A List Apart (or simply "ALA") is a web-based magazine dedicated to "the design, development, and meaning of web content." New articles are posted every other week by some of the top figures in web design and development today.

  • Useit.com
    Useit.com is the personal web site of usability expert Jakob Nielson. Nielson has published several books on web usability and offers an array of valuable information free on his web site. Particularly useful is his section on Writing for the Web.
Step Two: Pick a Domain
Picking out and registering a domain is an important step in building a successful web site. Your domain (or web address or URL) will become your identity on the web and a confusing, misleading, or embarrassing domain name can make it difficult for your web site (and thus, your firm or organization) to be taken seriously. The same is true for your email address, which will likely also use your domain name.
Domains must be registered through a registrar approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ("ICANN"), a non-governmental organization that oversees "top level domains" or TLDs (.com, .net, .org are all examples of TLDs). ICANN publishes a complete listing of approved registrars on its web site. Two of the better known registrars are GoDaddy and Register.com.
When it comes to picking the domain name to register, here are some tips:
  • Keep it short. Long domain names are hard to remember, hard to type, and hard to fit on business cards and letterhead.

  • Make it clear. Avoid unusual spellings and abbreviations - especially "text message" speak like replacing "you" with "u" or "for" with "4." Try saying the domain out loud to a friend and then ask them to write it down for you. If they can't do it, you may want to try something else.

  • If you have an established business name (e.g. "Thompson and Associates, LLP" or "Aspen Bar Association"), try to use that name or some variation of it as your domain.

  • If you're running a for-profit business, use .com. If you're running a non-profit or professional organization, use .org. It can be tempting to go with less popular TLD to get the better domain name (e.g. johndoe.info rather than johndoe.com), but these TLDs aren't always regarded as professional and will invariably lead to confusion.

  • Take advantage of the registrar's web site. Most registrars have tools on their web sites that will offer suggestions and alternative domain names if the one you want is taken. They may offer a good suggestion that hadn't occurred to you.

  • Register the other major TLDs. If you're registering abclaw.com, consider also registering abclaw.org and abclaw.net as well. Registering the other domains will prevent someone else from coming along later with a similar domain name that could confuse your clients. Likewise, if you wanted to register abclaw.com and you see that abclaw.org is already registered, you may want to look for a different domain.

  • Go long term on your registration. Domains are registered by the year, and if you forget to renew your domain there's a chance someone else will buy it out from under you -- a major disaster for an established web site. You can reduce this risk by initially registering your domain for multiple years (some registrars let you go up to 100 years!) and by establishing a policy within your organization to make sure your domains aren't allowed to lapse.

  • Find the perfect domain but it's already registered? You may be able to get it from the current owner -- for a price. Try using a whois tool like DomainTools to find out who owns the domain and how you can contact them. You can also visit LeapFish to get a free (but very rough) appraisal for the domain, or you can pay for an expert appraisal from a service like GoDaddy.
A Word of Warning! You may notice that some hosting companies offer "free domains" if you sign up for their hosting service. Make sure you read the fine print. In many cases, the "free domain" is registered in the name of the hosting company and if you change hosts or if the host goes out of business, you could lose your domain.
 
