The number of Americans logging onto the Internet more than doubled last year, to where, as of last December, nearly a quarter of the people in the U.S. and Canada were active users. And of those who surfed the Web, nearly three quarters spent at least part of their time looking for information on a product or service.
For lawyers, these numbers - from a recent survey by CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research - lead to both a conclusion and a question. The conclusion: More and more, the Internet is where the clients are. The question: When those prospective clients use the Internet to search for a lawyer, will they find you?
The key to ensuring they do, many lawyers believe, is to establish a site on the World Wide Web - the Internet's easy-to-use graphical interface. A Web site can be your billboard along the information superhighway, attracting new clients to your firm and providing information to existing ones.
But what makes a Web site a success? Is it enough just to have one, or is there an art to attracting visitors? To find out, Law Office Computing sought the wisdom of experience, interviewing lawyers who have Web sites about what has worked and what has not. Their advice has been sifted into these 20 tips for Web site success.
1. Determine your objectives.
Rule number one, lawyers agree, is to plan in advance what you want to accomplish with your Web site.
"It's critical for law firms thinking about a web site to decide what their objectives are early on during the planning process," explains lawyer and Internet consultant Jerry Lawson. "If you don't, you'll probably just be wasting your time and money."
"Take the time to plan what you are going to do with your site," agrees Evan Farr, principal of a three-lawyer Virginia firm that has been on the Web since summer 1995. "Try to understand your segment of the legal market, and figure out how to appeal to that market. Develop a unique theme for your site, and a descriptive name."
What are the possible goals for a Web site? Lawson describes three, each of which requires a different approach and level of commitment:
2. Provide useful content.
It has become a rote rule of Web design: What draws visitors is not pretty pictures or lawyer biographies - it is content. And lawyers with experience take it a step further, emphasizing that content alone is not enough - it must be useful to your target audience.
"Give visitors and clients a reason to visit your site," Farr advises. "Don't just put up a firm resume. A successful Web site must be viewed as a public service, not simply as an advertisement. ... Your Web site must, in and of itself, provide a valuable service or give useful information. In the process, visitors will also learn about your firm and your areas of practice and, when they need a lawyer, they will turn to you."
Mark N. Goodman, an Arizona lawyer whose three-lawyer firm has had a Web site since mid-1995, agrees. "Just putting up a billboard doesn't really get you anywhere. Most of our site is dedicated to providing useful free stuff. People like free stuff. Give them something free and they appreciate it; give them something free that is useful and they appreciate it even more. If they ever need a lawyer, they just might remember that."
Content can range from articles you have written to legal primers to sample forms. The key, lawyers agree, is to offer something that will be of interest to the specific audience you want to attract to your Web site.
An example offered by Kevin Lee Thomason, a San Francisco lawyer and Internet consultant, is the Alexander Law Firm's "Consumer Law Page," http://consumerlawpage.com, a site with hundreds of articles on consumer law. "People don't use the Internet to look for lawyers, they don't use it like a phone book," Thomason believes. "One thing they do use it for is to find a solution to a problem or an answer to a question. If I had a problem with a defective product, I would go to a search engine and type in `defective product.' That would bring up the Alexander site."
"Utility is king," adds Goodman. "Designing the Web site so that it can be found
is important, but the usefulness of the Web site is what brings repeat visitors."
3. Keep it simple but sophisticated.
After content, the most important factor in a Web site's success is its design, experts agree. A law firm site should be simple but sophisticated, and in particular should avoid graphics that take too long to load or that send the wrong message.
"Avoid glitz and glamour and graphics and colors," advises Farr. "Keep it a simple, information-oriented site. People come for information, not fancy graphics. ... Repeat visitors are important, and you want to make it easy for people to access the information they are seeking."
For Carol Shepherd, an intellectual property lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich., the rule of thumb is that any page that takes more than 30 seconds to load is a mistake. She designed her pages to load quickly even for people using older 14.4 kbps modems. "We will continue to have a simple, fast-loading page, until the 14.4 platform is a minority among home users - since most entrepreneurs and managers do their surfing at home, not at the office."
But even as you avoid glitzy graphics, you must at the same time have a minimal level of graphics quality. "Otherwise," says Jerry Lawson, "you suffer in comparison with other sites. That's why attorneys pay good money to buy nice letterhead - they know it's a reflection of their firm."
Design consultant Marshall says he has seen sophisticated firms with "almost regal" offices put up Web sites that are "junk." "When I see a site that looks like garbage, it makes an impression, just as anything else the firm did in a tawdry way would. The best legal-oriented Web sites have professionally done but restrained graphics that make the site aesthetically pleasing but don't go beyond that."
