Let’s take a quick look back in time and revisit America in 1850. If you wanted to attract clients in whatever business you were in, what did you do? You hung a sign in town, which told people what goods or services you provided. So the dentist just needed to post “John Smith—Dentist,” and everyone in town knew who the dentist was and where to go for dental care. Of course, back then there was usually just one person providing a particular service in town. As towns grew, so did competition and how people sought a business or service.
As America grew, technology crept into our lives, and with it came further changes to how businesses attracted their clients. With the telephone came the directory or phone book. People moved to the outskirts of town and no longer went to town daily or even weekly. So advertising in phone books made sense. You could reach people who would otherwise not walk by your storefront and see your sign. At one point lawyers were forbidden from advertising in an attempt to elevate the profession—or at least that was the rationale.
Fast-forward to the last 30 years or so. Eventually lawyers were able to start advertising on television and in phone books. This became the preferred method of attracting clients—getting the biggest ad and in the best position. Television and Yellow Pages advertising was very expensive and favored the rich and powerful. Such advertising also favored those who practiced and advertised the longest. For example, if you took out a full-page ad in the Yellow Pages under “Personal Injury Attorney” and there were already ten attorneys who had full-page ads under that category, you would be placed number 11—even though you paid the same price as the attorneys who were numbers one, two, three, and so forth.
Now let’s fast-forward to today and take a look at the landscape. Ask anyone who isn’t on Social Security how they find goods or services, and the answer is the Internet. Even many in the Social Security crowd utilize the Internet to find what they need. The phone book is on life support and, in my opinion, just waiting to have the last rites administered. Yet advertising there still commands top money and covers only a limited market. For example, if you advertise in a phone book covering a city of 100,000 people in a state of 15 million, you are paying quite a bit to reach less than 1 percent of the state—even though you are licensed to represent the entire state. This doesn’t make sense to me.
So how can you reach the entire state without being subjected to the caste system that exists in phone book advertising? The answer is a rocking website and blog.
Designing Your Website
When designing a website, you should write a formal document, much as you would a business plan. Committing your thoughts to writing will make you more likely to incorporate important items and will lead to a better product. The first thing to start with is your “universal resource locator” (URL)—or your website name. In my case my website is lasorsalaw.com, which is my last name and makes sense because my law practice is called The Law Offices of Peter M. LaSorsa, P.C. Don’t choose a long and cumbersome URL. Having your last name with “law” after it will give potential clients the idea that they have the right website. Remember, the purpose of your website is to attract potential clients. It isn’t to impress other attorneys. Now that you have your website name, you need to check and make sure it is available. There are many websites that do this for free—so check your name and then purchase your URL. You can purchase the URL for one year or multiple years. I suggest you purchase it for at least ten years. Here is why: Search engines such as Google will punish websites that seem transient and not established and will reward websites that seem solid and in it for the long haul. Having your website returned in the first page of a search should be your goal. Having it returned in the first page is a combination of many little things and some big ones. Cover all your bases and take care of the small stuff. And registering your website for ten years is one of those important small items. (For more, see “Get Found! Search Engine Optimization Demystified.”)
Another small but very important step is to obtain the services of a hosting company to host your website. Shop around. (The purpose of this articles isn’t to offer free advertising to website hosting companies, so you have to do your own homework on that.) The important thing is to have your website published immediately even before you have content—just mark it “Under Construction.” Or you can write a page of what your website will be about and say the launch is coming in a few months. The reason you want to launch your website at once is that Google again will punish new websites and give higher rankings to websites that have been around longer. So while you are spending the time designing your website, writing copy, and shopping for a company to work with on all of this, at least have your website live so you are accruing “time credit” and don’t start from zero when you finally launch.
Next question: Are you going to design this yourself or hire a professional? Hiring a professional is the only choice. Remember, you are going to replace your Yellow Pages advertising, and this is the face of your company. You are an attorney, not a website designer. Spend the money to hire a professional. If you break down how much this costs, one client a year will pay for the entire expense. I use a company called Justia (my only plug in the article). They designed and host my website and blog.
Here’s how I went about finding the right company and the right design for my website: I did a Google search for “employment lawyers” in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. I looked at the website design, content, and who hosted and designed each website. I studied them all carefully, keeping notes on the best items from each that I wanted to use for my site. I also noted which companies hosted the websites that were always on the first page of search results. After all, what better indication of who can get my website on the first page of a search result?
Another thing to think about when looking for a design/hosting professional: If you are a personal injury lawyer in Chicago and the XYZ website design and hosting company already has eight law offices that do personal injury in Chicago, what are the chances you will be on the first page? They are not going to bump their older customers for you. So as a strategy, you may want to go with the competition with the caveat that they get you on the first page.
