How and why we reviewed the nation’s top 100 law firm Web sites.
By Erik J. Heels and Richard P. Klau
First published 6/28/1998; RedStreet.com; publisher: RedStreet Inc.
In some ways, we’ve been reviewing Web sites ever since there was a Web. For four years (1992-1995), Erik compiled and published one of the legal profession’s first Internet reference books, “The Legal List: Law-Related Resources on the Internet and Elsewhere.” That book included many law-related resources, including law firms, but it excluded editorial content (i.e. reviews) of any of the sites. This decision was based in large part on restrictions that came with making “The Legal List” a print product.
A little more than two years after the seventh (and Erik’s last) edition of “The Legal List” was published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing, all but one or two of the NLJ 250 law firms had a registered domain name, and about 60% of those had Web sites. So Red Street Consulting decided that the time was right for to create what “The Legal List” lacked: editorial content. We completed two rounds of reviews: the NLJ 250 law firms in fall 1997, and the nation’s small and mid-sized law firms in spring 1998.
Round One – The NLJ 250 Law Firms
In the summer of 1997, we began the arduous task of finding and reviewing the Web sites of the NLJ 250 firms. We spent hundreds of hours on the job and looked very carefully at each site. Our reviews are based on the original model used by Point Communications, which was acquired by Lycos (http://point.lycos.com/). Lycos has since changed the Point model slightly; but we prefer the original model.
Content, Presentation, and Experience
Our model considers three aspects of a site: content, presentation, and experience. Each site was graded on a scale of one to ten in each category. A perfect score would be a 30. Here are some of the things we look for in each category:
Content questions (focusing on the raw data)
- Is name/address/phone/fax/e-mail info readily available?
- Are “attorney profiles” there?
- Substantive content? More than just a handful of newsletters?
Presentation questions (focusing on the pages)
- Professional graphics or clip-art?
- Bookmark-friendly titles?
- Overall page layout.
- Lists and taxonomy, are they topical, chronological, or in no clear order? Are items dated?
Experience questions (focusing on the site)
- Logical file/directory structure?
- Navigation bar or other navigation elements? If a text-only option is provided, is it consistent with graphical navigation bar? Client-side (good) or server-side (bad) imagemap?
- Do huge graphics slow navigation?
- Search engine? Is output Infoseek-like (good) or are just titles displayed?
- Are there other interactive elements (threaded discussions etc.)?
- Integration with Martindale-Hubbell and/or West Legal Directory profiles can add to a site’s experience, but not always. Is it done well?
- The hardest area in which to score a 10.
The following cliches can affect scores (usually negatively) in more than one category:
- Animated gifs.
- Legal links (better to simply link to FindLaw).
- What’s new (better to integrate new content throughout, including on the home page).
- Netscape and IE buttons.
- Guest books.
- “Click here.”
- “Welcome to our Web site.” (You never say “welcome to our letterhead.”)
- Naming your Web site, e.g. “Smith Online.” (You don’t name your brochures.)
- High-risk elements (best left to pros), such as frames and PDF.
Our reviews of the NLJ 250 firms are long, an average of 135 words (excluding reviews of NLJ 250 sites under construction). By comparison, Point’s review of Arent Fox’s site is 98 words long.
Round Two – Small and Mid-Sized Law Firms
Our reviews of the NLJ 250 were very popular (cited by both USA Today and The Washington Post, in part because we reviewed all of the NLJ 250 sites, not just the top 5% of them (as Point did). We felt that it was important to be complete, and we also figured that if we were going to look at each site with a fine-tooth comb, then we might as well publish the reviews of all of them, not just the top 5%.
But people asked us, “Why just the NLJ 250?” Why not the 4000 or so law firms that are listed on Yahoo and FindLaw? Well, here’s where Point’s model makes sense. I’m not sure anybody has the bandwidth to write 135-word reviews of 4000 law firm Web sites, but we can certainly do the top one to five percent of them. We have looked at every law firm listed on Yahoo and FindLaw to find the best. Our reviews of the small and mid-sized law firms resulted in 82 that we considered to be the best.
Our list of the nation’s top 100 best law firm Web sites includes 82 small and mid-sized law firms plus 18 NLJ 250 law firms. We did not set out to find the top 100, the top 200, the top 1%, or the top 5%. We set out to find the best. Those who made our list had a total score of 21 or more. It was just an interesting coincidence that the total was 100 (which equates to about the top 2%).
We feel these reviews provide the legal community – for the first time – an accurate snapshot of the best law firm Web sites. Also, since our Red Street income is derived from our writing efforts – and not from Web site design services – we feel that our reviews (unlike some others) are impartial. We may also consider supporting the Red Street site with banner advertising.
Oh, and why do we do it? Why do people climb Mount Everest? “Because it’s there” is certainly part of the equation. But “because it’s the right thing to do” is also a major motivating factor. We think the legal community can benefit greatly from the Internet, that a good law firm Web site can do wonders for both the firm and the profession. We have high standards and hope that our work will, in some small way, make the legal Internet community a better place for legal professionals and consumers of legal services alike.
Feel free to e-mail or call us if you need more info. Thanks, and see you on the Net!