Step Three: Find Hosting
You've put together a good plan for your site, you've written some of the content, and you've registered a domain name. Now it's time to think about where your web site will live. In order for a web site to appear on the web, it must be "hosted" on a computer (called a server) with specialized software that remains connected to the internet 24/7/365. As you examine hosting solutions, you'll need to consider what type of site you're building, how involved you want to be, and of course, how much you want to spend.
Host it Yourself
The convergence of modern server software, inexpensive computers and storage space, and always-on web connections makes it entirely possible for you to host a web site from your office. That said, without a dedicated staff of IT personnel familiar with web hosting technology, self hosted web sites are prone to frequent outages and outright failures. Only go this route if you know you already have the assets in place to make it work. For more information, check out:
Free Hosting
Yes, years after the end of the Dot Com bubble burst, you can still find free services aplenty on the web. A variety of free hosting solutions exist on the web, some of which will be discussed below under "bundled hosting," but almost all share one (or both) of the following to features: host-added advertising and shared domain names. Host-added advertising is just what it sounds like: in exchange for your free hosting space and bandwidth, the host will add advertising of their choosing to your web site. This advertising is typically added to a prominent location on your web site such as the top or side. Shared domain names mean that rather than having "www.yourdomain.com", you'd have "www.yourhost.com/yourfirm" or "yourfirm.yourhost.com".
While the cost savings from free hosting can be attractive, the end result will almost certainly look far less professional than an advertising-free web site hosted at your own domain name. Furthermore, free hosting often lacks useful features such as visitor statistics, email, or ample bandwidth. Consider using such free hosting only as a temporary solution while you work on getting a full web site put together.
Some free hosts include:
Third-Party Hosting
By far the most common hosting solution for small businesses and law firms is to rent server space from a hosting company on a monthly or yearly basis. This server space can either be "shared" (you rent a small portion of a large computer) or "dedicated" (you rent the entire server). Hosting plans typically allow you to host numerous different domain names, sub-domains (e.g. blog.yourfirm.com or hiring.yourfirm.com), and email addresses, and are fully featured in terms of the software they can run. More expensive plans will often include additional domains and email addresses as well as increased storage space and bandwidth (the number of pages you can display per month). Larger plans may be necessary if you intend to offer visitors high bandwidth media content such as movies or podcasts, but the average small law firm or legal organization would likely find an inexpensive plan more than adequate for their needs.
Third-party hosts often have a "control panel" that their subscribers can use to manage their hosting. These control panels can allow novice users to easily and quickly add and delete email addresses, set up mailing lists, check site statistics, add new domains and sub domains, and in some cases to perform quick installations of popular software such as blogs or wikis.

Note: many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer shared hosting service at little or no cost to their subscribers. While this service is often limited compared to a third-party host described above, it's worth checking with your ISP to see what they offer.

Some popular third-party hosts include:
Bundled Hosting
One final option to keep in mind: several popular web applications will host your unique domain name and offer additional services (such as email) for a monthly cost. If you're considering using such software for your web site, a bundled package may offer the most bang for your buck. Some popular web applications that offer bundled hosting include:
 
 
Step Four: Build the Web site
All too often, a web designer will have a potential client visit his or her office with a horror story that begins something like this: "Well, my golf buddy said his neighbor's kid was really great with computers, so..." Invariably, that story ends with the potential client admitting that he or she has wasted thousands of dollars and months of work on an incomplete, non-functional, or simply non-existant web site. The moral of the story? Professional web sites are built by professionals. If you hire an inexperienced amateur, delegate the project to a non-web designer employee, or even try to do it yourself, there's a good chance you'll end up exhausting your budget without getting a product you can be proud of in return. That said, if you understand the process and the options that are available, a solid and effective web site can be developed even on the slimmest budget.
Set a Budget
Before you meet with a web designer or consider an online solution, establish a budget for your new web site. Know what you're comfortable spending and what you'd like to achieve, at a minimum, for that investment. In most cases, you will also need to establish an annual budget to maintain and update your web site, and setting aside additional funds for a major fixes or renovations may be a good idea as well. As you start investigating the options for your web site, don't be overly ambitious: if your budget is limited, you're better off with a simple but well executed web site than an elaborate site with numerous corners cut to get it within budget.
Consider a Templated/Pre-Fab Solution
If your budget is very small, your best solution may be a web site that's built using pre-fabricated templates. The most common example of a templated page is a blog built through a service like Blogger or TypePad. These services allow you to set up a blog at minimal cost (free if you don't want your own domain name or premium features) and you can choose from a variety of templates to adjust the look and feel of the page. Content can be added through an included graphical interface similar to that found in Microsoft Word, and all complex technical issues and problems are handled by the service provider. While this is an attractive solution if your budget is limited, keep in mind that a blog -- especially one using a pre-fabricated template -- won't look as professional as a custom built web site.
Going Custom
A web site custom built and designed for your firm is the best option if your budget allows for it. Custom web sites help put a professional face on your firm or organization. If you decide to develop a custom web site, picking out the right designer or firm is essential. Pick right and you'll have a high quality web site produced on time and on budget; pick poorly and you may very well find yourself with your budget exhausted and nothing respectable to show for it. Here are some tips to help you find the right person to build your web site and to make sure you get the web site you need:
  • Talk to your peers. Chances are you know a few lawyers who have gone through this process recently and have a decent web site to show for it. Find out who they went to, how the process went, and don't be shy about asking for advice. You may also consider getting in touch with your local bar association to see if they have any advice or referrals to share. Remember that a designer or firm that has worked with legal organizations in the past is more likely to understand your needs.

