Volume 18, Number 1
Using Internet-Based Technologies to Attract, Retain, & Service Clients
By Sandra S. McQuain and Gregory H. Siskind
Not too long ago, lawyers were considered radicals by the mainstream legal community if they had computers on their desks and voicemail features on their telephones. Then came the dawn of e-mail and law firm websites. Nowadays, technology has become a permanent aspect of practicing law, and most firms are wondering where all this technological madness will lead. No one knows for sure, except to say that like it or not, the information age is transforming the legal profession in ways it never imagined and clients are demanding that lawyers personally master technology basics or risk losing their business.
For a glimpse into the future, you can take a look at what the new techno-pioneers of the legal profession are doing today. These are the lawyers who have moved beyond the basic PC and are taking the bold step of incorporating the Internet into all aspects of their daily legal practice. Everything from marketing, to client communication, routine tasks like faxing and scheduling, accounting, document management, and research can be handled in a web-based environment. Lawyers whose practices revolve around Internet technologies are finding that it not only saves them time and money but also offers a unique and enviable competitive advantage in attracting, retaining, and servicing clients.
One of the best reasons to develop a web presence is the opportunity for new client development. To market successfully on the Internet, it is important to understand both the key advantages and the drawbacks. Advantages to marketing on the web include:
Extremely cost effective. Establish-ing a website usually includes two primary expenses: (1) the actual capital involved in creating and maintaining the site, and (2) the time that the lawyer must spend keeping the content and other information on the site up-to-date. The largest law firms now spend as much as $100,000 for website development. However, solo practitioners who can't compete dollar for dollar with the big firms can still create a site that is informative and contains the latest news.
Inexpensive tools that some law firms include on their websites include free bulletin boards, where individuals and lawyers interested in an issue or area of law can participate; update pages that timely track legislative developments; and electronically distributed newsletters.
Massive potential client base. Gaining access to new markets and new clients should be a part of every lawyer's marketing plan. The Internet offers opportunities to achieve this in ways never before possible. After creating a website, you'll need to think strategically about how you register with search engines, develop reciprocal links, and syndicate your web-based content. A savvy strategy will drive traffic to your site and provide unlimited potential for new clients and referrals. For example, if you practice personal injury litigation in St. Louis, you might try registering your site with a description such as "St. Louis auto accident" rather than as "personal injury lawyer." You could also look for opportunities to provide reciprocal links with insurance companies or even provide content for insurance company sites. The goal is to plan creatively how you will direct traffic to your site and attract an extensive base of prospective clients.
Highly detailed market feedback. The use of a website will give you incredible marketing information, such as knowing how readers are finding your website or what parts of your site they visit most often. For instance, knowing how readers find your site is important for determining which search engines readers are using, the effectiveness of your current registrations, and where you should consider buying website banner advertisements. Understanding the pages on your site that receive the most traffic can help you prioritize where you spend time updating your site or which pages need more work.
One way to capture even greater details about your website visitors is to offer some type of publication to which your readers can subscribe. When they sign up for your publication, ask for information such as city, state, occupation, and employer in addition to the usual name and e-mail address. Review this information and send a targeted e-mail thanking them for their subscription. This information can be useful if you open an office in another city or state because you already have a built-in base of potential clients to whom you can send an announcement. Also, there is little or no cost involved in notifying someone by e-mail about your new plans.
Help a firm enhance or change its image. The Internet offers an easy way for solo practitioners, small firms, and especially boutique firms to promote their expertise and build credibility. However, these lawyers must make content development a priority to be successful in using their website for image-building purposes. Firms need to take the time to focus on content. Some possibilities include free weekly or monthly newsletters, bulletin boards, and pages specifically designed for certain target audiences (see "One Firm Shows How It's Done,").
There are some downsides in developing a website and making it the core of your marketing initiatives. It takes a tremendous investment of time, which can be hard on the solo practitioner in particular. In a similar vein, because the Internet is a rapidly changing medium, keeping up with the latest trends can become overwhelming. Another disadvantage is handling all of the ethical issues, which vary from state to state. It is also becoming more difficult to get noticed on the Internet as legal websites become commonplace. Finally, always keep in mind that having a website does not guarantee anyone will visit.
The number one client complaint is that lawyers don't return phone calls or are not responsive. The ability to respond to clients in an efficient and timely manner can be aided with the use of Internet-based communication tools such as e-mail, online calendaring, and faxing.
