* The Best Law Firm Web Sites And More

A shameless plug for our new book.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 5/1/1998; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

In October 1995, only 40% of the National Law Journal 250 law firms (the legal community’s equivalent of the Fortune 500) had registered domain names, and only 10% of the NLJ 250 firms had Web sites. A little more than two years later, all but one of the NLJ 250 firms has registered a domain name, and 60% have Web sites.

The information overload that is the Internet requires somebody to weed through the millions of Web sites (and other Internet resources) to find the most important, most reliable, and most influential ones. That is the goal of a new book from the American Bar Association entitled “Law Law Law on the Internet: The Best Legal Web Sites and More,” by yours truly and my colleague Rick Klau. And this is a shameless plug for the book!

“Law Law Law” is not intended to be a comprehensive legal reference tool. What we set out to do with this book was try and summarize where things stand. The last three years have witnessed a tremendous upheaval in the way the legal profession views and uses technology, and we feel that the Internet is at the heart of that transformation.

The book includes a cross section of the best legal Web sites from seven categories: bars and bar associations, companies, federal government organizations, full-text law journals, ABA-approved law schools, state governments, and (of course) law firms. Reviews are included for selected sites, and meta sites are included for each category.

From Visionaries to Luddites

When someone applies for a domain name, the Internet Network Information Center (InterNIC) catalogs the date of the application. Although not a perfect science, the number of firms registering domain names each year is one good measure of the rate of Internet adoption in the legal community. Based on this registration date, we filed the NLJ 250 law firms into five categories:

3 Visionaries: Registered a domain name before 1993
49 Early Adopters: Registered a domain name in 1993 or 1994

127 Middlers: Registered a domain name in 1995
68 Late Adopters: Registered a domain name in 1996 or 1997
1 Luddite: As of this writing, still did not have a domain name

Why bother with labels? Because one calendar year is the equivalent of seven Net years, and a little bit of time makes a huge difference. Those that were on first are today reaping the benefit of being the first to be written about, linked to by other Web sites, and indexed by search engines and directories. Not to say that there can be no benefit to a law firm (or to anybody else, for that matter) who gets on the Internet in 1996 or later. Au contraire. It’s just that the job of getting noticed will be a bit more difficult for the late adopters.

How Did We Get Here?

In 1992, three things happened to bring the Internet to the masses. First, the price of computers and modems dropped significantly. And graphical user interfaces such as the Macintosh Operating System and Windows 3.0 made computers easier to use. Second, the NSF’s restrictions on commercial use of its “backbone” were relaxed, and commercial providers began providing alternative backbones with no commercial use restrictions. Third, and most importantly, we had a Vice Presidential candidate who had heard of the Internet!

The result was that in 1993 there were more stories about the Internet in The New York Times than in all previous years combined! That happened again in 1994, again in 1995, and again in 1996. I didn’t check Lexis, but I assume that it happened again in 1997.

That said, 1995 is generally considered to be “the year of the Internet.” 1995 was the year where people rushed to the Internet in search of fame and fortune. And, as shown above, 1995 was the peak year for NLJ 250 law firms to register domain names.

Three Target Audiences for your Web Site

It’s our opinion that in a couple years, this will be like asking “Why should our firm have a phone system?” The question gets to the heart of why Law Law Law is important.

1. Clients. Creating a Web site allows you to expand your client services. Whether it means publishing an archive of the articles the firm has written over the years, providing information about upcoming seminars, or just providing an e-mail directory so that the client can send e-mail to her attorney, there are many ways of leveraging the Internet to make your clients feel closer to your firm.

2. Potential Clients. With potential clients using the Internet to surf for firms, there is a real need to provide solid examples of your firm’s expertise. Don’t just provide explanations of your practice areas. Sit in your visitor’s chair, and try and figure out what would make them select you. Is it your high profile clientele? Or the name recognition of your partners? Whatever it is, leverage it. And don’t hide it three levels deep on your Web site. Lead the visitors through your site, and make the buying decision simple.