Doing Your Part
If you let professionals design and host your site, they will work on the back end of your website, doing their part to get you on the first page. But you still have to do your part. Your part starts with the look you are trying to convey. If you are in a big city, does your website say BIG CITY? If you practice environmental law, does your website say that? Think about colors, graphics, flow of the design, and the message the first impression will give. See what websites grab your attention. Which ones say “nice website”? Which ones say “professional”? Which ones say “this attorney has her stuff together and is on top of her game”? And which ones say “this person looks like he’s flying by the seat of his pants and doesn’t have a clue”? Remember: You still have to write the content; the professional is only going to design it to your specifications.
If you are in the same large city as other firms that are on the first page—say, on personal injury—try narrowing your website to a specific area of personal injury. Check your practice. If you are doing 80 percent of your business on automobile accidents, perhaps you have a website geared toward that specialty and the back end is directed toward bringing in auto accident clients rather than general personal injury clients. The main point is to spend a great deal of time looking at other websites in other cities and see who gets on the first page and what seems to be working. If it is working in New York and Chicago and Houston, it will probably work in Boston.
Another important element of your website is to provide details of your practice area and a publications section. A website is only as good as its content, and the search engines will punish you if you don’t provide relevant and updated content. Think of your website as a periodical or newspaper. You can’t just update it once a year and think the search engine is going to direct people to you. Would you read a year-old newspaper or magazine? You need to have a section or two that you can update weekly. If you write for your local bar association or other group, a publications section is a great place to update your website weekly. Also, you can add content to your practice areas each week. Add information about a new case or new statute that will affect your type of law. The important thing is to update, update, update.
Creating a Call to Action
So you have a website that is getting on the first page of a search result, and your potential client is reading it. Now what? There has to be a call to action, a point where the potential client contacts you and becomes a client. How this happens will depend on the type of law you practice and the type of law office you have. If you are doing DUI work, you should probably have a way for potential clients to reach you at night or on weekends—either a cell phone number or e-mail that lets the potential client know you are available and checking the e-mail. In the information age people expect immediate service, and in some practice areas you may have to practice this way. The website allows you to do this easily with a “Contact” form where users can fill in their name, address, phone number, and a brief snippet about their case. You should have a box for them to check and label it “Disclaimer.” There should be a link to the disclaimer that has your legal terms for those submitting the form to you. Check your state ethics rules for this and act accordingly. I suggest using “Disclaimer” instead of “Terms and Conditions” because “Terms and Conditions” to me implies a contract, whereas “Disclaimer” implies information. In other words, if users click the box saying they read and agree to your “Terms and Conditions,” can they then claim a contract has been formed? Contrast this with clicking and agreeing to your “Disclaimer,” which doesn’t imply the formation of a contract.
Gear your website’s call to action to your potential clients in your practice area. One size doesn’t fit all. What are other attorneys in other states in your practice field doing? If you practice in employment law, does your website give a number that is available before or after work or on weekends? How many people do you think are going to call you from their work to complain about the boss? If you make it convenient for your potential client to talk with you, you have a better chance of turning a potential client into an actual client—which is your goal.
Leveraging Your Blog
Remember above I said that the answer to reaching clients is a rocking website and blog? Well, you need both. A blog is a perfect complement to your website, a way for search engines to reward you for relevant and updated content. I write an article to my blog daily. My blog is called illinoissexualharassmentattorneyblog.com. I know it is very wordy, but I get a ton of business from it. The majority of my employment law cases are in the area of sexual harassment, so it’s a perfect fit. I link key words in the blog articles to practice areas on my website. For example, if I write an article about a sexual harassment case at the Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC) involving retaliation, I have a link back to my website on the key words “sexual harassment” and “retaliation.” Each link takes the reader back to a specific practice area on my website. I would also link the IHRC to the actual state website. By doing this, Google will reward both my website and blog as being relevant and timely. The same company that designed and hosts my website also does my blog. Having this type of synergy, in my opinion, helps elevate my website and helps attract clients. I have more published articles on sexual harassment in Illinois than any other attorney in the state—and Google rewards my website and blog for it. And if you think you don’t have the time to blog, think again. My blog articles are only a few paragraphs long, and I usually write them while having my morning coffee. You don’t have to write a novel.
Putting Out the Welcome Mat
Your website is the key to attracting new clients in the twenty-first century. The more time, thought, and energy you spend on it, the more clients you will attract. If you want clients to come through your door, they must first be able to find your website, and once there, they must feel comfortable with the image you portray.