Volume 18, Number 4
What Do You Mean, You Don’t Have A Web Page?
By Jim Calloway
Whether your law firm is setting up a brand-new web page or looking for ways to improve the design and content of an existing one, a review of the fundamental issues of web page design can help.
Why should a law firm have a web page? I can think of only two really good reasons: (1) marketing—to get new clients or a "better" type of clients or to expand into a different practice area; and (2) service—to better serve existing clients by providing useful information online that they can access without taking your time or paying a fee.
The phrase "only two reasons" is meant to be somewhat ironic—after all, what better reasons exist than the two listed? A myriad of other, potential motivations come to mind—to promote yourself within your community, show off your hobbies, provide public service information, keep up with the lawyer down the street who has a terrific web page, or just to have fun. But the only business reasons would seem to be about, well, business: getting clients, keeping clients, and serving clients more effectively.
I have greatly modified my opinion on this subject over the last few years. I used to think that web pages were helpful mostly to lawyers in specialty practices or for those who just enjoyed fiddling online. But there is no doubt that lawyers now report getting clients—good clients—from Internet resources, and that trend will increase in the future. In fact, in the not-too-far future, potential clients will make the Internet the primary source of information about lawyers.
Here is how this scenario will operate, at least for consumer non-business clients: The potential client will be at home during non-business hours, thinking about his or her legal problem, and will go online to search for free information. If a site provides free and useful information in a form the client can understand, it will give that lawyer the inside track at being retained. Legal websites that do not provide free, useful, and understandable information are not even in the running for getting the client’s business. This certainly contrasts with many lawyers’ previous business methods, when a client was given information only after formally retaining the lawyer.
Family practice lawyers report generating a good amount of out-of-state business from web pages but few, if any, local clients. This makes sense, because a person who lives in Michigan but is sued for divorce or support in Oklahoma is unlikely to have an Oklahoma telephone directory and will go online for help.
But the decisive argument in favor of law websites is their low expense, at least for a basic format, compared with direct mail, Yellow Pages, or almost any other advertising medium. At this point, in my opinion, there is no debate over whether a lawyer or law firm should have a web page. You should.
Do We Need a Domain Name?
Unequivocally, yes! Many of the most obvious domain names for law firms were long ago reserved by others. But a concise domain name is a critical part of the website development process. Be creative. Use the partners’ initials or brainstorm for other ideas for a short and usable domain name. Don’t be afraid to use hyphens or numbers. Having a lower level lengthy domain name, however, with lots or subcategories and slashes, does not appear professional and is also difficult to market to potential visitors.
If you work with a website developer, make certain that your agreement provides that the domain name belongs to you and not to the developer.
The recent approval of new top-level domain name extensions, (i.e., .pro) may help the law firm that is getting a late start at developing a web presence.
How Much Should We Invest?
Law firms can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a website. But a basic website can be designed in-house and hosted for less than $100 a year.
Before you decide on a website budget, determine what your firm wants to accomplish. Opinions about time and money investments and site content vary substantially. Some firms establish a plain page that requires limited updating and maintenance; others invest in a multifaceted online law firm presence that offers daily updates and visitor interactivity.
The easiest part of the equation involves the resources at your disposal. Clearly, a solo practitioner in a small community will not want to devote a lot of time each week to maintaining a web presence. At the other end of the spectrum, a medium- to large-sized law firm with an intellectual property practice group should maintain a strong web presence, with attractive and appropriate design, to be credible with clients and others in the legal community.
As with any project, good planning is the key. Determine the primary purpose of your web page. How often can your firm update the information on the page, how will it be updated, and who will do it? All of these decisions will substantially affect the financial commitment.
A law firm web page can be quite elaborate and costly. But even a simple, largely static web page can serve as a marketing and client service tool, provided that it has useful content. However, a web page that is not regularly updated will not generate much return traffic.
What Content Will Our Firm Place on the Web?
Content of web pages is a much-discussed topic. "Content is king" was the mantra just a few Internet years ago, but then content was pronounced dead. Recently, several traditional media companies announced reductions to their online content commitments. Many people believe a lot of content on a web page is wasted because the net surfer will not take time to read it.
(For those of you scratching your heads thinking that all web pages have content, content in this context refers to something readable as opposed to graphics such as icons, pictures, clip art, or interactive web features. A web cam showing live shots of you working at your desk all day would certainly be an unusual Internet feature. It would also portray you in a nonprofessional and trivial way, not to mention possibly violating attorney-client privilege.)
It is important to understand what your visitors are trying to accomplish when they visit your site. With lawyers it is usually pretty simple: They want answers to legal questions and solutions to legal problems. Because law firms generate income by answering these questions, deciding what to provide for free is a difficult issue for many lawyers. Remember that a web page that does not provide information will not encourage return visits or long stays—why should visitors tarry when there is so much other content online?
So, this is one area where Internet trends about content do not matter. Law firm web pages must contain information about the law. There will be text. People will have to read information to benefit from your site. If your website explains legal principles in understandable language, not only will visitors linger at your site but also they will tell their friends about it.
Contact information. You want people to be able to contact you, so an e-mail address for every lawyer, and the firm’s street address and phone number are essential. A link to brief biographical information for every lawyer is a basic requirement.
A map to your office. Many web pages contain lots of graphics and ornamentation, but a simple, easy-to-follow map to your office is one graphic clients will appreciate. Especially in urban areas, transportation information is important: Is parking free? Does the firm validate parking at specific locations? Maps have one other positive aspect: Once the online map is produced, it needs no updating unless you move.
