19 1/2 Things Every Lawyer Should Know about Web Sites

08.01.04
By Deborah McMurray

Law firms are investing more in the design and development of their Web sites than ever before. However, during a recent speech to the Orange County Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, nearly half of the attendees (lawyers and marketers) said they were unhappy with their current sites. And several of them had launched new Web sites within the last year.

Firm size ranged from 10 lawyers to more than 1000 lawyers and the large firm representatives were just as displeased as the small firm folk.

If you have marketing or business development expectations of your law firm Web site, then you must view this medium and investment very differently. Below are several ways firm leaders can get more from their online presence.

#1 Start at the beginning.

The reason so many law firm Web sites are poor is because too few firms pay attention to firm strategy, understand their target markets or develop a Web site strategy. Strategy focus, key messages and points of differentiation should shape every decision that’s made in creating design, determining functionality and developing content.

Your firm strategy should be clear when a visitor comes to your site. You have one chance to make a first impression. Don’t risk making the wrong one by not spending time on this critical step.

Visit Andrews Kurth’s site at www.andrewskurth.com for an example of a firm that demonstrates strategy from the minute you land on the home page.

#2 Know why your visitors are there.

Business to business buyers of legal services want to know three things: (a) what you’ve done, (b) for whom you’ve done it and (c) what you can do for them. If you don’t answer these questions, they’ll leave your site and not come back.

The first time a visitor pulls up or links to your site, it’s likely a colleague or friend referred you or your firm. These visitors are validating a referral. What do you want them to know about you?

#3 Focus on architecture.

Builders don’t start pouring building foundations without a comprehensive architectural schematic. Your Web site strategy will dictate your functionality, features and navigation. Each major section of the home page (everything in your top level or global navigation) should have its own "picture" that defines exactly what will appear.

These site diagrams are your architectural drawings that define the scope of your Web site. With these, you define and lock in your budget. Without them, count on budget creep.

#4 Let strategy drive your content.

Your firm and Web site strategies, plus your style of doing business should dictate the tone used in content and copy on your Web site. Is your firm informal and friendly? Formal and conservative? Edgy? The voice you use to describe your practices and lawyers should be consistent throughout the site, and reflect who you really are.

#5 Be consistent.

Hire a copywriter who knows the legal industry to help you rewrite your primary content. Many law firm sites have descriptions that are so disparate in tone, length and style that the material appears to be from different firms.

#6 Know the difference between copy and content.

Copy on a Web site is intended to drive action. "Strategy copy" (the block of text on a home page that tells what you do/who you are in a compelling way), headlines and sidebars are copy. It should be short, action-oriented and highlight simple pathways through the site.

"Content" includes those longer bodies of text that you hope your visitors will read. Practice and industry descriptions, articles, white papers—other in-depth text that digs deeper into subjects and shows a firm’s experience and expertise.

NOTE: This doesn’t mean that your content can be labored, too long and dull. The point is to drive visitors to material that can answer questions and point to you as a reliable source to solve a problem.

Your goal should be to communicate your strengths, then invite them to contact you.

#7 Write your resume as copy, not content.

Your resume should reflect the best that you’ve done, not everything you’ve done. Lawyer Web site bios are more varied than anything else on the Internet, ranging from no more than a Martindale-style listing to voluminous reports of every thing the lawyer has achieved.

Your bio should answer the questions in #2 above. List client names if your bar rules allow it (but always get client permission first). Don’t boast, but don’t undersell your strengths and capabilities, either.

#8 Divide your strengths into both practices and industries.

Buyers of legal services don’t all want the same thing. Some focus on your industry depth first (generally C-suite executives and other business people) and others gravitate to practice strengths (more often generals counsel and other legal department members).

You are missing critical and huge audiences if you don’t give these buyers what they want as quickly as possible.

#9 Be succinct.

Write no more than 50% of the text that you would include in a hard copy publication.

#10 Write for the scanning reader.

No one has time (even if they have the inclination) to pore into pages and pages of data. Break up your Web site content into smaller pieces and shorter paragraphs. Use headlines, call-outs or sidebars to highlight calls to action or critical points you don’t want readers to miss. For an example of practice/industry description call-outs highlighted in red Italics, visit www.godwingruber.com.

#11 Focus on usability.

Designing a site so that it’s "usable" is both an art and a science. There are countless law firm sites that are difficult to navigate, and where it’s impossible to find anything. They don’t offer keyword searches and force a visitor to click multiple times. Creating a highly usable site requires an understanding of both human behavior and graphic/information design.

"Answers in one or two clicks" is the mantra for ultimate usability. In addition, a keyword search on every page
is basic Web site hygiene.

#12 Know that visitors have multiple personalities.

