Management Assistance Program on www.OKbar.org

Web Site How-To Tips for the Small Firm Lawyer

By Jim Calloway

Rare is the large- or medium-size law firm that does not now have a Web site. Some Web presence is now considered to be a business essential.
For the small firm, solo practitioner or even a larger law firm lagging behind the times, it is the purpose of this article to present a primer on the basics of what one needs to know to create or improve a Web page.

Few small law firms will find that their practice is completely sustained by a Web presence. But we are fast reaching the time when Internet searches become the number one way of locating consumer goods and services. Even today, for many attorneys, a Web site is an increasingly important component of obtaining new business. It may not be that a Web site itself draws in lots of business. For many potential clients, looking for the lawyer’s Web site is a qualifier. If you don’t have a Web site, there may be something old-fashioned or wrong about your law practice in the eyes of many. Or, it may be something as simple as someone who doesn’t have access to a telephone directory for the area and is searching for your phone number or address. In the early days of attorney Web sites, many lawyers reported receiving a number of inquiries from potential out-of-state clients who were served with papers in their locale.

Given the relative inexpensiveness of Web site creation and maintenance, it makes sense to have a Web site on a number of levels. Briefly, let’s examine how to set up a Web site and the different types of Web site strategies that a lawyer might employ.

First: the domain name

For the law firms that do not yet have a Web site, one of the most challenging parts is to come up with a unique and relatively short domain name. This is particularly true if your name happens to be a very common one such as Jim Smith. Law firm domain names (and domain names in general) are very significant. Picking a good domain name is very important as you may well live with it the rest of your legal career. It should be short and easy to type. Likely at some future point, you will want to change your e-mail addresses of everyone in the firm into ones incorporating the domain name. So you will see a lot of it.

For a solo practitioner with the unusual name there is still a possibility that one of the obvious domain names is available. So if your name is Cindy Schwartz, one should check the availability of CindySchwartz.com, CSchwartz.com, SchwartzLaw.com and CindySchwartzLaw.com before embarking on more creative ideas.

So how does one check the availability of a domain name?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is a non-governmental organization that oversees “top level domains.” They have approved many registrars. Some of the best-known include GoDaddy and Register. A tech savvy bar member recommended Verio to me and their services have been professional and inexpensive.

There are several online tools to check the whois database for .com domain names. A lawyer will want to have a .com domain name if possible. A couple of easy search tools are WhoIs and DomainTools.

Most of the registrars will have search tools available as well.

One may ask why we encourage you to register your domain name yourself when many of the Web site hosting companies also offer as a part of their service “free” domain name registration. Your domain name can become an extremely important and valuable business asset if you develop your Web site according to its potential. The problem is that when you decide to change Web hosts or developers a few years from now, you may find that they either claim to own your domain or, because of documents you signed in a hurry, they actually do own it.

Therefore, we do not want to take the risk that the domain name registration company will somehow end up showing themselves as the official “owner” of your domain name whether or not that is supported by the “fine print” of your document. If you can find or figure out a domain name, it may well be better for the small firm lawyer to register the domain name, charge it on the credit card and then contact the Web hosting company.

On the other hand, some Web professionals may have much better ideas for good domain names than you would.

One word of caution: Small law firms may be tempted to name their Web site the same as the firm name, e.g., SmithJonesRobertsLove.com. One should probably consider and discuss what happens if someone leaves the firm or is appointed to the bench where their name should arguably not continue to be included with a private law firm Web page. The marketer in me wants the domain name to be SmithJonesRobertsLove.com, but the Web designer and pragmatist notes that SJRL.com or SJRLLaw.com may be less problematic when unexpected things happen. It is not like painting a new sign for the building, changing your Yellow Pages ad or buying new stationery. When a certain Web domain name and corresponding e-mail addresses have been used for decades, a great deal of value would be lost if they were discontinued.

Next: the host and design

Unless you have an information technology department and some important business reason to maintain computers constantly running and connected to the Internet 7/24/365, you will want to have your Web site hosted by a third party.

There are several options for free hosting, but these are normally not attractive for the practicing lawyer. You do not want a Web site that may often lack the bandwidth to quickly load nor do you want to have host-added advertising associated with your Web site.