Compliance with Rules of Professional Conduct. Web pages are fraught with ethical perils. (For an article discussing some of these ethical issues, see "Attorney Advertising in Cyberspace" by this author and Oklahoma Bar Association General Counsel Dan Murdock at www.okbar.org/ map/articles/advertising.htm. The article was originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, July 18, 1998, Vol. 69, No. 29.)
Subjecting lawyers to disciplinary proceedings as a result of posting a web page would be the most unintended and negative consequence imaginable. Review the rules and contact your state bar association or licensing authority for special requirements and guidance. Many states require copies of web content or mandate specific statements that must be included on a website. Many states also require lawyers to retain copies of advertising for a certain time period. Additional reading on attorney ethical issues in cyberspace is always available online at www.legalethics.com.
Disclaimer. Some potential ethical issues can be addressed through appropriate disclaimers. It doesn’t take much time cruising through other lawyer’s websites to get a good idea of the "standard disclaimers" that a law firm web page should contain. Some of the disclaimers widely used include the following:
• An attorney-client relationship is not formed by reading the web page or sending e-mail to the attorney, but only by paying a retainer fee and signing an attorney-client engagement agreement.
• Content on the web page is informational in nature, not specific legal advice, and someone seeking legal advice should consult with a lawyer licensed in their jurisdiction.
• The lawyer(s) is licensed to practice in XX jurisdictions, and will not give advice unless licensed to do so. The law varies from state to state.
Simple and clear navigation elements. The best website content is pointless if your visitors can’t find it. Visitors must be able to locate the content quickly. If your site is hard to navigate or frustrating, visitors will move on to another site. Clarity and consistency promote easy navigation. As a general rule, all of your pages should have the same look. Your categories and navigation links should be in the same location and in the same order on every page. Links should be high enough on the page that they are visible without scrolling down. Never "strand" a visitor on an internal page without navigation links; visitors should never be forced to use the back button on their browser. Go easy on graphics that cause the page to load slowly. Modem users will quickly move on to another site if your page takes too long to load.
Flawlessly written content. If you want your web page to give a negative impression of you and your firm, nothing will do it faster than poor grammar, misspellings, and typographical errors. Such mistakes send a message that your law firm is careless and does not pay attention to detail.
Practice-specific original content. The heart of the law firm web page is the original content. This is what makes people decide to retain your law firm. Remember that many website visitors are not in the market to hire a lawyer; they are looking for free legal information. But if their questions are answered today, they may return to your site again and again. If they appreciate your information, they may decide visiting a lawyer in person is a good idea.
Some lawyers have difficulty with providing "free" information online. But free information is what the World Wide Web is all about. Very few law firms will ever venture into true e-commerce, with legal advice dispensed online after a client provides credit card information. The information you provide should relate to your firm’s strengths and the areas in which you want new business. The "information misers" in the firm may say that since the firm does not make much money from a certain area, like lemon law, information about it can safely go online. But don’t be surprised when the web page generates inquiries about lemon law.
Use simple, eye-catching titles that reflect your firm’s strengths and practice focus. Effective sample titles would be "Ten Ways to Protect Your Children from Harm During Your Divorce," "Ten Myths about Divorce," "Tax Deductions Business Owners Often Overlook," "Why Living Trusts Are Not for Everyone," "What to Do and Not to Do If You Are Involved In an Automobile Accident," "Taking the Fifth Amendment—What Does It Really Mean?" or "Your Child’s Rights at School."
This is the type of content that causes visitors to linger at your site and tell others about it. Do not use stuffy, factually correct law review-type titles for online articles. Whether you update your website with new articles once a week or once a year, articles like those will generate interest in and traffic to your website.
If I Build It, Will They Come?
Once a website is online, how do you inform others it exists and generate visitors? Well, frankly, if you have developed a static website and plan to spend little time updating it, you may not want to spend a great deal of time marketing it. It will serve to help those who are looking for you to find you and will be inexpensive.
But, no matter how modest your website, you will want to make sure it is listed with the primary Internet search engines. You can do a lot of this yourself online in a few evenings or hire a service that, for a modest fee, will list your site with hundreds of search engines.
So many legal professionals overlook the obvious in promoting their websites. Include your web address on stationery and business cards. Add it to your electronic signature for e-mail correspondence. When you give presentations, make sure the materials mention your web address—and close with a screen shot of your home page. A website cannot be the firm’s marketing plan—it must be a component of an overall marketing plan.
When content on your website is added or updated, send out press releases to the local media. Here’s an example of a creative way to promote a general practice:
Divorce is difficult for everyone in the family, especially children. A free Internet resource, "Ten Ways to Protect Your Children from Harm During Your Divorce" is now available online at www.chglaw.com from the law firm of Click, Here and Google. Click Here focuses its practice on matrimonial and family law... .
Do not be discouraged if media outlets do not use your press release. Many hold materials that are not time sensitive for publication on a space-available basis. Keep sending press releases; at some point your release will coincide with a slow news day and be used. Do not forget to send your press releases to local free shopper or neighborhood news publications and others that are often starved for content of their own. Be creative. A classified ad directing people to your website in an automotive magazine might be great for the lemon law lawyer.
Do not expect results overnight. You are building a web presence to serve your practice now and in the future. Many consumers still do not have Internet access or know how to effectively locate information online.
But, one thing is guaranteed. More people will seek legal information on the Internet this year than last year, and more will do so the year after that. Every single day, people will discover that they have a serious legal problem and will turn to the Internet for information and assistance. They will not find your firm this way if your firm is not online.
Jim Calloway is director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program.