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Why Lawyers Need to Have a Web site

By David Thomson

Introduction

Most attorneys now understand the tremendous value of the Internet as a new communications and research medium. As they come to know and use the "World Wide Web" (hereinafter just the "Web") as a tremendous information resource, they are starting to ask whether they should have a Web site for their practice or firm. Because it’s not a cheap or simple proposition to set up and maintain a Web site, the first question attorneys often ask is: "Will it get me more clients?" This is an understandable question – after all, why spend money on something that looks and smells like marketing, if not to get more clients?

But it’s the wrong question. And so the best answer to this question is "No, at least not alone. But you still need a Web site, and here’s why…"

New Clients is the wrong goal

In the first few years of the proliferation of the Web—when many attorneys and law firms didn’t understand what this new medium was—the argument for a Web site was squarely: "You will get more clients from this. They will see you out there and hire you. Sign here." And further, the accepted wisdom was that "Content is King." That is, if you are going to develop a web site for your firm, you must cram it with fabulous content (changing daily – or at least weekly) that will draw crowds of surfers. And if you didn’t do this, you might as well not have a Web site at all. As the Web has grown, this has become worse than just bad advice. It’s silly. For several reasons.

First, perhaps it was the case when the first few law firms created web sites, that it did in fact draw clients to them that were impressed with their technological abilities and forward thinking. As literally thousands and thousands of attorneys and law firms have joined them on the Web, that benefit disappeared long ago.

Second, it’s very hard to maintain a Web site with fresh content on a daily or weekly basis. While we would all like to think that our practices include some of the most exciting things that happen in the world, the fact is, it’s the rare law firm or legal practice that really has a fresh group of headlines for it’s "What’s New" page on a weekly basis. And those that do either have to have someone on staff to update the site, or pay someone outside the firm to do it on a regular basis. This is not cheap, but it can be done. And if your site has the kind of content that Sony Pictures does, or Toyota Motors, it should be done. The vast majority of legal practices are not that sort of operation.

Third, it makes no sense to build and maintain a Web site that serves its visitors poorly. And this is the most important point: Before you start in on this task of preparing a Web site for your practice or firm, you must ask this question: "What are people who arrive at this site going to be looking for?"

For a legal practice, the answer in a majority of cases is: they will not be looking to "see what’s new." They will not be hoping to be entertained. They most likely already know of you or your firm, and so they will simply be looking for more information about you and your practice, as a precursor to meeting with you to discuss a problem.

An example: you meet someone at a party or function. You give him your card (which has a Web site address on it). Months later, he has a problem, and doesn’t know where to turn. But he doesn’t want to call you; then he might have to have lunch, or schedule a meeting, or be embarrassed that he just wants a little more information before he calls you. So he picks up your business card (or simply remembers a distinctive domain name for your site), and goes to your Web site. He finds out there that you both went to the same College, or even (perhaps especially) that you both have kids in Little League. Or that you not only handle Copyright Law (which isn’t his problem at the moment) but that you also handle Trademark Law (which is). So now he calls you.

Information Sites

There are, of course, many different types of sites on the Web, and there will in the future be many other types that we can’t think of now. But there will always be "information" sites. These are sites that, for the most part, provide information about a company, and help visitors contact them. In the case of a law firm, they do not try to serve up a treatise on Environmental Law, hoping to impress someone into hiring them.

As the Web becomes even more ubiquitous, professional people will expect you to have information there about yourself and your practice. One day, they will go looking for it, and be disappointed if it’s not there.

If you have published an article on Lender Liability law under CERCLA, by all means include it in your Web site. It will be indexed by the major search engines, and someone might actually find you that way – out of the blue. But if you try to build a Web site with the goal that it become the hot site on the Web for Environmental Law, you’ll spend a lot of time and money, and likely be disappointed with the results.

It’s a Business Card

The best way to think about a Web site for your practice is as an extension of your business card. On that little piece of paper (typically measuring 2" x 3.5") you can’t fit much information about yourself. But you can fit an address to your Web site, where there’s essentially no limit to what you can describe about yourself, your practice, and your areas of expertise. No lawyer (or professional of any kind) can imagine being in business without a business card. Once we understand how useful a Web site "extension" of that card can be, we’ll consider it just as indispensable.

Of course, it’s so much better than a business card. It can not only fit more information, it can give a potential client a sense of who you are. But more importantly, someone can find out more about you without bothering you, and can easily contact you, via "light touch" E-mail, rather than a more intrusive telephone call. An excellent example of this sort of "extended business card" site for a Colorado solo practitioner can be found at this Web address: http://www.lichlaw.com

Lastly, it’s wise to find synergistic online communities, and arrange to have them post a link to your site. Do you specialize in Elder Law? Is there a senior citizen’s home near you that has a Web site, and would appreciate your placing a small advertisement on their site (which is a link to yours)? As lawyers, we obtain many of our referrals from other lawyers. Consider placing your Web site in an online community where other attorneys will see it.

What should I put there?

Having debunked the goal of becoming the world’s great Web site on Copyright law, it begs the question of what one should include on a law firm Web site. The answer is simple, and probably largely already done (in the form of a brochure). A statement about your firm. Physical location and general contact E-mail addresses. Bios of attorneys in the firm, and their E-mail addresses. Attached to those pages, copies of articles that the attorney has published. Pictures are recommended, but not required. Disclaimers that cover issues such as admission to practice, client confidentiality, and the attorney-client relationship are wise.

While it might sound like it, I am not recommending a static "brochure" site. A site that simply copies all the information in the firm brochure, and updates it as often (once a year – if that), is not useless, but it doesn’t take advantage of the technology as it might. So there are some other things—besides including articles that you’ve published—that can be done.

You should try to obtain contact information from your visitors. Have an automated "guest book" available, and encourage visitors to sign it. Then collect those addresses (E-mail as well as "snail mail") and expand your mailing list for announcements and the like. If your firm publishes a newsletter, encourage people to subscribe to an E-mail only version (or sign up to receive the printed version). If your firm doesn’t publish a newsletter (because of the cost) consider creating an occasional E-mail only newsletter.

Conclusion

Although many firms are rushing to their local Web designer, many of them are doing it for the wrong reasons. They think it’s a "billboard" of sorts, and potential clients will drive by and be so dazzled by their professionalism, that they will hire that firm. But it is well known that—by far—the most effective method of generating new business in a legal practice is building and enhancing relationships with existing clients, and providing information to potential clients. Creating a Web site that is designed to fairly reflect what you do, and your expertise, and that provides the type of information potential clients might be looking for is your goal.

"Will it get me more clients?" The answer is maybe, and if so, not alone. The reason to set up a Web site for your firm is to provide additional information to people who already know of you. It’s an opportunity to extend your business card and provide information that a potential client might be looking for. Attorneys need a web site because they need a better business card.

© 1998, David Thomson

84.8 percent of people who use the Internet start with search engines to find sites like yours. Source: GVU Center, College of Computing - George Institute of Technology.

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