The 12 essentials of law firm web sites

Posted on: May 18, 2010

One of my favourite lawyer clients is chairing a discussion for an international group of small-medium law firms soon debating “the essentials for a law firm web site?”. Whilst most firms will have a web site, often they were hastily put in place without due consideration as to aims and strategy and possibly haven’t been looked at since they were launched. So here’s some thoughts for you John…

1. The bare essentials

The most basic web site is little more than an online brochure. It has your firm’s name in the domain name. It is static. It sets out – like a menu – what the firm does – a list of services and the relevant contacts and, if the firm has thought about its markets – a list of sectors that it serves (as often the only way to differentiate a law firm is by its track record and experience within a particular market sector such as retail, music, aviation or biotechnology).

If you are pressed for time and lack the skills or appetite for creating great content that makes your site “sticky” and encourages people to return for more on a regular basis then this is possibly the limit to your web site. But you are missing out a lot.

2. The aims

Before deciding to invest time and effort in improving your web site, it would be a good idea to have a think about what you hope to achieve and what results you expect. You need to check that your web site dreams will provide a sensible return on investment and integrate with (underpin) your other marketing and business development activities. Easier said than done.

3. The client perspective

Most clients – when interviewed – indicate that the area they use the most is the contact details (telephone numbers, emails, location maps etc) and the lawyer profiles. Yes, the clients want to see photos. Yes, the clients will take notice of whether you look relaxed, approachable and the sort of person that they will want to speak to. Yes, the clients will want to read an interesting profile (please note the use of the word “interesting”) and they would really like to know about recent transactions and experiences rather than those from a couple of decades ago. And whilst you may be concerned about those naughty recruitment folk who might steal away your best assistants, you really need to have their profiles on the site as well.

Some clients like to see other clients mentioned (with the appropriate permissions of course) on a site – and will find case studies and testimonies/references helpful.

4. The tool box

If you want to avoid your web site being an out of date, a static snapshot of your firm a few years back, then you will need to make changes on a regular basis. I could write a book on the challenges and solutions on encouraging your lawyers to contribute material so let’s assume that they will do this. Unless you have a content management system (CMS), every time you want to make a change you will have to pay money to your external web designer/developer.

The other key tool you will need is a method to measure and monitor your web traffic. Google Analytics is free and good enough for most firm’s purposes. More sophisticated users will employ tools for manipulating images and managing email campaigns.

5. The impression and images

Branding and lawyers. Mmmmn. Your site needs to convey your branding – and at least have the same “look and feel” as the visual identity used on your other marketing materials and in your building. Hopefully, it will also communicate some of the personality of your firm – and a good way to do this is through images. Most likely these will be photographs of your lawyers and possibly attractive images (in the appropriate style to match your visual identify) depicting key clients, markets or issues. And don’t forget that the tone of the words will also have a powerful impact on the impression you create (and I’m sure I don’t need to say that jargon should be avoided for any non technical audiences).

You might also spare a thought to how your web site looks through different versions of the various browsers (we don’t all use Internet Explorer – and some people will filter out all graphics and images) and also how it looks when viewed on a mobile device such as an iPhone.

6. The navigation

If you tackled your web site in a structured way – with some help from professional web developers – you will have thought about your navigation system and the way in which people move around your site. Along with a site map your navigation is pretty important for search engine optimisation (SEO) or how people find your site (you might like to read an earlier blog post where I reviewed a book called “Inbound marketing” which tackles this subject in detail).

Having internal links (cross references) to other parts of your site will assist navigation and also help with SEO. There used to be a rule of thumb that users shouldn’t need more than three clicks to get to anything you might be searching for. And don’t forget when designing your navigation to consider things from the users’ point of view – private clients might appreciate a different journey through your site to commercial clients and prospective employees.

