Law Firm Web Sites: Ten Foundational Best Practices

02.01.06
By Deborah McMurray
Published in HEADNOTES, a publication of the Dallas Bar Association

We live in a Web site world. The economics and ubiquitous nature of the Internet testify to this. Organizations have multiple goals for their Web sites, but the primary one should be to simply communicate what you do and how you do it.

Your Web site is your initial face to the world. Law firm leaders don’t spend enough time thinking about this—on the Internet, what is the first impression that your firm makes? For many law firms, the Web site is often the single largest expenditure in their marketing or IT budget in any given year. In addition, these are time-consuming projects to plan, develop and launch. This article is a short guide for lawyers, marketers and Web site committees as you plan and budget for your future site enhancement.

Best Practices—Why Now?

Because law firm Web sites have been a presence on the Internet for about ten years, we are finally in a position to define some best practices. Web technology has come far enough, especially when combined with the 21st century sophistication of law firm marketing, business development, branding, practice group/industry teams, client loyalty and other strategic initiatives.

With a decade of experience behind us, we have something with which to work. With the proliferation of law firm Web sites, and their advancement to a third, fourth or fifth generation of development, it is possible and necessary for a set of Foundational Best Practices to emerge. They will form the basis from which future functional assessments and improvements will derive.

Ten Foundational Best Practices

The best practices are “foundational” because they are the basic building blocks for ensuring the best and highest use of this medium. They are the “must have” as opposed to “nice to have” features. These are derived from broad Web industry best practices, then this broad list was adapted and customized to reflect the world of law and the special needs of buyers of legal services.

The law firm Web site Foundational Best Practices are:

1. Communicating Your Message

How well are firms communicating strategy, strengths and reach?

2. Graphics and Design

This isn’t about branding or the attractiveness of the design—that’s too subjective. This is about consistency, simplicity of communication, minimal distractions, information hierarchy, and so on.

3. Navigation

Are the sites easy to navigate on the home page and inside? Is the navigation protocol consistent? Are there several ways to get around the sites?

4. Copy and Content

Since lawyers are evaluated by what they know, what they’ve done and how they get things done, this section analyzes how well firms tell their stories and how up-to-date these stories are. Do they answer the key questions that buyers of legal services want to know—what have you done, for whom have you done it and what can you do for me?

5. Lawyer Biographies

How well do these communicate a lawyer’s strengths? Are they consistent one to another and are they current? Can a visitor easily get more information?

6. Practice / Industry Descriptions

This ties back to the questions raised in #4 above. How well are these descriptions selling your lawyers and law firm?

7. Contact Information

Visitors should be able to access complete contact information for every firm office in one click from the home page.

8. Search

How easy is it to search the site? How comprehensive is the lawyer search and advanced search?

9. Site Optimization

Have the firms taken the basic steps so they can maximize their chances of being found by the most popular search engines?

10. Site "Hygiene"

Firms may do well with strategy or design, but if links are broken, the site is down or it isn’t easy to access using up-and-comer browsers, visitors will get annoyed and not return. In Web site design and maintenance, the little details are as important as the big picture issues.

AMLAW 100 Web Site Analysis

Content Pilot LLC commissioned the first annual analysis of the AMLAW (American Lawyer) 100 Web sites, based on these ten Foundational Best Practices. The firms on the 2005 AMLAW 100 list are the nation’s largest law firms based on 2004 revenues, and set the standards for high value and superior quality. (NOTE: Because of the DLA Piper Rudnick merger and the dissolution of Coudert Brothers, there are 98 firms in the final analysis.)

For the thousands of other law firms around the globe, understanding the current stage of development for the AMLAW 100 firms provides law firm leaders with important data and points of learning.

The big picture result is surprising. Of the 98 top law firms in America—and arguably in the world—56% of the Web sites ranked fair or poor. And, only 4% of the firms are doing enough of the right things to merit a ranking of excellent.

It’s likely that many firms are in the middle of a Web site redesign, or have budgeted in 2006 for a new Web site. Because an overhaul of this critical communication tool is one of the most expensive budget items for a law firm, now is the time to focus on the ten Foundational Best Practices and ensure that firms maximize their investment.

Content Pilot consults with law firms on strategic marketing initiatives, including Web sites and Proposal Centers. She is a former co-chair of the Dallas Bar Publications and Media Relations Committees.

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