Lawyers often do not realize, observes Shepherd, that a 3-D gavel bursting out of a page is akin in tackiness to a magnetized business card. "If you wouldn't put it on your letterhead or a business card, you have no business putting it on your Web site."
4. Consider a consultant.
All of the lawyers interviewed created their own Web sites. Nevertheless, all agree that some lawyers may be better off hiring a consultant to design their site.
"If you have someone on staff who is Web literate, and you know what content you want on your site, then it should be fairly simple to create a Web presence `in house,'" says Farr. "Any moderately advanced user of WordPerfect or Microsoft Word can quickly create some basic Web pages. If you do not have the technical capabilities, then hire an outside consultant."
"If more people realized how easy it is," observes Goodman, "they'd be doing it." It took him less than 10 hours to create his Web site, and since then he spends about one weekend day a month updating it.
David White-Lief, a personal injury lawyer in Boston, spent between 20-40 hours creating his site. "Anybody who is reasonably proficient with computer skills can learn to write home pages in a very short amount of time," he suggests. "You want to have some sense of design as well, because it is easy to create ugly pages."
New software makes Web design even easier. But while these tools can be a boon for many firms, they can be a trap for others, cautions Jerry Lawson. "There is still a learning curve involved. Most successful attorneys are better off avoiding excessive involvement in technical minutiae, and spending their time instead making the substantive decisions on what will be included at the Web site and then doing what they do best - practicing law."
If you decide to hire a consultant, go with someone who has a track record of designing law firm sites, experts agree. "Legal practice can't be promoted like a pizza restaurant," explains Lawson. "Get someone who understands that."
Experience and costs vary widely, so shop around before selecting a consultant. You can pay as little as $500 or as much as $30,000. On average, a small firm should be able to get a simple site - including a front page, pages for each practice group, lawyer biographies, and e-mail forms - for $2,500 to $5,000.
5. Emphasize a unique aspect of your practice.
As greater numbers of lawyers create Web sites, it becomes increasingly important to distinguish your own. An effective way to do this, lawyers suggest, is to create a site that emphasizes some unique aspect of your practice.
One lawyer who has had success with this approach is Robert L. Sommers, a solo, San Francisco tax specialist. His "Tax Prophet" Web site, http://www.taxprophet.com, leaves no mistake about the nature of Sommers' expertise. It has drawn clients from as far away as Taiwan and Thailand while helping to boost his reputation locally at the same time.
Although Sommers' practice is more specialized than most, he believes that any lawyer can follow his example. Once, he recalls, a lawyer with a rural, family law practice asked him why he should have a Web site. "You need to think about your skill sets," Sommers replied. "Do you know anything about community property?" "Yes," the lawyer answered. "So become a community property expert rather than just a family lawyer. Then, anyone in the world who has a question in that field can be a potential client."
This can be even more important for generating lawyer-to-lawyer referrals. "The last thing lawyers want to do is scrounge around looking for another lawyer," Sommers says. "If you've got a Web site with a particular focus and put content up there so they can judge you, you might get a client. Think of yourself in a much broader context, think of your skills rather than your geographic location."
"Even if you're a general practitioner," agrees Lawson, "for the purpose of marketing on the Net, you can be a specialist."
6. Think of your site as having multiple entrances.
A mistake many lawyers make is to think of their site as a single destination or as having only one front door. The reality, those with sites agree, is that you never know how visitors will find your site or where they will enter it. The trick, once visitors enter your site, is to keep them there.
"Don't design your site with the expectation that everyone will come in to one entry point," counsels Lawson. "Plan for the phenomenon that if you have good content, people will skip your opening page and go directly to the content. If you have your site designed intelligently, then no matter where they come in, you have a chance to keep them."
To do this, says Evan Farr, make sure that every page includes a link back to your home page. "If visitors get lost or sidetracked while exploring your site, it should be easy for them to link back to your home page."
Shepherd's site accomplishes this by putting her Arborlaw logo as a footer on every page. And on every page where there are articles, there is a table running down the left side with information about the author and the firm. At the bottom of each page is a button to return to the main page. "We make real clear it is our site."
7. Study other lawyers' sites.
Before designing your own site, spend some time surfing other lawyers' sites to develop a sense of what is good and what is not.
"I spent hours cruising around looking at what other lawyers were doing," recalls Goodman. "I looked at every lawyer's site I could, and quickly realized what was garbage and what was good."
Focus your review, Lawson recommends, on sites that target your same market. And if you find a site that is good, he suggests, copy its ideas - ideas, he notes, are not protected by copyright.