3. Potential Coworkers. Take advantage of wired law students by giving them the details they want: how to get a job. Different law firms take different approaches to their recruiting information. Some reluctantly provide basic details, sending the message that they already get too many resumes and that the last thing they could possibly want is any more. Others realize that the Web site can prescreen applicants. Details like how many summer associates you hire, what kind of projects they’ll work on in the summer, and whether or not they’ll have a mentor for the program — this will all help law students gauge their interest.

Three Elements of a Successful Web Site

Evaluating a Web site’s effectiveness is an admittedly subjective task. While the majority of Law Law Law focuses on the first criterion — content — the others are equally as important in evaluating the overall effectiveness of a site.

1. Content. Some clichés are actually good ones — and one that’s been around a while on the Net is that “Content is king.” There is no formula for a law firm, a legal publisher, or a bar association to follow to ensure that their content is “good.” But a few guidelines are probably in order. How recent is the information? Is the information relevant to your target audiences? Why should someone hire you? Where are you? Don’t hide your phone number and address — make them easy to find!

We have all heard that many jurors make up their minds during opening statements. Which opening statement in a trial makes more of an impact. Plaintiff’s attorney: “My name is Jane Doe from the 100-year old law firm of Smith & Wesson.” Defendant’s attorney: “This is a case about mistaken identity and greed, and at the close this trial, you’ll see that my client has been wrongly accused.” The first is form, the second is substance. Substance wins every time. A Web site with an opening sentence more like the opening statement from defendant’s counsel above is more likely to be read, bookmarked, and returned to.

2. Presentation. From our point of view, presentation deals with how well put together the elements of the site are. Are the graphics professionally designed? Is the overall layout of the site consistent throughout? When a visitor shows up at your Web site, do they think “Lexus” or do they think “Yugo”?

When designing your site, you should focus on how your site appears to someone unfamiliar with your firm. Is it easy to find the information you’re looking for? Is the page cluttered with too many options? If you don’t ask these questions at the beginning, you may find yourself answering them in front of a meeting of partners who have heard nothing but complaints from frustrated visitors.

3. Experience. Of the three categories, “experience” clearly falls into the “I’ll know it when I see it” camp. As your visitors finish their visit to your site, what impressions do they have? Does the visitor feel like they got to read information that they wanted to see, or were they forced to read information the firm wanted to talk about? Was the design intuitive, so they could always find what they were looking for, or did they have to guess what “Section Headings” meant? Was site navigation intuitive? Were there interactive elements? A search engine?

Who’s In, Who’s Out

From 1992 to 1995, I wrote seven editions of my book “The Legal List,” and the last two editions were published by Lawyers Cooperative Publishing. Each edition tried to catalog all of the Net’s law-related resources. It is no coincidence that I stopped updating “The Legal List” in 1995, the peak year for Net domain name registration. It was getting impossible to include everybody on the Net in the year of the Internet! That last edition contained 265 law firms, and some of those had only an e-mail address or two. But today there are over 4000 just with Web sites!

Rather than publish a 4000-page book, Rick and I decided to include a handful of small and mid-sized law firms in “Law Law Law,” plus all of the NLJ 250 firms. Law Law Law does not contain all of the Net’s law-related organizations, only the best ones.

And for those who argue that a better approach would have been to take the top 5% of the 4000 small and mid-sized law firms plus the top 5% of the NLJ 250, you’re right. That will probably be our next book! Our Web site (http://www.redstreet.com/reviews/) now contains reviews of the best of the 4000 law firm Web sites.

I’ve been working in the legal Internet community since 1992, and I have had the good fortune of being able to choose to practice patent law or to pursue a career in the Internet space. Along the way, I have worked with many of the great leaders of the legal Internet community who are helping to provide meaningful Internet experiences for legal professionals. In fact, “Law Law Law” is a testimony to the power of the Internet. Rick and I first “met” via e-mail in late 1993, and we’ve been working together on various projects ever since. We enjoy comparing notes on what we like, what we don’t like, and what blows us away. In short, “Law Law Law” summarizes four years of e-mail, office conversations, and presentations. Enjoy, and see you on the Net!

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