* RedStreet: Reviews Statistics 1998

Trends in law firm Web site design.

By Erik J. Heels and Richard P. Klau

First published 6/29/1998; RedStreet.com; publisher: RedStreet Inc.

We reviewed the NLJ 250 firms over two months during the summer of 1997. Our goal was to provide a benchmark for how the legal market is doing in its adoption of the Internet in the context of marketing and client services. What we found was that there is a wide variance among the largest firms in the country: some have made a tremendous commitment to the medium, while others have paid little to no attention.

Why the disparity? It’s hard to say. The sites that ranked highest in our survey appear to have strong marketing departments who see the Internet as crucial to their firms’ long-term viability. That said, there were some surprises, as many otherwise “leading” firms produced disappointing sites (or no sites at all). It is our feeling that Web sites provide three major benefits for law firms:

– Marketing. Why bother spending a fortune on a sixteen page firm brochure? The Web offers you the ability to put as much content online as you want – at no incremental cost. In addition, a firm brochure necessitates additional costs – printing, distribution (postage) – making it unlikely that the brochure will ever get a truly wide audience. The Web, by comparison, has an audience that numbers more than 60 million – and it is growing every day. This low-cost, high-visibility medium means that law firm marketing directors have a truly unique opportunity to get their message across.

– Client Services. Having trouble convincing your clients that you truly care about them? Develop an extranet. Use the advantages of the Internet (low cost, universal access) to show your clients what you do for them. Make documents related to their case available, or, if you do legislative work, create a clients-only page that links to bills they should know about. Let them review their bill online. Make it simple for them to send you e-mail by listing the attorneys’ e-mail addresses. In short, use the Internet to cater to your clients.

– Recruiting. Who’s the most wired group in the legal profession? Law students. Combine your marketing effort with your recruiting efforts – and use the Web to attract the unique individuals your law firm needs. Make the recruiting contact from the Web site different from the normal recruiting contact – so you can separate out the law student who does a mass-mailing to the Martindale-Hubbell law directory and the law student who spends a day surfing the Web looking for the right firm.

Law firms who fail to recognize the benefits inherent in this medium will ultimately be left behind. Developing a Web site that looks just as professional as your lobby, your brochure, and your letterhead is a first start. It is truly surprising how many sites we looked at don’t even measure up to this low standard.

Other than that, what did we find? Here are some numbers, for the statistically minded among you:

– 56% (140) of the NLJ 250 currently have a Web site of some kind. Compare that number with a survey earlier this year by Inc. magazine which indicated that over 90% of the Fortune 500 plan to have an Intranet in place by the end of this year. (An Intranet is a Web-based interface to a private network.) Assuming that firms will generally have a Web site prior to developing an Intranet, this number indicates that the legal profession is lagging behind in this area.

– Nationally, the number of law firms (all law firms, not just the NLJ 250) with Web sites has increased over 60% in 1997 alone (from 1,600 to over 2,600). We expect that the number will top 3,000 before the end of the year.

– 2% (5) of the NLJ 250 have still not registered a domain name. This means that these firms have no standard e-mail account for their attorneys, have no way of marketing themselves on the Internet, and have not even planned to do so in the near future.

– Although no firm number is available, it is estimated that of the 140 firms that have sites developed, approximately half of these have been professionally developed. We estimate that the number of professionally designed sites will rise, as firms realize the importance of having a high-quality online presence. In addition, it makes sense to outsource what has become an increasingly technical task: no longer just a question of adding some bullets and writing basic HTML code, professional sites today incorporate java applets, javascript, and in some cases, dynamically generated pages (from databases of information) – and it is unrealistic to expect that this kind of expertise resides within a law firm.

What do we look for in a site? There is no formula, of course – each firm has its own strengths, and ideally their Web site will convey those strengths. However, there are some basic characteristics that should be in any professional Web site:

– Contact information. Visitors should not have to hunt for a way to get in touch with you. Law firms will always want to know if someone found them on the Web – but if the visitor can’t find a phone number, how can they be expected to get in touch with you? Always provide an e-mail address, a phone number, and a mailing address.

– Simple navigation. Make the information easy to find. Why hide newsletters under “legal resources: publications” when it could be a link from the home page? Why put the contact information for the D.C. office under “locations: washington, d.c.”? The fewer clicks away a vital piece of information is, the more likely it is that someone will find it. If you make your site a labyrinth of information, people will not come back – which defeats the purpose of developing a site.

– Avoid gimmicks. Tour guides, scrolling text, background music – this is all fun to play with if you’re designing a personal site for fun… but does it really reflect well on your firm? Concentrate on presenting your firm the way you normally present your firm – and your site will be successful. Try too hard to make it use bells and whistles and your visitors will recognize it for what it is: a gimmick.

– Show off. This is the one chance you have to tell the world about your firm, in your words. Don’t make them seek out the good stuff – show them the articles your partners have written, or provide links to the numerous bar association committees your attorneys belong to. Write a page that talks about how your firm uses new technology, or describe what truly sets your firm apart from your competition. Take advantage of the soapbox, and let the visitor know why your firm is different.

– Content is king. It has become a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Firms who dare to publish content – like articles, briefs, memos, or newsletters – will stand out. Not only does this give the casual reader a reason to return, it underscores in the visitor’s mind that the firm knows what it’s talking about. If someone is looking for a firm that specializes in one particular area of law, this is the chance to prove that your firm is it.

As always, we encourage feedback. Drop us a line and tell us if you disagree. Thanks for stopping by – and be sure to return often, as we will be adding new reviews of other parts of the profession (bar associations, law schools, publishers) in the months to come.

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