8. Remember existing clients.
Too many lawyers see Web sites as vehicles for attracting new clients while overlooking their role in serving existing clients, the experts generally agree.
"Some of the most successful Web sites are designed to market to existing clients," contends Gregory Siskind, author of the ABA book, The Lawyer's Guide To Marketing On The Internet. He cites as an example Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, http://www.brobeck.com. "A lot of large firms put up content geared toward specific clients. These are designed to be value-added services."
There is hardly a firm out there that does not have existing clients who would not benefit from a Web site, Siskind believes. "You may find that a Web site is a great way to get news about the firm to your clients. It is a good way through lawyer-biography sections to make it easier for clients to get to know you." Such sites, Siskind adds, tell your clients that technology plays a role in your practice and that you are making an effort to keep them informed.
9. Think local.
Lawyers getting on to the World Wide Web risk placing too much emphasis on "world-wide" and forgetting their home towns, several lawyers agreed.
In developing a Web page, "It is a mistake not to think of the local angle," advises Farr. "You can tell from the title of my page that I know my market - it's the Northern Virginia Law Page, not even the Virginia Law page. That's where my practice is."
Shepherd urges lawyers to bolster their Internet presence through traditional means of communication with clients and business associates. A mistake she made in her Web site, she believes, was not initially having "a big site launch party and set of announcements."
Even Gregory Siskind, whose successful immigration-law site has drawn clients literally from all over the world, concedes he should have paid more attention earlier on to the local side of his practice. Once he learned that lesson and began promoting his site locally, he found that his firm became better known among local lawyers and his base of home-town clients increased.
10. Answer your e-mail.
Answering e-mail is like returning phone calls - you've got to do it, and do it promptly.
"An attorney has to check his e-mail every day if he's going to have a Web site," contends Farr. "I've seen sites where they put up the site but there is no way to contact the attorney via the Internet."
Farr knows of what he speaks: every client he has gotten through his Web site has made the first contact through e-mail. "I check my e-mail at least twice every day and respond usually within half a day. That is what gets them to become a client. They see right off that you are responsive and will be there when they need you."
Tax lawyer Sommers concurs, adding that it is important to answer every e-mail, regardless of the source. "I get a lot of e-mail, but not a lot of serious inquiries. A lot of messages are from students wanting help with homework or people looking for free advice. I respond to everyone. ... It is important to be polite; you never know who they are or what they might say about you to others."
Lawyers suggest having a form on your Web site for visitors to use to send you e-mail. This ensures that the initial message provides information you consider important. Warren Agin, for example, a Boston bankruptcy lawyer, uses a form that requires anyone sending an inquiry to specify where they live. Evan Farr's form asks for the name of the adverse party, if any.
Lawyers stress caution in responding to e-mail, taking care not to give legal advice inappropriately or appear to be creating an attorney-client relationship. "There is always the possibility for some implication of an attorney-client relationship," warns Agin. "I respond to every message with a disclaimer that I am not providing legal advice. If I get anything other an a simple question, my answer always is, `It depends.' I almost never answer follow-up requests, because I don't want to create a dialog."
11. Caution visitors about confidentiality.
Your Web site should include warnings that the Internet is not secure, and that any e-mail visitors send you could be intercepted, experts advise.
Lawson suggests going a step further, providing visitors an option to send you e-mail using some form of encryption software, such as Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP (http://www.pgp.com). "With the advent of easy-to-use PGP shells, encrypting or decrypting a message is no big burden. The cost/benefit ratio strongly militates in favor of encrypting even remotely sensitive messages."
As an example of a firm that has done this correctly, Lawson points to Rice & Stallknecht, http://www.rsrlaw.com. Anyone who selects an e-mail hyperlink sees an explanation, and has an option of visiting the firm's PGP public key page.
12. Make your site user friendly.
Ease of use should govern the design of your Web site, lawyers advise.
"I strongly believe in making your site as easy to use as possible," says Sommers. "Use a combination of text and graphics in a way that helps you know right off what the page is about. I want visitors to be able to navigate easily, to be able to contact me, and to be able to return to the top of the site."
Ease of use includes making it easy for visitors to contact you. "Be sure to give your phone number, your fax number, and your mailing address," suggests Farr. "At least
your home page, and possibly every page, should also include links that enable the visitor to directly contact you via e-mail."
If you post articles or other content on your Web site, Shepherd suggests, present it in screen-sized chunks. If the article is too long, break it up and tie it together with hyperlinks.
13. Promote your site.
What if you had a Web site and no one came? Creating a Web site is only a first step - you then have to get people to visit it.
