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Column No. 4, June 1995

Should Your Firm Have A Site On The Internet?

By Robert J. Ambrogi

Should you have a home page on the World Wide Web?

The Web is the fastest-growing area of the Internet. In just three years, the number of sites on the Web --called "home pages" -- has gone from 100 to more than 10,000. The number is expected to reach 40,000 by the end of this year.

Why such phenomenal growth? The Web makes the Internet at once easy to use and graphically exciting. It allows users to create home pages that combine text, colorful graphics, and even sound and video. Navigating the Web is easy, involving little more than clicking on "hypertext" links that take you to wherever you want to go.

It is little wonder, then, that a number of law firms have rushed to establish home pages on the Web, seeing them as billboards along the information superhighway.

But do home pages get results? Do they bring clients? Do they have other benefits?


But for the handful of firms that say their home pages have brought in clients, there appear to be many more unable to attribute any new clients to their presence on the Web. As Joe Lester, a lawyer in Bloomington, Minn., put it: "People surfing the 'Net are still window shopping."

Why Be On The Web?

Attracting clients, lawyers on the Internet agree, is not the primary reason to establish a Web page, at least not in the short run. Rather, a web page can be both an investment in future business and a means of better serving existing clients. It can also position you as a lawyer on the cutting edge of technology.

The top reason Ice, Miller decided to create a home page, according to partner Paul Overhauser, was simply to establish a presence on the Web, just as many other businesses -- and clients -- are doing. The firm also wanted to "show people that we are a firm that utilizes cutting-edge technology; hopefully, they will think we practice law the same way." The page also serves as an easily accessible way for people to learn more about the firm and for the firm, as a public service, to provide access to other resources, he said.

Attracting clients, he added, might have been fourth on the firm's list of reasons for setting up a Web page.

Other firms similarly cite their desires both to appear technologically savvy and to facilitate communication with existing clients and others interested in learning more about the firm as primary reasons for setting up Web pages.

In fact, when Oppedahl & Larson, a Yorktown Heights, N.Y., patent-law firm, decided to set up a Web page, it started with the premise that the page would not bring in clients, recalled partner Carl Oppedahl. "Yet for us it was still a clear decision to set it up."

"Our main motive," he explained, "was simply to be responsive to the many people who contact our firm wanting to know what it costs to get a patent, how to obtain copyright protection for software, etc. Traditionally, the only way to assist these people is to spend time on the telephone with them -- an hour or more per week on average, per lawyer in the firm. Some of those who contact us would probably prefer getting the answer from a Web site rather than taking somebody's time. The Web site permits this choice."

Similarly, for Boston's Hale & Dorr, meeting the needs of existing clients, rather than bringing in new clients, was the primary reason for its decision to establish a Web page.

The firm recognized early on that many of its clients in business and education were using the Internet, Mara Aspinall, director of client services, explained. It also recognized that many of its clients, particularly those involved in technology, expected their lawyers to be technologically astute.

"We needed to give clients as many communication possibilities as we could," Aspinall said. The firm was among the first, several years ago, to establish e-mail addresses for all its lawyers. Its establishment of a home page last January was seen as a means of easily getting basic information to current clients.

"A client can go to our home page and look at the biography of an attorney they never met, or look at the practice areas they are not familiar with." Most popular among clients is the firm's archived database of EDGAR filings. "We've had a lot of feedback, all positive, that clients like having the access, like having it in real time."

Investment In The Future

Jerry Lawson, a lawyer and Internet consultant, says that lawyers should not expect to get new business from clients who stumble across their firm while "surfing" the Internet. Rather, the value of a Web site is that it helps "a firm establish or reinforce an image as an innovative organization that knows how to use technology to keep up with or surpass its competitors."

A web site, he adds, must reinforce and build on other marketing efforts. "The effectiveness of a WWW page for a law firm will depend on a number of factors, including the firms' location, the type of practice, the potential clients that the firm is trying to reach, and how well the page is designed," he said.

Joe Lester, who has had his home page on the Internet since January, sees it this way: "Like the telephone yellow pages, a direct mail announcement, or a listing in a professional law directory, a home page is a 'beacon' on the information highway that can help identify the law firm and place its products, services and 'know-how' on display for the general public."

San Francisco lawyer Mark R. Thierman maintains The Virtual Law Firm home page, which he says gets 200 or more visits a day. Does it bring in clients? "It's hard to say," he responds.

"Having a home page should not be considered a ticket to guaranteed business any more than a yellow-pages ad," Thierman contends. "It's a start, and it depends on what you do with it."

(Next month: A look at how to set up a Web page and make it a success.)

Other Net News

Nudging you onto the Net. Been a bit shy about getting on the Internet? A trio of legal information companies are offering a not-so-gentle nudge.

Last month, Lexis-Nexis, Martindale-Hubbell and Lexis Counsel Connect announced that they would be assigning to each of the 800,000 lawyers listed in Martindale-Hubbell an e-mail address on Lexis Counsel Connect, whether the lawyers want one or not. Don't have an account with LCC? Not to worry, LCC will forward the e-mail by regular mail.

More recently, Lexis mailed to each of its more than 100,000 subscribers complimentary software for connecting to LCC. Lawyers new to LCC can use the software for two months' free access. (If you are not a Lexis subscriber, the same offer of free software and two months' free access is available directly from LCC.)

On the Internet, the announcement that Martindale-Hubbell would be assigning e-mail addresses drew negative reactions. Some critics thought it would be an outright misrepresentation to make it appear that a message was being sent by instantaneous electronic mail, only to have it forwarded via the U.S. Postal Service (known in Internet vernacular as "snail mail"). Others expressed concern over the security of messages, wondering, among other things, whether LCC would have to, in effect, "open" the e-mail message in order to forward it.

LCC President Mark Obbie posted a response to the Net critics, explaining, "The point of this system is to give those with e-mail access a way to send e-mail to those who don't have an address yet, or to those for whom the sender does not know their address."

West makes it official. West Publishing officially announced its long-rumored plan to set up an on-line information service for lawyers, along the lines of Lexis Counsel Connect, the service of American Lawyer Media, and Law Journal Extra, the service of the National Law Journal.

The West Network, as it will be called, will deliver access to current awareness information, electronic mail, discussion forums, legal research capabilities and other online services. It will also provide links to Westlaw.

The service is presently being tested in California, where it will initially be released. West expects to expand the service nationally sometime later this year.

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A Sampling Of Law Firm Home Pages

Copyright 1995 Robert J. Ambrogi