Websites should be designed to be interactive, ever changing, always relevant and personal. Lawyers are missing out if they aren't creating firm websites that educate and inform their clientele. A website should differentiate and uniquely position the firm as a leader in its markets, communicating the brand or personality of the firm and its lawyers.
There are many misconceptions that keep lawyers and law firms from achieving an optimal Internet presence. They think:
- web building is an event.
- it's not my job-it's the job of our IT or marketing staff.
- it's up. I can forget about it.
- we need a website. I'll get my son to put our brochure online.
- we don't need a firm-wide web strategy.
They don't realize that a well-planned and professionally designed website is an essential tool that can differentiate your law firm and effectively reach all your audiences. The marketing starts the moment you register your domain name. Early on, firms used abbreviations, added a .com at the end and hoped people would find them. However, using your firm's street name further brands your name in the marketplace. Remember to trademark and register all derivations of your domain name and firm name to deter cybersquatters. If you are currently using initials for your domain name, re-register a more complete firm name, as well as .net versions.
Site structure is at the soul of serving your clients' needs and getting your message across in a way that's both exciting and accessible. First generation websites were boring. They were linear and had no graphic elements with edge-to-edge text. Second generation sites are first generation sites with icons replacing titles (today, most law firm sites fall into this category). Not much better.
Third generation sites focus on the visitor's complete experience. These sites are database continued driven, which enables the firm webmaster or site host to update it daily and allows visitors to search by topic, lawyer, practice area, location or anything they want.
The strategy, design, development and infrastructure for database driven sites can be considerably more expensive than second generation sites. However, the rewards to a firm and to a client or prospect are worth the investment. [A note to those firms that boast state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute, leading edge technology practices: if your website isn't third generation, you aren't taking advantage of the best sales tool available to you.]
The Home Page
Home pages typically get more traffic than any other page, so it must make an impression. It should:
- load quickly.
- be graphically consistent with EVERY printed communication your firm produces (logo, colors, style).
- include your firm name, main address, phone, fax, e-mail contact.
- have a "read our disclaimer" link (rather than printing the entire disclaimer on the home page).
- include a copyright statement that all words and images belong to XYZ firm.
- include a tagline or statement that distinguishes your firm and signals what you do.
- have links to the important sections and subsections of your site.
Once your home page is done, the next step is to consider your clients. What do you most want them to know about you? Design your site structure around your firm's strategic marketing goals. Feature your top practice areas.
Use your site to improve client relationship management. A website gives you the opportunity to "talk" to your clients:
- educate them with online roundtable CLE and business discussions.
- create special secure areas and extranets for document sharing among parties, including other counsel.
- show what your clients think of you with client testimonials.
- improve your recruiting success at law schools by speaking their language.
- keep connected: distributing an e-mail version of your newsletter saves considerable staff time and money, as does posting a .pdf version at your website.
- stay in touch with the media by creating a press center to pst your latest press releases. But, make sure everything is fresh news.
The Human Touch
Now add photos to your attorney bios. Technology is great, but it's inhuman and cold; it's important to add warmth where you can.
Clients and prospects want to know four things first and foremost: 1) what you've done, 2) for whom you've done it, 3) results and 4) what you can do for them. Your resumes should NOT read like directory listings. Make them conversational in tone. Include education at the end, along with bar admissions.
Visitors don't care about your court admissions, law review articles (unless you just graduated) and countless pages of article and speech titles. Don't include any family information, hobbies or charitable and civic memberships on your online resume. With the popularity of identity theft, you want to be prudent in protecting personal information.
Add a Purpose
We already know why you want your website. Now it's time to analyze what your clients need. Providing a service is important, but make sure it's a service that visitors want. Examples include publishing court procedures, standard forms of some kind, regulatory agency opinions that aren't yet available on the Internet. Focus on what your clients need, not what other lawyers like.
If your visitors are interested enough to contact you, do the right thing and respond to e-mail inquiries quickly. How are e-mail inquiries that originate at your website handled and by whom? You may be surprised to learn that many large companies (85% in a recent survey) fail to respond to e-mail inquiries. A big mistake.
Keep it Fresh / Make Navigation Easy
The expectation of fresh content is what keeps visitors returning to your site. The minute you disappoint them, they won't be back. Make sure you keep it current and simple. Don't Post epic-length journal articles that no one understands or appreciates. Since navigation is as important online as in the real world, include a site map. A clear and concise site map provides clues about the kind of information visitors will find in each section of your site. While you're at it, driving directions to your office are a must as well. Offer written directions and a link to wwwmapquestcom or Yahoo! directions access.
The Kiss of Death
Old news is the kiss of death on a website - it shows you're not paying attention. Stay away from sections called "What's New" or statements that start "Last Updated."
Links to legal resources and government agencies were useful before search engines and browsers were perfected. There is no reason today to give your visitors the ticket to leave and not return.
Visual appeal is important, as is your firm's logo. But big and unnecessary graphics add nothing and slow down your site. The same thing goes for tired images of gavels, the Supreme Court building, law books, generic columns, etc. Gimmicks like games and lawyer jokes aren't funny, and restaurant reviews aren't relevant.
Track Your Traffic
You want to know who is visiting your site, where they are going and what they found useful. Create an online survey that queries your visitors. To ensure that your site is doing what you intended (generating new business, offering legal and business reference information or recruiting new lawyers), there are a few critical pieces of information you want to review on a monthly basis:
- Number of actual visitors. The number of visitors is very different from hits. Hits don't accurately measure the activity on your website. Rather, track visitors by their domains so you know who the individual visitors are. This is useful because it tells you if the visitor is from a commercial entity (.com or.net), an academic entity (.edu) a government body (.gov) or from a non-profit (.org). If you want to attract more first year law students, reviewing the activity by the edu visitors will help you evaluate if your site is meeting its intended purpose.
- What are your visitors visiting? Tracking where your visitors go helps you analyze the usefulness of material you have posted on your site. Evaluate the relevance of the material you post and eliminate material that doesn't hold your visitors' interest.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.