The Small Law Firm's 6-Step Process to Building Your First Web Site

By Micah Buchdahl, Esq.

As seen in Lawyers Weekly

If you are just getting around to developing your practice’s first web site, welcome to 1998! Actually, it is never too late to get started. A solid and professional web presence is as expected as having a fax machine, or a telephone for that matter. It does not involve rocket science, just a few hours and a few bucks. Here are some (subjective!) steps and considerations to help get you on your way.

1. Register a domain name.

If you have not yet registered a domain name, it is a good place to start. More choices in domain names, registering agents and costs are available today, but the same rules of thumb still apply.

  • Select a name that is intuitive for the end-user. For example, a sole practitioner’s best bet is generally your name, www.johndoe.com. However, a difficult name to recall spelling, such as www.micahbuchdahl.com might look for an easier to remember alternative.
  • A multiple-named law firm generally should follow the first two names of the firm, such as www.smithjones.com.
  • A firm concentrating on one particular practice area might use www.trademarklawyer.com or www.ohiofamilylaw.com.
  • Check your mail for registration “specials” from companies like www.networksolutions.com or www.register.com. A recent mailing I received from register.com offered a domain name, free personalized e-mail, URL forwarding (which points your new domain name to another site) and 250 business cards—all for $29.95.

Having a unique domain name to call your own is critical. Make sure you “own” your domain name, as opposed to sharing someone else’s (i.e. johndoe.notyourdomainname.com). You should not be paying more than $20 annually for each domain name, and can often find options as low as $9.

Other considerations:

  • Make sure it is “dot-com”. People rarely recall other suffixes, such as .org, .net, .pro, etc. If the dot-com you were hoping for is gone, there is a good reason—that is the preferred name.
  • Most people own and use multiple domain names to take you to the same site. In developing my own site, I started with a “primary” domain—www.internetmarketingattorney.com. I purchased a secondary domain, www.internetmarketinglawyer.com, for those that recall my URL incorrectly and to prevent someone from grabbing the similar moniker. Finally, my name, www.micahbuchdahl.com, for those guessing that would be my domain.
  • While there is no limit to the number of domain names used or owned (many large firms own dozens of names, to maintain control over them), I personally think using dozens is a little cheesy, if not overkill. But, to each his or her own.
  • Some web developers will handle the domain name registration process for you as part of the web site program.
  • Make sure to use your domain name for personalized e-mail. There is nothing that screams “amateur” like an e-mail address with @aol.com or @earthlink.com.

2. Determining a budget.

Now that you have put a domain name aside, it is time to figure out how much you want to spend on the project. The size of the firm is not a determining factor in how much you spend. I have worked with solos that spend tens of thousands, and large firms that spend tens of hundreds. It depends more on the type of practice, the type of clients you seek, and the amount of time you want to dedicate to the ongoing project. I say “ongoing” because a web site is never “complete”, but should always be a work in progress.

It is generally much more cost-effective, for a small firm to make a big splash on the World Wide Web, where other mediums like advertising, brochures, and seminars can run up tens of thousands to do right. Upkeep on a “virtual office” is much less than furnishing your working quarters, too.

Where does the money go?

  • Domain name registration
  • Hosting and Maintenance Fees
  • Site Designers and Developers
  • Search Engine Optimization and Traffic Reporting
  • Marketing of the site

Be sure to keep in mind that you should have a budget for first-year development, plus ongoing costs. Many firms fail to take into account that there will be a necessity for additional design, content and search engine optimization work after your first site is released on the web. A site without a long-range plan for success is probably just an on-line brochure, which you end up re-creating and paying for from scratch each time you want a new one.

The most substantial start-up costs are generally the design and development. A template design, where you simply pick from a pre-selected list of colors and looks can be as little as a few hundred dollars. A little more for inclusion of some clip-art. A few thousand for a custom look. In the $10k-plus range for hiring true, unique web design.