  • Look around. If you find a web site you like, scroll to the bottom and see if there's a link to the designer or design firm responsible. Run a simple web search for designers in your geographical area, or for designers that specialize in working for firms like yours. Look in the phone book. Scope out the web sites that list design firms or even allow freelancers to bid on projects, such as Guru.com, Getafreelancer.com, Project4Hire, or DesignFirms.

  • Before picking a designer, always ask to see a portfolio of their recent projects. Most firms are proud of the work they've done and won't mind providing a client list. Many design firms will even encourage you to contact some of their past clients to verify the quality of their service. If a potential designer doesn't have a portfolio or won't tell you which clients he has worked with recently, you're probably better off moving on: this may indicate that the designer either lacks experience or has had some bad experiences with clients and would rather you didn't contact them.

  • Know what you want. You may not know anything about how web sites are actually built, but you should know what you want out of your end product. Know approximately how many pages your web site will require; be prepared with examples of sites you like from firms or organizations similar to yours; bring in some of the content you've developed so the designer knows what he will be working with; if there's a special kind of functionality you're hoping to have in your web site (e.g. a form that will let potential clients send you emails, a blog, or a message board) let the designer know that immediately and provide him with examples; and know what your time table is like. The better you can help a potential designer understand what you're looking for, the more accurate his or her price quote will be.

  • Think about the future. How will you update your web site? What if you need extra pages added? What if something breaks? Some designers will include limited maintenance and upkeep in their design costs, or they will offer it as an additional service. If you'd like to be able to update your web site on your own (or have someone on your staff to it), ask about including a content management system. Some content management systems include WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors that allow you to edit web content much like you'd edit a Word document. If you end up having such a system implemented for your web site, make sure your designer provides training or can point you in the direction of appropriate training.

  • Ask about search engine optimization. A great web site is useless if nobody can find it. Most experienced designers will take the steps necessary to ensure your web site gets the best possible search engine listings possible, but asking never hurts.

  • Get multiple quotes. A web site can be a major investment, so it behooves you to make sure you're getting the best possible combination of price and quality. Get a firm, written quote both for the price and the timeline. Know what guarantees the designer will make, if any, and know what hourly rates they'll charge if work goes past what was quoted. Don't be afraid to negotiate.

  • Communicate with your designer. Once you've picked a designer and signed a contract, work hard to keep the lines of communication open. A missed email or an unclear instruction can set your project back and potentially wreck your budget. Ask your designer to provide you with status updates and make sure you're given the opportunity to make comments at various times throughout the process. Again, a web site is often a major investment for a firm or organization, so it's important that you get a functional web site that will serve your business well into the future.
 
 
Step Five: Maintenance and Beyond
Thanks to the always-on nature of web sites, a neglected or broken web site can be just as harmful to your firm or organization as a functional web site can be useful. If a potential client finds your web site and discovers it's full of outdated content, broken links, missing images, or incorrect contact information, he or she is likely to develop a strongly negative opinion as to your firm or organization's professionalism. As discussed above, before your web site is built you should have budgeted the time and money for regular upkeep and you should have worked out a plan with your designer (or picked an appropriate out-of-the-box solution) to ensure easy maintenance.
Here are some tips to keep your web site in top form:
  • Visit your page regularly. A quick once-through of your web site will let you know if anything obvious is broken or missing. This particularly important if you've included an RSS field or some other dynamic content that you don't fully control.

  • Check links. Links within your web site should be stable, but if you've linked to outside web sites -- such as a professional organization, a news site, or some other resource, there's always the chance that they will alter their URL in some way that breaks your link.

  • Check your statistics. Your web host or your designer should be able to provide you with daily, weekly, and monthly statistics on the traffic coming to your web site. Not only can this help you identify broken pages and links (most statistics packages will list these), it will also tell you approximately how many visitors your web site is getting, what sites are linking to you, and what sort of search queries are leading people to your web site.

  • Get your web site out there. A web site is a marketing tool for most firms and organizations, so you'll want to make sure people are aware of it. Add the URL to your business cards and letterhead. Put a link to it in your email signature. If you know of a web site that has a list of links to firms or organizations like yours, contact their webmaster and ask to have your link added.

  • Solicit criticism. Chances are you'll want to renovate your web site at some point in the future, so keeping a list of suggestions and critiques can be a helpful way of ensuring your future web site is as much of an improvement as possible.
Other Articles and Resources

Fred Faulkner, the ABA's webmaster, has written several articles about law firm website creation and marketing, which are available on LLRX.com. For example, see this article which gives tips and lists several companies that provide website services specifically for law firms:

Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys: How to Select a Website Designer

Also see:



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