Untangling Today's Web

The Second Decade of Law Firm Web Sites – Tips and Trends

By Micah U. Buchdahl, Esq.

Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer - 2007

During the Q&A session of a recent Pennsylvania Bar Institute Webinar entitled, “Creating a website for your solo, small or medium sized law firm”, I was stunned to still get the following question: “How many law firms have web sites?”

The short answer is that if you have to ask, your knowledge of general business development (law firm-related or otherwise) is severely lacking. The vast majority of firms—solo, medium or large—are working on iteration two, three, four or five. I used to suggest that having a web site was the equivalent to having a fax machine. However, with the advancements of the web, e-mail and related technologies, those are nearly obsolete. The web site—from budgeting to staffing; content to functionality—continues to evolve.

To get a feel for the changing web, visit the Way Back Machine internet archive (www.archive.org), where you can see what appeared at a domain name (i.e. web site address, uniform resource locator-URL, etc.) “way back” and how any site evolved, over more than a decade. While www.mlb.com today is one of the worlds most visited and profitable web sites (belonging to Major League Baseball), a visit to mlb.com in 1997 will take you to the web site of Morgan Lewis & Bockius (www.morganlewis.com). From the changing domain name to the increasing functionality and sophistication, a law firm web site today is often the centerpiece of any firm’s marketing strategy. At the same time, watching the growth of a site like www.visalaw.com, which was always one of the most successful law firm web sites, stay up to date on advancements in web tools and user sophistication is an easy lesson in what the web can mean to what once was a very small firm, and today is one of the nation’s largest in immigration law. To the largest corporate firms, it is a resource for clients; for many smaller plaintiffs’ firms, it is the advertising mechanism for new business and growth.

For more than a decade, I have consulted on the development of nearly a thousand law firm web sites—from sole practitioners to some of the world’s largest law firms. In 1997, I developed InternetMarketingAttorney.com—home to law firm web site reviews of the 250 largest U.S. law firms and the Nifty 50 list of cool law firm web site components. Recently, I have been responsible for the oversight of law firm web site redevelopment projects with budgets exceeding half a million dollars, and others with a spending cap of $10,000. What you spend and develop varies greatly, and is dependent on many factors.

Tips for your firm

Solo/Small Firm

  1. Budget your dollars for the year, including development, hosting and marketing of the site.
  2. Budget your time. Who is going to update and maintain the content of the site?
  3. Schedule your updates. Open your Outlook and schedule an appointment with your site.
  4. Focus on site goals. Identify your audiences and strategic plans.
  5. Strike when you’re hot, not when you’re not. My small firm mantra. Those that have lots of time to market usually are not busy enough with real lawyering. However, people want to hear about you because you are doing good work. Find a middle ground.
Midsize Firm
  1. Play with the big dogs. Site costs and related technology means a midsize firm can easily afford to have a comparable presence to substantially larger firms.
  2. Assign responsibility. If you do not have a marketer, someone needs to handle the site.
  3. CMS is affordable. Content Management Systems means low-cost, high-result web site systems that do not require IT capabilities and can be handled by anyone at the firm.
  4. Better less and fresh…focus should be on newness over lots of old stuff.
  5. Make sure the “meat and potatoes” aspects come first—bios, practices, locations.
Large Firms – Tips
  1. You may be overdoing it. Look at your traffic reports and talk to your clients. Much of the nice marketing work is being overlooked or ignored.
  2. “Personalize” for the client. If you can make the site work for the individual client, usability increases. But, do not count on the client doing it him or herself.
  3. Satellites – Ask for the key to the CMS. If you are not in the main office or your firm, you should still be able to get a level of administrative rights to your web site for updating.
  4. Spend traffic budget directly with key search engines and SEO. Instead of paying third-party sites for exposure, spend the money directly with the engines and with SEO specialists that can maximize your site’s visibility.
  5. Highlight “meat and potatoes”. You know what people really want. Give it to them.

