March 2012 | Special Edition: Disaster Law – Preparing Law Firms and Clients for Issues in Cyberspace
Hosting A Law Firm Web Site – What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Your firm might have spent precious time crafting the perfect bios and selecting the ideal photographs for its new website. You may have exhausted hours researching the professional rules of conduct to construct each sentence beyond reproach. But before all that money and time can benefit you and before your law firm’s beautifully designed and well researched website can be seen on the internet, you must first choose the proper host.
A web "host" is a company with a computer or server connected to the internet where your law firm’s website will reside. Your website will essentially have its address or be “hosted” on the host’s server. The host has specialized software connecting it to the internet 24/7/365, thus allowing your website to be visible to a third party searching on the web.
The most popular hosting resolution for law firms is to pay a third party host such as MDD Hosting, Just Host, or Host Gator. A good host can be a natural extension of your firm and enable you to flourish, attract new clients, and grow in reputation, but a poor host can cost you money, time, reputation, and potential business.
There are many issues to consider as you go about selecting the right host for your law firm’s website. Each of the following issues could have legal, technical, monetary, and other ramifications.
It is highly recommended to choose a host that resides in the country where your law firm is located, as it will be under the jurisdiction of laws you are most familiar with. If this is not possible, then selecting a host in the United States or in the E.U. is a strong option because the governing laws are relatively stable and standard. The main reason for going with a host outside of the United States is having a client base predominantly overseas. By doing some smart jurisdictional research and shopping, you can choose the host that represents the best solution for your specific needs.
Location also presents technical issues. Where your host is located may affect the speed with which your current and potential clients can access your website. Also, the ease of reaching the host company and the language that technical support is offered in may vary with location.
Another issue to consider when it comes to the location of the hosting company is the potential cost with respect to the time and money it could take to address certain legal and security issues. For example, many foreign hosts may not be in a position to provide certain securities or assurances that are recommended in order to entrust them with your firm’s website. Each country has its own set of cyber security laws, and some are just beginning to enact web or internet fraud, or other kinds of laws to protect clients. You can avoid these types of issues by conducting thorough research before signing a contract.
Within the United States, it may matter very little to visitors of your website which state the web host is located in, so long as they provide a good connection. However, location may be important to your firm, and it is up to you to decide to go with a national web host provider or a local one for any number of reasons. For example, if your law firm is national or located in multiple states, it may not matter in which state the host is located. A national web host provider, however, may be able to provide greater security, lower fees, and more reliable service. Also, there are many more options to choose from if you are choosing from hosts across the country. If you are a firm conducting all or most of your business in one state you may opt to have a more intimate business relationship with a local provider. The proximity to the host’s data center could result in optimal performance as well as provide easier access to their office if you should ever need to meet with them in person.
The Terms of Agreement
Often, web hosts can offer other services as part of a package deal if you sign up for a hosting account. A factor to consider in package deals is domain name registration. Some hosting companies, such as Go Daddy and Network Solutions, will register your domain name for you. Another service often offered as part of a web hosting package is website design.
Again, find the right price for what your law firm currently needs. Because a website is critical today for outreach, marketing, and building of reputation, you don’t want to be overly sparing. However, you also don’t want to be paying for more than is necessary. Pay for what you need and make sure that you will be able to upgrade for a fair price in the future. The flexibility will be helpful down the line if, for example, you decide in the future that you want to add features to your website such as streaming videos or secure client portals.
It’s important to know upfront what kind of customer service a web host provider offers. The best hosts usually have support technicians available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is also important that the host employ redundant means of support contact, such as online chat, phone, twitter and email, so that you can find the most convenient and preferred method at any given time. One easy way to assess a company’s customer service ability is by actually testing it. This is something that can generally be done for free by finding their contact information. Simply give them a call or send them an email inquiring about their customer service. Try to send them an email on a weekend or a late hour and see how long it takes for them to respond. Doing so grants you insight to the web host provider’s efficiency and effectiveness.
Your Website’s Neighbors
The last thing you want is to find that your law firm’s website has been hacked and information you’ve collected from a potential client has been compromised.
If your host does not have proper security, then multiple websites hosted by them can all be hacked together. Hackers can attack a vulnerable spot directly on the host’s server or the hackers can exploit one website on a server and then use that website to contaminate the other websites hosted on the same server.
Consider whether the potential web hosting provider offers extended security protection, either as a standard feature or for an extra fee. Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP), which encrypts both commands and data so that they cannot be compromised during the upload process, is a feature that protects both websites and the web host. This extra layer of security prevents passwords and other sensitive data from being openly transmitted over a network. If necessary, you should be able to obtain a TLS (Transport Layer Security) or an SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificate for encryption of all sensitive data, such as credit card information, that passes through the hosting server, and SSH (Secure Shell) access should be offered for secure communication between the hosting server and the computer that a client uses to access his web hosting account.
Do not sign up with a host that has a bad record when it comes to security. That ought to be obvious, but often isn’t, considering the overwhelming number of hacking incidents that occur each year.
There are as many hosting packages and hosting terms of agreements as there are hosts out there. It is very important to read these closely and understand them thoroughly because they will impact not only your law firm but your clients and potential clients as well.
It is far better to do your due diligence so that you and your clients can enjoy your website.
Peter K. Suh, J.D. is a Law and Policy Analyst with the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS) and is admitted to practice law in the state of Maryland. His work with the Center includes authoring emergency operations plans and public health emergency preparedness plans.
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John D. Bowers, Fox Rothschild LLP
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