Asked & Answered What makes a great law firm website?

 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
 
Ann Arbor native Brendan Chard graduated from The University of Michigan Business School with his degree focused on marketing and computer information systems. Prior to starting The Modern Firm, LLC (www.themodernfirm.com), Chard operated an on-site computer consulting business.  He sold that business in 2004 to focus exclusively on building websites, and now specializes in creating websites for attorneys.
He talked to The Legal News about the importance of a firm’s presence on the web.
 
Q: How important is a law firm's website?
A: I believe we're at a stage in time where clients of any business expect that business to have a website.  Consumers of legal services are no different and expect a law firm to have a website that professionally conveys a firm's experience, abilities, approach to the practice, successes and of course contact information.  Because consumers expect it, I'd say it's a requirement of doing business.  Depending on the firm's practice and goals, the site may simply be for validation for referrals to the firm, it could help give legitimacy to a attorneys in the eyes of opposing counsel, it could be part of a multi-faceted marketing campaign to find new clients, or it can be an interactive client service tool.  So even if a firm doesn't think they need a website for new clients, there are numerous important things that a website can accomplish.
 
Q: What are the biggest mistakes people make with their websites?
A: Oh, there are lots of mistakes!  I see firms that don't place enough value on a site, so they totally cheap it out, and it shows.  They're putting out this really cheap/generic look and trying to convince people to spend hundreds per hour on their services.  Other times they'll try to learn how to make one on their own. But when you consider their hourly rate, it's really not the best use of their time—especially for more established attorneys.
On the other end, firms spend way too much, usually by signing up for marketing packages that are not a good fit for their firm.  Long-term contracts are also a big problem because things change so quickly on the web. If you get locked into a system or way of doing things for a few years, a firm is prevented from adapting.
On the technology front, firms need to pay attention to mobile users.  We're observing mobile visitors making up more than 20% of visitors to our client's websites. For practice areas that are more sensitive such as family law, bankruptcy, criminal, etc., it's over 30% because the phone is their private device. We use a technique called "responsive design" which mean that instead of setting up separate mobile websites, there is just one website that can instantly adapt it's layout, fonts, graphics, menus and functions to fit the screen sizes of all devices. 
Firms also need to make sure they own their website so that they aren't locked into a relationship.  And they need to make sure they can edit and control the website so that they don't have to rely on others to make basic changes.
 
Q: What about the actual design of the websites?
A: Many lawyers start off saying, "I need a website."  But it's really the combination of design, marketing, technical functionality, photography and content.  Each of these interconnected things require their own attention to detail or the final product will fall flat.  In the end, they have something they call a website, but in reality the whole process is really the development of a comprehensive online marketing presence. A good analogy is an estate plan.  Clients simplistically think "I need a will" but the lawyer has to create a set of plan documents based on understanding their family dynamic, finances, assets, charitable and giving interests and health concerns.
Great photos with proper lighting are a must. You usually can't just whip out a cell phone and get an adequate picture.  Also, once you've captured a visitor's attention, having pages with more text is okay, but the homepage should be more of a quick hitting, easy to digest message instead of 15 paragraphs of text. 
 
Q: What unique website concerns do lawyers share?
A: The first thing that comes to mind is that lawyers need to be careful about marketing ethics rules.  Words such as specialize, specialist and expert generally can't be used. They need to be careful about the content of testimonials. They can't put down others in the profession, and they can't guarantee success or certain outcomes.  They also need a good disclaimer, especially to protect themselves from attorney-client relationships or conflicts being automatically created just because a user contacts them through their website. 
Unlike sites that sell a physical product, a law firm's site is selling complex concepts like trust, competence, creativity, and problem solving skills, success and value.  So in that regard, law firm websites are quite different from other business websites, the approach is much more personal and nuanced.
 
Q: What does every effective website have in common?
A: Websites that are most effective communicate with the potential client in a way that really resonates with them.  Too many lawyers boast about themselves, their credentials and describe their services in a way that is over the head of their clients.  First and foremost, the website needs to focus on how they can help clients and then back it up with their experience.  Another way of thinking of this is called feature-benefit selling.  Don't just say you're A/V rated, or certified in something, or clerked with a certain judge. Explain how that creates value for the client.
I also see that successful sites take an educational approach.  It doesn't have to be over the top on quantity, but teaching people something new or unexpected is a fantastic way to build trust and show expertise.
 
Q: You say that a law firm's website should be a reflection of the firm's culture, image, philosophy and message. Can you elaborate?
A: Sure. When a person hires a lawyer, they're starting a relationship, not simply buying a product off the shelf.  In a relationship, the fit is important, so lawyers should do what they can to convey their style of work, their approach to the practice and who they are as people.  This will help to attract or connect with potential clients that are compatible with their way of thinking.  Depending on the practice, a lawyer shouldn't be afraid of letting some of their personal life show.  We've had attorneys show pictures of themselves recreating—hiking, sailing, golfing, hanging with family—or blog about their running, etc.  It can make the lawyer seem more approachable or present a topic that can break the ice or create a connection with a potential client.
 
Q: How do you get a law firm's website to show up highly on Google? 
A: This is a very complex question that in my opinion is gradually getting easier to answer as Google continues to fine-tune its algorithms.  The first thing to figure out however is whether high Google rankings are even important to a firm. Firms that have consumer oriented practices areas that used to be successful with yellow pages advertising will likely be able to find success with online marketing. Firms that are more business or government oriented, a boutique or completely built on referrals don't need to worry as much, if at all. Showing up in searches for the firm name or the attorney names will happen pretty much automatically unless the attorney shares a name with a celebrity, but showing up by practice area or topic is harder because you're competing against other firms. 
When ranking websites, Google is looking at tons of characteristics, but it's really trying to drill down to a pretty simple solution. When someone searches for a lawyer on Google, Google is not just trying to return results with the best websites, it's trying to find them the best lawyer in their area.  So not only is it looking at the content, quality, freshness and influence of the website, but also trying to determine the overall credibility, experience, locality and reputation of the business that owns the website.
So as a law firm owner, or consultant to one, we need to think creatively about meaningful, ethical things we can do online that improve the website's standing on the internet and the firm's reputation in the online community.  This can involve:
• blogging on your own site
• contributing content to other websites, blogs, or newspapers
• participating in online communities like AVVO, LinkedIn or other legal forums
• creating content that targets specific communities
• seeking out sponsorship opportunities with non-profits
• establishing your firm on the hundreds of business directory websites such as Yelp, 411 and 4square
• creating listings on the dozens of legal directories such as hg.org and targetlaw.com
• seeking out client reviews (where appropriate) on sites like Yelp, Google+ and AVVO
• cultivating referral opportunities on sites like LinkedIn
• Or, as Google would like you to do, you can just purchase targeted advertising through their Adwords system.
 
Q: Your mother, Lynn, is the director of Michigan's Institute of Continuing Legal Education, and before his retirement, your father, Roger, was a prominent attorney in town. Did their careers inspire yours?
A: People often ask if I'm a lawyer. I joke and say no, but I was raised by them, which most people laughingly agree is harder than any law school. I sort of stumbled into this whole business over a decade ago when I was trying to make extra money while at the U-M Business School studying marketing and computer information systems. And certainly having a family name in the legal community helped get my foot in the door around Ann Arbor and Michigan. But the things that have really inspired and contributed to the success of my company are some simple principles and values they instilled in me: Be a helpful person. Don't lie. A reputation takes a lifetime to build but only a minute to lose. Don't burn bridges. 
With that, some good luck, great people and hard work, we have grown to more than 400 active clients in 40 states and four countries with four full time employees and a tight team of contractors.
 

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