Tips for Everyone

Here are ten tips to guide you before delving into the improvement or replacement of your current web model:

  1. Audience Identification – What end-users is your site being geared toward? It is usually a combination of the following—current clients, prospects, lawyer referrals, recruiting and/or media/public relations. There are numerous other audience factors as well (i.e. corporate vs. consumer, niche/boutique, location, new practice areas, integration with firm strategic plan). The target will determine the message, navigation and depth of information.
  2. Content – There are the “gimmes” such as biographies, practice area descriptions, office locations, and related marketing collateral. There are important components that are helpful, such as site searchability and resources that can range from online seminar registration to webinars and podcasts. Your audience, staffing and budget will drive the content.
  3. Budget – You can still build a free web site (visit www.justia.com) or work with some strong larger law firm web site developers (i.e. Saturno Design, Firmseek, Duo Design, Inherent, ICVM Group, etc.). Either way, the better job you do in developing a requirements document and budget, the easier it will be to select the right vendor and needs. The more advance work you do prior to selecting a vendor, the more you will save and the faster you will be able to build. Budget components might include:
    • Domain name registration
    • Hosting and Maintenance Fees
    • Site Designers and Developers
    • Search Engine Optimization and Traffic Reporting
    • Marketing of the site
  4. Maintenance – The ability to update and build a site yourself, without needing a degree in computer engineering, is easier than ever. A strong CMS will allow you to keep long-term costs down and site strength up. Avoid ongoing licensing fees, subscription costs or maintenance contracts. Once a site is built, you should be looking at monthly costs closer to $50 than $500.
  5. Search Engine Optimization – Depending on what you want your site to do, SEO might be the most important component, or a meaningless one. Either way, I prefer not to even look at optimization until after a site is built. The exception is making sure a site is search engine friendly.
  6. Decision Making – Generally, I estimate that 90% of all law firm marketing initiatives are doomed to fail (although you never actually admit it). The more chefs in the kitchen, the weaker the outcome. I’m no Craig LeBan, but the more compromising, the more diluted and ineffective the result.
  7. Ethical Considerations – From the disclaimer (and possibly a privacy policy) to adherence of specific state advertising guidelines, be sure you are compliant with the rules of professional responsibility. For each state in which you have an office and/or are practicing, there may be specific requirements in regard to the home page, disclaimer language, domain name use and client communications.
  8. Blogs – There are millions of blogs (web logs) out there. In some cases, for a solo practice, a blog sufficiently stands in as your web site. In others, it can provide an effective off-shoot site or a feeder of content for your web site and for search engines.
  9. Other Web Site Uses – Depending on your firm, development of extranets and sites specifically for alumni, press, recruiting, and practice groups that might not fit the overall firm messages often make sense.
  10. For firms of all sizes, you can incorporate links to video (youtube.com), podcasts (using iTunes), and other useful “added value” components. For larger firms, incorporating technology for webinars, surveys and database access are popular. For consumer-driven firms, use of Ad Words and related accounts with the Big Three (Google, MSN, Yahoo) are central to your efforts.

Return on Investment (ROI)

In lawyer marketing, determining ROI on advertising and branding investments is practically impossible. One of the beauties of online marketing is the ability to disseminate numbers and statistics from site traffic reports. This is another area where the cost has dropped significantly in recent years. While Webtrends is still an industry leader (and can be quite pricey), companies such as Webstat offer comparable reports at little to no cost.

  • Page Views – A much better measure of readership and guidance than “hits”.
  • Visits – Be sure to have internal traffic taken out of the equation. Note frequency of returning visitors vs. one-timers.
  • Most Visited Pages – Including specific practices, offices and articles. Note the frequency of downloads (such as pdf and word files, power point, etc.)
  • Referring Sites – Search Engines and Common Links (i.e. Martindale.com, Monster.com). You should be able to see the host domain of the visitor and the search term that brought him to your site.
  • Browsers/Platforms – Assists developers in making sure site is accessible and best designed to those that use it most.
  • Route – Track the entry and exit pages. Note the route that a visitor takes. “Time” is not an accurate measure, but page views and routing are more useful.

Development and redevelopment of a web site is never a pain-free process. However, the results can be rewarding. Incorporating your web plan into your strat plan will make both more successful. Adding tech-marketing tools such as e-mail, or using third-party sites for developing online referrals and soliciting prospective hires will make your practice more efficient and profitable.