Sep 29, 2009

Give Yourself and Your Clients the Present of Web Presence

It's hard to believe that nearly a decade into the 21st century, 52 percent of solo lawyers still don't have a website, according to the ABA's 2008 Tech Survey.  If you fall into this category, perhaps you figure that a web presence isn't relevant since most of your clients come by way of mouth or referral.   Even so, consider the message that lacking a website (or an alternative web presence like a blog conveys.  For starters, many prospective clients and referrers may conclude that if you haven't bothered to stay current on technology, then perhaps you've let your substantive legal knowledge slide as well.  Moreover, many clients regard a website as a basic convenience; a place where at a minimum, they can find contact information, an address and a photo.  By failing to provide this information online, you give the impression that you're insensitive to clients' needs.

Alternatively, the thought of getting a website up and running may intimidate you.  You've heard quotes from colleagues about $10,000 or even $20,000 sites and that's simply not in the budget.  As I'll discuss below, you certainly don't have to put up that kind of money for a basic site.

At the same time, if you're one of those lawyers who has had a website since the mid-1990s, don't pat yourself on the back just yet.   Though a website loaded with Flash, high graphic images and a couple of static pages may have been cutting edge a decade ago, in a more dynamic Web 2.0 age, it is likely showing signs of age.

So, if you don't have a website at all, or you're considering a face lift, consider these tips below to get you started.

1.  Take a trip around the Internet:  Why not start down the path to building a website with a trip of your own -- around the Internet -- and visit other websites for inspiration.  If you're on a listserv, now's the time to click on the URL in participants' signatures and take a look at what their sites look like, and whether it's something you'd want to replicate.  You can also find collections of lawyer websites online -- there's a terrific bunch here at LexCSS as a start.

Don't limit yourself to lawyer websites, though.  If you practice in a specific industry, like high tech or real estate or health care, you may find common conventions amongst those sites that would make sense to incorporate in yours.   Likewise, consultants and other professionals may include certain features that could benefit your practice as well.

2.  Develop a strategy  This article from Small Biz Trends emphasizes the importance of having a strategy -- a method to the madness, so to speak -- behind a website:

Your first step in creating your Web site is to outline the goals for that online presence. From there you'll be able to identify your calls to action and key content themes so that you can build around them. You want to know how the site will be used so that you can incorporate your navigation in a way that will be intuitive for users. You want to create content that will reinforce what you're trying to accomplish, it should be informative, and it should put people on a path to do whatever it is you want them to do. If you don't create a Web strategy before building the site, you're going to lose your focus and value for users.

How do you see potential visitors using your site?  Will it simply serve as a source of basic information?  What kind of contact will be useful to users?  Potential clients may be interested in educational materials or tip lists, whereas potential referral sources will want to information about your credentials and past accomplishments to determine whether to send you cases.

Also, consider your audience.  A corporate crowd likely won't be amused by a whimsical website while consumers won't feel welcome at a highly formal site.  Design your site with the audience in mind. 
3.  Website Features  Once you've looked at some of the other sites, and come up with a strategy put together a list of the features that you'd like to include in yours.   For example, an "About Us" page that describes your firm is fairly de rigeur.  But what about an "About You" page, which is a more effective way to make clients understand how you can help them.

Compare the following two descriptions: 

About Us:  I am a highly qualified business lawyer with 12 years of experience drafting leases, shareholder agreements and other business documents.

About You:  You are a small, mom and pop owned business with a need for cost-effective assistance in preparation of basic agreements to protect your rights.

From a client's perspective, which is more effective?

Other effective features include testimonials (though check bar rules to determine whether you can ethically include them), video, which adds a personal touch, an educational e-book, for download or a newsletter.  These features infuse your site with personality and also give clients a reason to contact you, even if only to get a free e-book or newsletter.

4.  Interaction In the 21st century, a website should be interactive.  You need a way for clients to contact you, whether it's through a contact sheet or through tools like Google Voice.

5.  Educate Yourself:  Once you've decided what kinds of features you'd like to include in yourself, educate yourself about the feasibility.  Many features that seem high-end are surprisingly easy to include, yet often site designers will charge an arm and a leg for them.  For example, you can install auto-responder services like Aweber to capture client contact information and enable them to sign up for a newsletter.  Many site designers will tell you that this kind of feature is costly when in reality, you could set it up yourself.  Likewise, companies will often charge several hundreds of dollars for "site maintenance" or updating pages when there are many tools that allow you to do this yourself.

Realize too, that at the end of the day, as a lawyer, you are responsible for your developer's work.  The Ninth Circuit just held that a small law firm, whose web designer lifted the content from a competitor's site and used it for the small firm's new website could be liable for copyright violations.  So if a developer charges a price that's too good to be true (because maybe he's done the same site before!) or provides professional sounding material that seems vaguely familiar, you may want to check around the web to make sure that the site that your designer presented  isn't already online under someone else's name.

6. Design Yourself or DIY  This piece by Deborah Bruce contains some good information on the range of costs of websites, from the low end do it yourself to retaining a designer.  Bruce suggests two easy and inexpensive do it yourself options, for $12 per month and for $14 per month.  In addition to do it yourself and high end designers, consider a middle of the road solution, such as contracting a designer through Craigslist or Odesk, where you can generally find a developer in the $300-$700 price range. If you do hire a designer, be sure that you register your domain names yourself.  You don't want to find yourself in a conflict with a developer down the line and lose access to the domain name.

7.  The legal stuff:  No law firm website would be complete without the requisite legal disclaimers about how your site doesn't offer advice, how contacting a lawyer through the site doesn't give rise to attorney client privilege and that the site may be a form of advertising.  Check your bar rules to determine what kind of disclaimer is required.   Copyright notices are important as well to put potential infringers on notice.

There's no need to run a monster disclaimer right on the front page; you can simply link to it on a sub-page.  And you might even consider a somewhat humorous disclaimer like this one to satisfy your lawyerly duties but at the same time, show signs of a real personality.

8.  More Reading:  For more ideas on setting up a website, consider this extra reading:

This article from CNN Money offers a great, play-by-play makeover of a highly ineffective website belonging to a small firm in a small community.  Just because you practice in a small town doesn't mean that your website needs to be bumpkin-like, and the article offers great advice on how the lawyers could redesign the site to make it more user friendly and SEO-efficient. 

Solo and small firm lawyers are small businesses, and so they stand to learn a great deal from this piece on common mistakes of small business websites.  These include poor design, lack of interactivity and failing to give any reason for visitors to return.

Personality will help set a website apart, and gives some quick tips on how to let your unique character shine through.

Jay Fleischman at Legal PracticePro provides seven quick fixes for improving an already existing website.

Designing a website correctly can take time, so why not start now?  A website presence is a great present, both for yourself and for your clients.