Hosting fees range from a few dollars per month to a few hundred dollars. For my sites, I pay less than eight dollars a month with a company called www.livingdot.com. There are many good providers. Keep in mind that you need to have your site hosted on a server that you know is secure, maintained 24x7, and with a company you trust will be around tomorrow. Many people have been burned by having sites hosted where a company simply goes out of business overnight, leaving you without a host, and sometimes access to your site and files.

Search Engine Optimization is another cost-factor to keep in mind. You have probably received e-mails offering registration with a trillion search engines for $9.99. Rest assured, you will get what you pay for. Major e-commerce companies sometimes pay tens of thousands PER MONTH for this service. You need a site that is well optimized, with re-registration, proper hand registration for major sites (that do not accept submissions from automated software, or spammers), and most likely includes paid registration with major traffic players such as Looksmart and Yahoo. Pick an SEO professional. You do not want a company that provides this service for thousands of subscribers. Your SEO will end up cookie-cutter in nature.

The marketing of the site might include purchasing keywords from a search engine, banner advertising from appropriate legal, consumer or corporate-oriented sites, or paid directory listings from highly trafficked venues. The only must-have in the online legal world is to be included with Martindale-Hubbell (through www.martindale.com and www.lawyers.com). Often more beneficial, for firms targeting consumers, is to look for high visibility sites in your community. There is no proper dollar amount for marketing of a site, but one mistake I’ve seen some practitioners make is to pour lots of cash into marketing, and a little into the site development. That does not make sense. You want to make sure that if you are going to put forth a great effort to bring someone to your site, that they are impressed with the site’s credentials, content and look (in that order). Why would you pay $2,000 for a web site, and back it up with $8,000 in marketing. Turn that number around. In the long term, the stronger sites will provide you with the best results.

Whether you are selecting a host, designer, developer, etc.—it is important to make sure that you are using people and companies you can trust. There are plenty of scam-artists out there.

  • How many employees do they have, and what are their skill sets?
  • What type of technologies do they offer?
  • Get references.
  • Do they own their own servers?
  • Where are sub-contractors involved in the overall project?
  • Who owns the site (ability to purchase or license the site’s content and files)?
  • How many law firm web sites do they handle? (Hint: You do not want the answer to be zero, or 100. A little knowledge of professional services should do.)

3. Determining your audience (your “end-user”)

First, determine whether your expected site visitor will be a consumer or a corporate-type client.

Consumer

  • Generally assume a slower connection to the web, thus site must be quick to download.
  • “Market” yourself on-line in the same fashion that you do off-line. If you are heavy into advertising, you probably care more about visual enhancements than if you rely more on referral business, where the credentials are most important.
  • Competition is fierce, and probably requires a greater investment in marketing the site once released.
  • Determine if you are building a site for one-time visits, or want someone to come back to your site often.

Corporate

  • Download time rarely an issue, as you assume speedy access to the Web.
  • How are competitor firms presenting their credentials on-line?
  • Focus on content and credentials—not flash and splash.
  • Make sure site is set-up for ever-changing content.

What end-users should you be targeting?

  • Current Clients—Make sure the site provides “added-value” to your current law firm clientele. Tell me something I do not already know. Keep me informed of changes with the firm and/or the areas of law you concentrate on.
  • Prospective Clients—Assuming I’ve never heard of you, are you putting your best foot forward? Show me your expertise, through solid biographies, detailed practice area descriptions, client references, and related-content (published works, newsletters, seminars, speaking engagements, cited cases).
  • Referrals/Lawyer-to-Lawyer—Whether a neighbor has referred someone, or a lawyer in another city or another practice is looking to refer casework, you need to back-up someone else’s recommendation of your work through the aforementioned showing of expertise.
  • Recruiting—Generally a major focus for the large law firm, many small and mid-size firms still seek summer clerks and potential expanded hires. The web site should be the number one place to sell the firm.
  • Public Relations/Marketing—Journalists use the web to research stories, in which your expertise, or your involvement in a case might bring them to your web site. The site also should supplement all traditional means of firm marketing.