7. The content

It used to be the case that “less is more” and web sites were succinct to the point of terse. But “content is king” and a serious web site will offer lots of good quality content offering useful information, reliable advice and pragmatic solutions that add value. Ideally, the content will change frequently too – perhaps through a news page, a publications area where you post up all your bulletins, frequently asked questions, topical white papers or even through a blog (see below). Serious users might have an RSS facility that automatically alerts users when there are changes or additions to the site.

If you have a really content rich site then you may want to consider having a search facility to help with navigation. Where the user can pose specific questions in different areas of your site then you are providing dynamic pages – and this will be typically be powered by some form of application process – such as a database.

8. The search engine optimisation

With the majority of people relying on the first page of organic search engine results pages (SERPs), it is important that your web site comes top of the list in your chosen areas. SEO is a bit of a black art – and the rules keep changing. Google provides an excellent explanation and beginners guide and the book I mentioned earlier – Inbound marketing – has some good basic material although not tailored to the professions. I mentioned the importance of links earlier but keywords and page tiles are also critical here.

A blog and the use of social media (e.g. Twitter – see my earlier blog post for more information) will also help with SEO and you can also send out links to specific sections of your site. You might also give some thought to what appears on your home page and the extent that you want to have tailored landing pages and/or micro-sites dedicated to particular specialists, topics or markets.

Encouraging other, authoritative, web sites to link to yours will substantially help your SEO. But in order to get them to do this you really need some great content (see above).

9. The interaction

Ideally, you want your web site to be a place where you can initiate dialogue with potential and existing clients and referrers so you may want to consider how you promote interaction and discussion on your site. Simple options might be the ability to join mailing lists or to post questions and comments. If you have a blog then you should encourage and monitor the comments and questions that it generates.

More sophisticated firms use their web site to promote the creation and growth of an on-line community – not necessarily with a legal focus – where users with a common interest make connections, “talk” to each other, share and develop a mutually beneficial source of information.

10. The added value

Increasingly, law firms are getting smarter and using their web site to provide all manner of services – from simple fee calculators, to diagnostic tools on common legal issues and on to secure document vaults and transaction deal rooms to subscription based knowledge services. The book “The end of lawyers?” By Richard Susskind explores this topic in detail and provides much food for thought.

Remember that your clients want to feel that they are getting special service and value from you so you may want to consider whether you create a private or secure area where they can access – perhaps through an account name and password – additional information and applications on your site which are denied to the general public (You may want to limit how much of your precious information you give away free to your competitors too!). This could be as simple as access to materials from your seminars and conference programme or perhaps even limited exposure to your own internal precedent and knowledge systems.

11. The differentiation

One of the biggest challenges will be how you differentiate your firm – and its web site – from comparable and competing firms. The design, content, facilities and other aspects mentioned above could all be used to achieve this.

12. The people

Of course, all these things will take time (and therefore money) and it would be sensible to ensure that you have the relevant resources to maintain the momentum. If you encourage all your lawyers to participate then you will probably need some policies and procedures to guide their use and a rota to encourage them to take turns in contributing.

If you have the relevant support resources, then you could consider training someone up (in the absence of a marketing/business development team and professional web master) in design and/or content management.

So. There is much to consider: aims, appearance, content, visibility, use and value.

Of course, you are busy running a law practice and serving clients and earning fees. Better to attempt a modest amount of web development and do it well than to plan to do ‘the world’s best ever law web site’ and actually achieve nothing!

I hope this swift run through is helpful. There are lots of excellent sources around for more information. In particular I would like to suggest www.conscious.co.uk for some legal oriented free white papers on topics ranging from web sites to social media. Also www.venables.co.uk showcases the web sites of many law firms in the UK as well as providing links to a number of web site designers and developers.

PS Yes I know my web site is horribly out of date. And uses frames! Cobbler’s children and all that. Been waiting for a quote for a site overhaul from my developers for a couple of months now – it’s a WIP!

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Original branding by Matt Playford · A site by Fresh01