Consumers use the Web to find lawyers and to decide on one among lawyers. If you do not have a Web site, they will not find you. If you do not have an effective Web site, they will choose someone else.
Family Advocate: Marketing Your Family Law Practice (Buy Issue)We live in a time when "Google" has become a verb. Searching the Web is as much a part of the daily fabric of people's lives as searching the telephone book. For any lawyer seeking to build a practice, that means a Web site is as essential as having a telephone number.

So what makes a law firm Web site effective? It all boils down to four characteristics:

Informative. Distinctive. Simple. Innovative.

Easy to say, but not always as easy to do. Let us walk through each of these characteristics.

Be "informative"

At its most basic, a Web site is an advertisement for your law practice. It should tell the reader who you are, what you do, and where to find you. The vast majority of law firm Web sites follow virtually the same structural template. Yours should be no different. Whether you are a solo or a mega-firm, your site should include:

  • A "home page" that provides an overview of your firm. This should be quick to read and easy to understand.

  • Practice pages that describe what you do. If your practice is diverse, have separate pages for each area of practice. If you focus on a single area, one page should do. Write these pages in language that relates your skills to consumers' needs.

  • A biography for each professional in the firm. Note that I said, "for each professional." Many firms list only the lawyers. Include all key business and professional staff, including administrators, marketing directors, financial officers, and the like. Give each biography a separate page, but index them all from a central page. Small firms should index names alphabetically; larger firms should make them searchable. If your firm is quite large, include searching by office and practice area.

  • Contact and address information. At a minimum, provide your main office address, telephone, and e-mail. Much better is to provide this for every professional and every office, with direct dial telephone numbers and individual e-mail addresses. Contact information should be prominent, not hidden.

Those are the basic elements: who you are, what you do, and where to find you. Beyond those basics, law firms have any number of options for providing greater depths of information about their lawyers and their practices. The more information you provide, the better a potential client can evaluate your capabilities.

This is why it is common for law firm Web sites to include libraries of articles written by or about their lawyers, histories showing their heritage and community ties, descriptions of noteworthy cases or deals, and listings of representative clients. More cutting-edge variations on these themes include blogs, podcasts, and Web videos.

Emphasize "distinctive"

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when simply having a Web site distinguished a law firm from its competitors. It was a time when a consumer who searched for a lawyer via the Web would find a handful of results and be impressed even at that.

Today, that same consumer is drowning in results and often is uncertain about choosing from among them. For this reason, a key requirement of an effective Web site is that it distinguishes you from your competition. In these days of information overload, it is not enough for a Web site to show what you do. It must also show how you stand out from all the other lawyers who do what you do. In other words, why hire you?

This starts with the writing of your site. In journalism, editors sometimes critique a story for "burying the lead." This aptly describes the problem with far too many law firm Web sites and with almost every page of those sites.

How many lawyers' biographies have we all read that start with the most boring of details: "Mary Smith graduated from Anytown School of Law in 1987, where she was notes editor for the Toxic Sludge Law Review. Upon graduation, she clerked for two years for the Hon. Baerley Awake."

Now compare that with: "Mary Smith is a family lawyer whose tireless advocacy led the state supreme court to change its approach to alimony awards."

A Web site must show how you stand out from all the other lawyers who do what you do

For the reader surfing lawyer bios on the Web, which is she more likely to read? Which is more likely to make the lawyer stand out?

This applies to every page of a Web site. The content of a page should pointedly deliver its message, and that message should be: "Here is why you want our firm over others."

Keep it "simple"

Why, why, why? Why do so many law firms persist in using animation for the opening page of their sites? My time is valuable. I do not want to type in a firm's URL only to be told, "Please wait while this page loads." Thank you for asking, but I think I'll decline.

A Web site is about providing information, not about showing off your Web designer's technical and graphical prowess. Leave that to the designer's own site. Your site should be simple in design, simple in structure, and simple in content. To borrow another concept from publishing: do the work for the reader, do not make the reader work to understand you.

Simplicity is achieved in three ways:

Design. Avoid gaudiness and technical tricks. Lean and clean should be your mantra. The design should convey professionalism and a degree of elegance, but always with the understanding that less is more.
Structure. The site's architecture and navigation should be clear and easy to follow. If a reader wants to know how to contact you or to read about a particular attorney, she should be able to find that information easily. Every page should include links to the site's main sections. Keep in mind that readers rarely enter a site through its main page. If they come to you through a search engine or external link, they should be able to find their way easily to other key pages.
Content. Keep the text on a page as concise and direct as possible. Use graphical elements such as bullet points, boxes and callouts to enhance readability. For more complex sections, such as practice descriptions, break text over multiple pages. Design each page so that it fits on the screen without scrolling.

Showcase "innovative"

Innovation in a Web site serves every characteristic discussed so far. It can make your site more informative, make it more distinctive and enhance its usability. More importantly, innovation in your Web site suggests innovation in your law practice. It tells readers that you are a lawyer on the leading edge, not just in your use of technology but in your knowledge of the latest developments in law and practice.

Innovation is the introduction of something new. It can be subtle or dramatic and its range is limited only by your creativity.

One example of innovation is the "mini-site" of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Keller & Heckman. Wanting to highlight a key practice area, the firm launched PackagingLaw.com , a site separate and apart from its primary Web presence. The site serves as a reference source for news and analysis in the field of packaging law, while also showing off the firm's expertise in the field.

An increasingly common example, but one that continues to be perceived as innovative, is a blog. A blog has multiple benefits:

  • It positions you as a "knowledge leader" in your field of law.
  • It shows you to be savvy about technology.
  • It dramatically enhances your search-engine rankings.

A step beyond a blog is a podcast, an audio recording that visitors to your site can listen to online or download to a CD-ROM or MP3 player. A step beyond a podcast is a video recording. These audio and video podcasts add a personal element to your Web site, allowing visitors to hear and even see you.

But innovation need not be high-tech. Simply presenting information in a different way can be innovative. Consider the midsized firm seeking to recruit first-year associates. It swapped its stuffy recruiting page for real stories from real associates, letting potential recruits see the firm through the eyes of actual recruits.

At its most basic, the purpose of your Web site should be to inform visitors about who you are, what you do, and how you outshine your competitors. The site should provide this information in language that is clear and in a format that is simple to follow. You can build from there, but never stray far from these basic elements. FA

Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Massachusetts, is the author of The Essential Guide to the Best (and Worst) Legal Sites on the Web. His blog, LawSites, is at www.legaline.com/lawsites.html. Contact him at ambrogi@legaline.com.

Published in Family Advocate, Volume 29, No. 2, Fall 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

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