In March 1994, Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti (known these days as Venable LLP
) launched what seems to have been the first site on the World Wide Web for a law firm. It was black and white and hyperlink-heavy, and it was a game-changer. The site gave clients ready access to attorneys' CVs, described the firm's take on its practice areas, and offered "electronic mail addresses" so readers could get in touch.
Almost 20 years and several generations of technology later, law firm websites still must focus on clients' needs and experience, says Kevin O'Keefe, an attorney and the publisher of LexBlog
, which curates a large network of legal blogs. Even a dazzling and extensive website won't entirely replace more traditional marketing or old-fashioned word of mouth. But long gone is the day when a website was optional.
"Three out of four consumers who found a lawyer over the last twelve months looked up the lawyer online," says Larry Bodine, an attorney and the editor of Lawyers.com
More Than A Pretty Face
Ross Fishman, a former litigator who runs a marketing agency [Fishman Marketing
] serving midsize law firms, says the evidence he's seen and heard suggests that a bad website "will knock you right out of the competition."
"A law firm's website is its 24/7 face to the world. It is its most important marketing tool, it's where people go first to learn whether you're a credible firm or not," he says.
A sharp-looking home page is a good start. But firms shouldn't settle for typical photos of skylines, gavels, friendly looking partners, or the scales of justice, Fishman says. "If your homepage is built around images of your smiling lawyers, change it. Everybody has lawyers."
The home page should differentiate a firm from its competition in specific ways: The lead images should convey firm members' best qualities, like toughness, strategic thinking, or creativity. The text and other content should signal the firm's areas of expertise and some top or recent achievements. And it's crucial for the site to look modern and professional. "A four-year-old website looks like a cheap suit," Fishman says. "[Even] three-year-old websites are getting too old."
The latest major change for all business websites, including those for law firms, has been in the devices people use to reach them. And every site needs to accommodate this shift.
"It needs to look good on a phone," says Sam Glover, an attorney and editor of Lawyerist.com
, a law practice blog that also builds attorney websites. That's because a quarter to half of the people who visit a law firm's website do so on a mobile device. So law firm websites should employ "responsive design." That is, they must adjust to the size and functionality of any type of screen. (Separate stripped-down websites for mobile visitors no longer look professional.) And contact information must be prominent and easy to use.
"When people look at [a firm's website] on a phone, they want to call you," Glover says, explaining that users expect to be able to tap a button on the site that will make their phone dial. "They don't want to fill out a contact form."
Visitors who are on a laptop or desktop computer may be more willing to fill out a form, but accessible contact information is one of the key factors that Glover and his team consider in selecting Lawyerist's annual list of the top ten law firm websites.
The Right Amount of News
Once your new site is up, the next great debate is how often to update it with news flashes or blog posts. If your aim is to attract clients who search for "personal injury lawyers in Los Angeles," O'Keefe says, then sure, constantly posting new content across your site will improve your search rankings. Of course, if your firm truly has enough news to fill a weekly newsletter or daily news page, then consistent updates - and they have to be consistent
, whether weekly, daily, or more frequent - can be a great way to keep visitors coming.
As for blogging, the jury is still out.
"I don't think most lawyers should blog," Glover says. "Most lawyers aren't very good at it. And most lawyers won't stay with it. ... It's pointless to have a blog if you aren't going to keep it fresh."
O'Keefe says a blog that appears on a firm's own website can seem like an ad. "There's nothing wrong with having another ad, but that's what it is," he says. To give a blog more credibility, O'Keefe advises moving it off the firm's site to an independent blogging platform like WordPress
- or his network at LexBlog. The blog will still serve as business development, he says, but the best provide insight for readers, through commentary on recent decisions, best practices, or industry trends. In this way, a successful blog can burnish an attorney's reputation as an expert.
Another excellent way to present yourself to the world is by microblogging on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. "I'd say if you're not using Twitter, you're on the outside looking in," O'Keefe says. "It makes you approachable."
Lawyers.com's Bodine suggests firing up a webcam to help clients feel a quick connection. "Putting video on a law firm website has become very important," he says. A video can show the human side of the firm - and help attorneys stand out. Plus, making one requires less time and commitment than keeping other content updated.
Glover warns against setting up a custom email address without building a website to match. "If you went to the trouble of getting email '@smithlawfirm .com,' you better have a website," he says. "GoDaddy's landing page doesn't cut it."
Open It Up
Now that you're convinced you should think about your firm's website differently, note that experts recommend going with an open-source framework. The use of complicated, proprietary Web design and editing software (common on older sites) can keep a firm beholden to outside developers - and stuck calling (and paying) for help whenever a change is needed.
"Locking yourself to a system for no reason doesn't make good business sense," Fishman says.
Switching to an open-source content-management system like WordPress, Drupal
, or Joomla
lets anyone in-house who's reasonably tech-savvy easily log in, edit and post all kinds of content, add pages, or just swap out photos to keep the site fresh. And because thousands of professional developers also use open-source content-management systems, they're updated regularly, and their security is tight.
Like wide ties and padded shoulders, old websites can look dated. As technology evolves and design trends change, a relaunch may be in order every three or four years. It's probably possible to redo your site from top to bottom on any number of open-source platforms so that anyone on staff with moderate technical skill can update the site as needed. And if your site's content already effectively promotes your firm's brand, it's perfectly appropriate - and can save lots of time and money - to transfer the existing images, video, text, and other material onto the newly redesigned, responsive site.
Then you can devote the staff hours you save to adding new content - and you'll be more likely to keep at it.
David Ferry writes from San Francisco about the law, social issues, technology, and other oddities.