Third-party hosting allows you to place a Web site on someone else’s computer system where they are responsible for the tech support and you just handle various “easy” maintenance items such as adding and deleting e-mail addresses or changing content. Your current ISP probably provides hosting services, as do a large number of popular hosting services.

Some popular names in Web hosting include 1and1, Verio, GoDaddy, Microsoft Office Live Small Business and Yahoo Small Business. For further objective explanation of Web hosting see the Wikipedia entry.

Of course, some lawyers may consider blogging as an alternative to the traditional Web site. For more information on that alternative, see Blawg: Marketing Your Practice with a Weblog by Jim Calloway and Tom Mighell. I use a service called Typepad to host my blog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips.

In terms of Web site design, you’ll get a much better result if you hire a professional. Horror stories abound of using your cousin’s friend or your neighbor’s kid to design your Web site. The basics of Web site design are pretty simple, however, and there are certainly many amateurs and students at community tech colleges who can do a decent job. The problem is locating a good one and overseeing their work. If you have someone else design your Web site, make sure there is a signed contract that all of the content design belongs to you, including such graphic elements as buttons and bars.

Companies that focus on providing Web site services for law firms include FindLaw, LexisNexis, HubbardOne, ConsultWebs, Justia and PaperStreet.

Lawyers with some technical inclination and time can design their own Web sites if they are so inclined. You can design basic HTML pages within a word processor and save them as HTML.

However, you really want to use a Web design software package that will help you attach those various pages together. There are numerous free Web design programs available for download online. There are also somewhat expensive and sophisticated programs that could be mastered such as Microsoft’s FrontPage. One do-it-yourself program that has received a lot of good reviews (even though I have not tried it personally) is Web Easy Professional, which retails for $49.95.

More information on web design software can be found by going to the PC Magazine and PC World Web sites and searching some of the Web site design product reviews.

Content

Your content is pretty much up to you. Some small firm, small-town lawyers will be happy with a static Web site that lists the basic elements such as their address and phone number, their practice areas, photographs of the lawyers, a map to their office and a few other items. This site will probably not score high with any search engine results, but will allow Web users to “verify” that you are an attorney and sophisticated enough to have a Web site. The search engines will give much higher rankings to Web sites that have frequently updated content. One critical item to include in your Web site would be reprints of any articles one has had published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal or other “lawyer” magazines. This is a good way to reuse content that you have already completed and this enhances your reputation as an expert. After all, if you have been asked to write an authoritative article for lawyers, you must be an expert in a particular field.

Here are a few things that I think a law firm should have on its Web site:

The names and contact information for all the attorneys, omitting e-mail addresses for those who do not regularly check e-mail.

A map to the office. Unless your office is on the main street of a very small town, you should have a printable map to your office with driving directions at the bottom. I’m surprised at how many professional Web design firms omit this basic content.

Your practice areas. Whether you handle many different types of cases or few, people are looking for someone who handles their kind of matter. Don’t be embarrassed to use more than one term that means the same thing. Some potential client may not know what some legal terms mean.

Flawlessly written content with no misspellings or poor grammar

Simple, clear and serious content

Appropriate disclaimers. A Web site is informational, not legal advice. You are only licensed in certain jurisdictions. No attorney-client relationship is created merely by visiting the Web site. The usual stuff.

Compliance with your state’s ethics rules

Attractive pictures and graphic elements. You don’t have to go overboard here, but the Internet is a graphic media and you need some graphics. Take some pictures.

Don’t spend months perfecting the most ambitious Web site. Start simple and do it right. Make notes of what additional things you would like to do for the next version. Then add your Web address to your stationery, your e-mail signature block and your business cards.

Oh, yes, be sure and e-mail the link for your new Web site to all of the other lawyers you know who do not yet have a Web site!

Resources

ABA Legal Technology Resource Center – FYI Starting a Web site.

Fred Faulker (Webmaster of the American Bar Association) Collected articles on LLRX, including “Is Your Web Site Successful? Tips and Techniques to Get More Out Of Your Web,” “How to Select a Web site Designer” and “How the Web Will Continue to Change How We Do Business in 2007.”

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Nov. 8, 2008 -- Vol. 79, No. 29