"A number of law firms that have Web sites have not gotten the results they hoped for, and poor promotion is a leading cause," observes Lawson. "It's important to think about promotion from the beginning, and build in features that will make a site easy to promote."
How do you promote your site? Register it with every Internet search engine and index you can find, advises Farr. Then go back and use those search engines to make sure your site shows up.
Some search engines index or quote only the first paragraph or sentence of your page, Lawson notes. As a result, "that real estate is valuable. Pay attention to what the first sentence says."
Don't forget more traditional means. Put your URL - your Web address - on your letterhead and business cards.
14. Budget your time.
When first planning your Web site, look ahead to the time you will be able to devote on an ongoing basis. If your time commitment will be limited, so should be your Web site.
"Having a Web site can be like owning a boat," says Sommers. "Once the initial investment is over, it's easy to keep expanding and adding to it." Sommers spends about 10 hours a month between producing content for and maintaining his site.
While some larger firms go so far as to dedicate full-time staff to create and maintain their Web sites, even smaller firms should have at least one person who is the "designated surfer," spending four or five hours a week on the Internet, believes Marshall. "To have any success in marketing on the Internet, you have to be a regular Internet user."
If your time is limited, should you bother with a Web site? Minnesota solo Joe Lester, who has had a Web site since January 1995, thinks so. "Because the cost of hosting a basic site is quite small and the potential audience is very large, a firm may find that hosting a Web site with a fairly simple design can help to augment more traditional forms of marketing communications. It might not make a huge difference, but it can still be a worthwhile effort."
15. Review local ethics rules.
On this every lawyer agrees: Do not overlook your state's ethics rules. "Lawyers have to be careful about issues such as practicing outside their jurisdiction or failing to comply with their state's advertising rules," explains Paul Jacobsen, author of the book, Net Law: How Lawyers Use The Internet. "It is important that e-mail includes disclaimers that you are not giving legal advice."
There may be trickier questions as well, such as whether a Web site can constitute advertising in states other than your own. A thorough resource for information regarding ethics and the Internet can be found at: http://www.legalethics.com.
16. Get a domain name.
A domain name (i.e., taxprophet.com) makes it easy for clients and potential clients to remember your Web and e-mail addresses. Also, it is permanent, so that if you someday change your Internet service provider, your address remains the same.
For this reason, says Farr, it is worth registering a domain name at the outset. Otherwise, when you eventually do, you'll have to go back to all the search engines and indexes and re-index your site.
17. Keep it fresh.
A typical problem with Web sites is that they go stale. If the goal of your Web site is to mine for clients, then it is important to update it frequently, says Gregory Siskind. This gives potential clients a reason to return after their initial visit.
On the other hand, suggests Siskind, if the purpose of your Web site is merely "to complement your traditional cocktail hour marketing," then maintenance is not as important.
18. Don't forget your day job.
For most lawyers, a Web site will not become a primary means of attracting business. For this reason, Sommers issues this advice to lawyers creating sites: "Don't forget your day job.
"Most lawyers will still get most of their business through their existing referral and client base," he explains. "The Web is a good way to expand and bring in new business, but don't ignore your existing client base. That is still the most powerful marketing by a ratio of 4:1. The Web just reinforces your other marketing efforts."
19. Don't expect immediate results.
A Web site is unlikely to generate results immediately. Goodman says it took several months before he saw any results. Others are still waiting.
"Commitment is one of the biggest issues in marketing," notes Shepherd. "It takes a while for a marketing plan to pay off in any industry, so a Web site as a vehicle is nothing new in that department."
20. Just do it.
"The question is no longer whether you should have a web site," Internet consultant Joshua Marshall believes. "At least a reasonable argument can be made that having some kind of presence on the Web is becoming something like having a business card."
Agrees Farr: "Don't wait to launch your Web site. Once you have decided on a basic design, theme, and name for your site, get some information out there right away. You are going to be constantly updating and revising your site anyway, so why wait to get it up and running?
Now forget all the rules.
Greg Siskind wrote a book on how to market on the Internet, but he readily admits: "There is no real formula for success that will work across the board. It depends on a number of factors."
The rules of Web marketing are still being written, and even as they are written, there will always be exceptions. Many of the lawyers interviewed ventured onto the Web before anyone even thought about rules - and found success nonetheless.
The Tax Prophet, Robert Sommers, may have shown himself to be even more of a sage when he put it this way: "It is such a new medium that it is like taking off on your motorcycle - it's an adventure. The Web's a whole new ball game."
Robert J. Ambrogi () is a firstname.lastname@example.orgMassachusetts lawyer and editor of the Internet newsletter legal.online, http://www.legalonline.com.