E-mail. The use of e-mail is common in almost every law firm. However, when using e-mail to communicate with your clients and colleagues, you'll want to develop a policy for how quickly e-mail messages will be returned. Some firms require a response to e-mail messages within 24 hours of receipt. You can use a combination of personal messages and auto-replies to meet this objective. Let's say you're in trial and unable to reply to your messages promptly. You can write a personal auto-reply message that automatically responds to everyone who sends you a message, informing them that you are in trial and will get back with them as soon as possible.
Another advantage of e-mail is that you have the flexibility of responding to messages at any time without concern for the lateness of the hour or the day of the week. It is also less time-consuming to use e-mail rather than a telephone to inform a client about the status of a case-and you get the added bonus of having a written account of the correspondence.
To maximize your use of e-mail, create folders for each client and automatically program your e-mail system to rout messages to these folders. This allows you to quickly file information coming from or going to your client, and it organizes this information into an easily retrievable format.
Online calendaring. A great benefit of developing an Internet-based practice is using online calendaring to allow your clients to electronically access your calendar and request their own appointments. This particular application can reduce the time you spend returning phone calls for appointments and eliminate the need for a clerical person to assist with this task. It improves client relations because clients feel they have greater access to their lawyer and can make appointments at their convenience.
A lawyer can put a public calendar on his or her website to allow clients to view the calendar, see the available times, and select a few appointment times. After the lawyer synchronizes the calendar, he or she reviews the requests and e-mails the client the chosen appointment date and time.
Online faxing. The use of an online faxing system allows you to send and receive fax messages as if they were e-mail messages. With an online fax system you can quickly edit documents, without the hassle of having them typed-and store the faxes electronically in client folders/files. Programs include www.efax.com, www.j2.com, and www.visioneer.com.
Making your practice run smoothly and seamlessly is a major part of servicing clients. Application service providers (ASPs) are a new tool that can help lawyers manage their practices. An ASP will provide one-stop shopping for many of your Internet-based needs such as calendaring, e-mail, timekeeping/ billing, document management, accounting, recruitment, and payroll. To learn more about how ASPs can assist you in building a web-based practice, check out www.eattorney.com and www.smartonline.com.
Accounting. The advantage to using the Internet for all your accounting functions is that you can often save time by doing accounting-related work (expense reports, timekeeping, billing, collections, etc.) any time from any place and reduce costs by eliminating or minimizing the need for administrative staff. Any costs associated with these types of online services are usually minimal and more than pay for themselves. Also, several of these sites offer downloading to Palm Pilots and other similar devices. Accounting sites include:
- Bill payments: bills.yahoo.com
- Expense tracking and reports: www.expensable.com
- Invoicing: www.redgorilla.com, www.evelocity.com, www.openair.com
- Payroll: www.virtualpayroll.com, www.onlinepayroll.com, www.surepayroll.com
- Online banking: www.intuit.com
- Online ledger: www.netledger.com, www.peachtree.com
- Sending money: www.emoneymail.com
- Time tracking: www.elite.com, www.timebills.com
Document management. A law firm's investment in its computer network is among its greatest capital expenditures, and is usually an expense most solo practitioners cannot afford. The use of Internet hard drives to manage documents allows you to have all the advantages of a network without the burden of purchasing and maintaining a large server. Internet hard drives offer a number of benefits, including the ability to create shared directories that all lawyers in the firm can use; to access all of your documents from any place at any time; and to allow clients quick access to your files in order to expedite document review and revisions.
Internet hard drives can be used for permanent storage of documents or as a backup system for data. Some can also be used as Microsoft web folders, which essentially turn the Internet hard drive into just another letter drive on the computer, like the "c" drive. Documents can be opened or saved from any program such as MS Word, and documents on an Internet hard drive can be attached to e-mails in the same way as on a local drive. Because they are cost-effective, we predict that small firms and solo practitioners will be among the first to incorporate this new technology. Document management sites include www.imanage.com, www.driveway.com, and www.netdocument.com.Research. Beyond ASPs, lawyers need to take advantage of online research opportunities to best service their clients. For many years, the best online research programs for lawyers were offered by Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw, but they were too expensive for most solo practitioners. However, with the evolution of the Internet, you can now conduct sound research free or with limited expense. Check out the following sites:
- Legal research: www.findlaw.com, www.pro2net.com
- Fact-finding: www.refdesk.com, www.askjeeves.com, www.ceoexpress.com
- Background checks: www.knowx.com, www.informus.com
Sandra S. McQuain is a co-owner of Howell McQuain Strategies, a firm specializing in multidisciplinary marketing strategies for professional service firms. She is on the board of directors of the Southeast Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. Gregory H. Siskind is managing partner of Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine, an immigration and nationality law firm. He is the author of The Lawyers' Guide to Marketing on the Internet, published by the ABA.