To illustrate this, think of your family. You have a son in college, a 9th grade daughter, one spouse works and the other is an active volunteer. Internet and computer usage is a part of each person’s life—but to varying degrees, ranging from computer novice to expert user.

Your site must accommodate the habits and patterns of both novices and experts. It must be unthreatening and accessible to a casual user, and engaging, deep and fast for the more proficient.

Web visitors typically fall into three categories: browsers, navigators and searchers. Design your site to appeal to all three.

#13 Be simple.

Read your practice/industry descriptions and lawyer bios out loud. You might think this silly, but it will spotlight run-on sentences, obtuse wording and confusing legalese. It’s the best self-test of how well you are communicating.

#14 Avoid redundancy.

Don’t say the same thing twice on the same page. The exercise of reading content out loud should also flag redundancy.

It IS good to cross-reference other material in the site, however, and link to it when it gives the visitor additional, relevant information. However, avoid too many cross-references, which create an overly complex interface.

Redundant navigation is good. Giving visitors 2-3 different ways to navigate the site improves their experience—because you are giving them a choice.

#15 Understand information hierarchy and design.

This may sound overly complex, but it’s simply a matter of knowing what’s most important, next most important, etc. on your home page.

Think of your home page as a valuable piece of real estate. Jakob Nielsen, author of Home Page Usability, states, "Corporate home pages are the most valuable real estate in the world. Space on a big company’s home page is worth about 1,300 times as much as land in the business districts of Tokyo."

Nielsen deconstructed 50 home pages of brand-name companies’ Web sites. He found that the two main goals of a Web site, (1) to give users information and (2) to serve as the top-level navigation for information inside the site, only "accounted for 39% of the screen space."

Analyze whether your home page is communicating your key messages, serving as a road map to the rest of your site, creating a strong, first impression and advancing your brand. If it isn’t, redesign your site.

#16 Know that your credibility is at risk.

Dr. B.J. Fogg’s book, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What we Think and Do, points out 51 design elements that help or hurt a Web site’s credibility (and ultimately YOUR credibility).

He says, "the four most harmful elements are:

a. Links that don’t work
b. Content that is rarely updated
c. Links to sites that lack credibility
d. Ads that are indistinguishable from content."

Concentrate on points a, b and c, and ensure that your credibility isn’t being compromised unwittingly.

#17 Humanize your site.

Visitors want a preview of what it’s like to do business with you. How well does your site communicate this? According to Dr. Fogg, a Web site’s credibility increases when it shows the people in the organization.

Jakob Nielsen’s research has confirmed this idea, but with product sales. Visitors are more likely to buy coffee products from a site if they can see the company’s coffee roaster, for example. "Seeing the equipment increased people’s confidence that the company actually had coffee on hand, and that they would receive their package after placing an order."

We can take a lateral step and assume the same for photos on lawyer bios. Assuming they don’t already know you, visitors want to see the lawyers they are considering placing on their short list. If there are three excellent firms on a prospect’s short list, and two of the firms include lawyer photos on the resumes, but yours doesn’t. Do you think your chances of being chosen are equal?

#18 Give your visitors credit for being smart.

Buyers of legal services—certainly in the business to business context—are bright, often highly successful people. Design your site for them, not your lawyers.

For example, avoid cliched and trite graphics that clobber your guest over the head. Don’t communicate that you have a global practice by picturing a globe. Don’t "prove" that you are trial lawyers by showing a courtroom, columns or a gavel.

Again using Andrews Kurth’s site as an example, firm leaders wanted to communicate to audiences that "Straight Talk is Good Business" is more than a slogan. It really is how they represent clients. They commissioned original illustrations to demonstrate the straight talk rules (you can find the complete list of rules under About Us). The illustrations conceptualize the rules—about choosing a direction, staying in touch, not hiding behind legalese, etc.

The illustrations are smart and engage visitors in a sophisticated, no-nonsense way.

#19 Build your Web site as part of an integrated marketing strategy.

All firm messages, advertisements, printed materials, etc. must conform and support your vision and strategy. There are countless ways for a firm to launch and extend its brand. Ensure that the messages you choose resonate with your target audiences, and then manage them diligently and consistently.

#19 1/2. Care.

Every lawyer should care about his or her firm’s Web site. What is it communicating about you and your firm? Is it a hodge podge of old data? Does it have a "What’s New" button with nothing more recent than the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002?

Care about how you look, what you say, how you are perceived. Then care some more. Take some chances. Stretch—this is the medium to do it.

Deborah McMurray is a strategic marketing consultant in the legal industry, specializing in positioning/branding strategy and Web development. She is the co-author of the popular ABA book, Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 2nd Ed. Contact her at 214.351.9690 or mcmurray@contentpilot.net.

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