4. Selecting a Feature-Set

Many sites developed today now use database-driven technologies rather than develop sites using static HTML pages. I recommend db-driven sites to most, as it allows for the quickest and easiest ability to update and maintain. On my personal site, it takes me about two minutes to update or add content, without the need of contacting any developers or third parties for assistance. The easier the updating, the more likely you will do it more often. The cost of db-driven sites have plummeted in the last few years. The additional of web blogs has made it even less expensive and easier to operate.

Often, firms suggesting they picked a developer or site because they did not want “another law firm web site” would entertain me. That approach generally fails, since the concept behind most law firm sites is that it provides professional services information to supplement the firm’s business practices. A law firm site is expected to provide certain information, professionalism and resources. There are some exceptions, with firms seeking to develop more of an e-commerce business (sell quickie divorces, wills), where the components are a bit different. But, the most important part is to make sure the site provides expected information, follows ethical considerations of your local bar, and is professional in appearance.

I would suggest that most sites constructed by a “free web site service” or developed by your kid (who did a great job on a Brittany Spears tribute site on AOL!) often appear to be just that. If I can tell your kid did it, than it was not a good job. Also, avoid being the five millionth firm with a scales of justice as the home page centerpiece.

Must-Have Components:

  • Firm Overview
  • Detailed Attorney Biographies
  • Detailed Practice Area Descriptions
  • Office Information (locations, phone, fax, e-mail, on-line form)

Should-Have:

  • “What’s New” changing content
  • Newsletters/Articles
  • Representative Clients
  • Maps/Directions
  • Calendar of Events/Seminars
  • On-Site Search Engine
  • Live Web Traffic Reporting

Could-Have:

  • Pro Bono Involvement
  • Press Releases
  • Discussion Forums
  • Job Opportunities/Recruiting
  • Audio/Video
  • Customize site for individual visitor
  • Site Map

Out-There:

  • Live Chat
  • Web Cams

You may choose from a variety of design functions, such as:

  • Date display
  • Scrolling marquee
  • Popup menus
  • Mouseovers
  • Design using flash, sound

Items to supply developer for inclusion in design process:

  • Firm color scheme, logos, brochures, fonts, artwork, photos
  • Make sure you have addressed IP rights for anything forwarded for use.

Review exiting sites of competitors and simply sites you enjoy for:

  • Similar branding, target group
  • Color scheme, look and feel, user interface, layout
  • Publishing model (i.e. html, database-driven)
  • Quality of content
  • Quality of graphic design
  • Functionality (page layout, navigation bar)

5. Long-Range Plans

For your site to be successful, you need to think about how the site will be updated post-release—not just technologically, but how you will be pro-active in getting together content from within the firm. Once a month? Once a week? Again, this depends on your practice and goals for the site.

See how your site rates in these categories:

  • Design—sends the right message
  • Navigation—how easy is it to find your way through the site, and find what you are looking for
  • Content—substantial, informative and changing
  • Interactive communication—do you make it easy for someone to contact you through the site?
  • Freshness—is it clear the site is updated, or appear to be a static, non-changing brochure?
  • Uniqueness—is there something about you, your practice or your site that is different from everyone else in a similar practice?
  • Search Engine Optimization—can people find you on-line through search engines, good metatags, a site optimized for the people you look to attract.

6. Is your site ethically sound?

Unlike most on-line businesses, you DO have to concern yourself with ethical considerations. Follow these steps, and think about these potential issues, and how you address them:

APPROPRIATE "DISCLAIMER" LANGUAGE ON SITE

CONSULT RELEVANT SOURCES

  • Bar Association site
  • ABA site
  • Legalethics.com

WHICH RULES APPLY?

  • States admitted to practice?
  • States in which you are seeking clients?
  • States in which the firm practices?

POTENTIAL ISSUES

  • Attorney-Client Relationship
  • Conflicts
  • Confidentiality
  • Competence/Unauthorized Practice of Law
  • Advertising Restrictions