Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003
ISN'T IT TIME TO GET A WEB PAGE?
By Keith B. McLennan
To answer the threshold question "Is a web page necessary to the modern law practice?," you might consider only that the Internet is the most useful place to research the topic of web pages. We asked the same question when overnight delivery, the fax machine, and e-mail became common, and I suspect most agree that even though these items may not be "necessary," prevailing work habits make them indispensable.
Many advocates of web pages point to easy access to routine procedures and general information as their primary benefit. Yes, you or your secretary can communicate this information by telephone or mail it out, but how many free minutes do you have each day? The more solo and small firm lawyers can streamline basic procedures, the easier it is to survive in this increasingly bottom-line-oriented business climate. A website helps you do that.
If you don't have a website, potential clients and colleagues alike may consider you something of a second-class citizen. Similarly, without a firm or professional e-mail address, you may be viewed by the more techno-sophisticates among us as not quite up to par. After all, firstname.lastname@example.org, although fine for your family, will hardly inspire confidence in court. On the other hand, too much of a good thing can easily backfire: The ego factor in lawyer websites is sometimes beyond considerable, so keep in mind that a captive audience for your life story is not an acceptable goal.
Most website designers provide a basic framework or idea, usually as a template, but it's up to you to provide the content. At first this may seem easy: name, rank, and serial number-what's so hard about that? Even though websites commonly are described as a business card online, a good site that truly functions on your behalf as a promotional tool is much more than that. The sites I find useful contain additional information as well:
-directions to your office
-information request forms
-your areas of practice
-particular or special achievements and firm résumé
-Blurbs or factoids-gleaned from Lawyers Weekly, for example (with appropriate credit, of course)-on items of interest to consumers
-hyperlinks to useful information sources consistent with your practice areas
-client intake and/or feedback form
That simple business card is starting to look a little cluttered, isn't it? You will spend a lot of time assembling such critical information, then editing it down to a usable web format. Your initial page design, however, can be as simple or as complicated as you desire, so keep in mind that it's perfectly acceptable to start with the basics and add flourishes after you're up and running for a while. Of course, like any other tool or marketing device, a web page requires regular care and feeding to remain effective.
Creating a more professional e-mail address was one of the reasons my small firm of lawyers made the initial decision to pursue online options. We wanted to get away from our individual AOL addresses to exhibit a higher level of sophistication to clients, potential clients, opponents, vendors, and the like. The web page was a secondary goal that seemed more doable once we reserved our domain name. Currently, our web page is a fairly bare-bones firm résumé, which makes it easy for visitors to navigate and for us to keep current. (There are few things more frustrating than an out-of-date site or one that is difficult to navigate. You're better off without any web presence in these instances.)
Looking over Your Shoulder
One thing to keep in mind is that liability exposure increases for erroneous or infringing information printed on your site. I call this the "looking over your shoulder" phenomenon (which also comes into play with newsletters, pamphlets, or any other marketing vehicles). The electronic medium, however, presents a few unique opportunities for entrapment:
Copyright infringement. Much as you may want to prevent others from reproducing (or copying) what appears on your site, be sure that material displayed on your site is free of previous copyright restrictions-or take the steps necessary to obtain permission to use it.
Images. Because our lives are so densely saturated with images, it's sometimes easy to forget that many images, too, are protected by copyright. Make sure what you use is either original artwork or design or properly licensed for your use.
Domain names. These must be original and not in conflict with other registered domains, derivatives of other domains, or trademarks. Companies such as Resister.com (www.register.com) can register your domain name for a small fee.
Trademarks. Infringement occurs when a party uses a registered mark in a way that creates a likelihood of confusion, mistake, and/or deception for the consumer. Linking your site to someone else's or using their trade- or service-marked domain name or logo on your site without permission could create confusion about the relationship between your site and the linked business.
Defamation. Be careful what you put on your web page, especially statements made about a person or organization that could be considered damaging to their reputation-this could get you sued for defamation. Much as in e-mail, which often is sent off the cuff without fully contemplating its tone, content, and timing, statements hurriedly posted on a web page are more prone to claims of defamation than a dictated letter you proofed and edited several hours after writing it.
Automation is the trend in the practice of law, as it is in other professions and industries. Efficiency is the game of the future, and, in the end, a good web page is just another way to maximize time.
BUILDING YOUR WEB PAGE
Now that you have decided to take the plunge, follow this formula for successful design and implementation:
1. Do an online search for lawyers and simply start reviewing existing web pages. Narrow the search to your geographic area to check out prevailing standards there.
2. Ask staff or family and friends to look at the sites as well. The reactions of nonlawyers can be particularly valuable.
3. Gather together all printed information that relates to your law practice-articles, seminars, résumés, newsletters, old brochures, and so on. Some of it may work online, or particular pieces may remind you of details to include on the site.
4. If you don't use a professional marketer, contact a local college for a referral to a marketing student who can help you assemble the information that will best promote your firm.
5. Unless you're well on your way to geekdom, hire a website designer.
6. Focus on the areas of practice that are (or will be) most profitable and/or that you most want to highlight.
7. Prioritize the information in a way that allows you to deliver your message on the very first page.
8. Keep graphics to a minimum. Even though broadband and faster downloads are the rage, many people still use dial-up services that load slowly. The more graphics, the slower the site-and the more likely a viewer will exit and look elsewhere.
9. Be clear about your message or mission; don't try to be all things to all people on your site.
10. Sign up for a local Saturday class or a CLE on website design to get more familiar with basic web concepts.
Keith B. McLennan focuses his practice on business law with a niche in intellectual property. He maintains a rudimentary web page at a five-lawyer general practice firm in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and can be reached at Kmclennan@millerturetsky.com.