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Adopting Mobile Technology
What Does that Mean for Today’s Lawyers?

By Jim Calloway

Two friends are having lunch. One is a former client. The other mentions a need to retain a lawyer. Your satisfied former client says that she used you and recommends you as a lawyer. Then she picks up her phone, does a quick search, locates your website and texts the site to the friend. The friend looks at the information on her phone for a moment and then they go back to lunch. The text message with the link remains on her phone.

Someone has had to bail a relative out of jail. As they leave the bondsman’s office, they are told there will be a court appearance in a few days and they will need to hire a lawyer. They sit in the car, discussing the situation. Neither of them has ever retained a lawyer before, nor can they think of anyone that they know who has. What happens next? One of them pulls out their phone, but not to make a phone call — at least not initially.

Those two scenarios illustrate how life works today — not at some future time. The ubiquity of Internet connected smart phones has changed the way we act and think about things. How many former clients would actually still be carrying your business card months after the representation? And how many business cards given out are retained and carried by the recipient anyway? It has been a long time since two people sitting in a car needing to find a local lawyer (or any local business) have thought that they need to go locate a public telephone that will hopefully have a telephone book.

According to a 2013 Nielsen report, 94 percent of consumers in the U.S. have a mobile phone, and the majority of those phones are smartphones. Tablets have not reached that level of market saturation, but one market research firm estimates that tablet shipments will grow from 121 million units in 2012 to 416 million units by 2017. (Those statistics come courtesy of Robert Ambrogi’s article “As the World Goes Mobile Is Your Marketing up to Speed?” in Law Practice Magazine. It is recommended reading as a companion piece.)

The Internet has changed our world. We have all developed an appetite for information on demand whether it is street addresses, restaurant reviews or in-depth research. We are experiencing even more changes because now all of this wealth of information is available at all times through a mobile device. Wondering about the exact text of the Gettysburg Address or the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Just ask your phone.

The Internet has had a major impact on business, creating dot-com millionaires and wrecking entire industries. Mobile Internet access changes things even more. Lawyers in private practice are in business and cannot afford to ignore these trends.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

It has been true for several years now that, with a very few exceptions, any lawyer in private practice or law firm should have a website and would want to visit it periodically, just to make certain it is still working correctly. It’s also true that the smart lawyer will enter her name (and law firm name) into Google and/or other search engines several times a year just to see what people looking for her will find. In addition, trying a few sample searches that someone might use to find a lawyer like you in your area could be useful.

But now you need to try those searches with your phone (and tablet) to see what the result is — and ask some friends and employers who use different phones to do the same. Unless you have made some conscious effort and investment, you will likely find that your website is not very “mobile friendly.”

As the two opening illustrations point out, your website does need to be mobile friendly. Surely by now all of us have had the experience of opening a website on our phone that is not mobile friendly. The text will be very tiny and sometimes you cannot even zoom in on the text to make it readable on your phone. A consumer who is shopping for a law firm or any other business on their phone will quickly move on to another website if this is the case.

This is obviously an area that is outside of the expertise of most lawyers so the law firm will have to get professional help. The balance of this column will contain a brief discussion of what you need to know to have an intelligent conversation about this topic with your website designer.

MOBILE FRIENDLY WEBSITES

Mobile friendly can mean a lot of different things. First of all, your site should be coded using HTML5, the latest version of the HTML website design language. HTML5 will automatically adjust to the browser and device. This is one way of creating what web designers call a responsive website. The site recognizes the screen size of the device accessing it and adjusts accordingly.

The challenge is that firms really do not just want a smaller version of the website to appear on the phone. If you look at any website you will see that there are typically buttons and navigation elements. But when these are all displayed on a mobile device in the exact same proportions as on the website, it may be impossible for a user on the smart phone to easily use the “shrunken” navigation elements. Designing a website where the buttons are bigger could make it look like it was designed by a preschooler when viewed on a computer, with huge oversized buttons dominating the design and little room for content. That may be OK.  See Readwrite.com “On Mobile, Nobody Knows You’re A Dog -Stop designing separate experiences for mobile and desktop. Bring them together — and let mobile win.”

The next level of sophistication would be to have a separate mobile site. When a mobile device is detected, the user is forwarded to the mobile site with a separate address. Often this will be identified with the letter “m,” as in m.nytimes.com. This is the best and, of course, most expensive solution. Larger businesses have done this and we will continue to see a lot more sites handling mobile traffic in this way.

WHAT ABOUT THE LAW FIRM APP?

Should your law firm just create an app?

It is a logical question. If there’s going to be time, money and effort spent to create a “mobile friendly” site, why not just go all out and create a law firm app? We’ve all heard a lot about apps and it would certainly be cool to be able to tell your friends and relatives that your law firm has an app. But let’s face facts. After you show off that app, it would be challenging to get those same friends and relatives to download and install your app on their devices. If you are interested in new client development, you want them to become aware of you and contact you for help with their legal problems. Attempting to persuade a “shopper” to install an app for more information seems more cumbersome than helpful.

To persuade people to install even a free app, it has to provide some benefit to them. An app to share information with existing clients might make sense, but that will entail significant effort. An app that performs the Oklahoma child support calculations might generate a lot of goodwill for a family law firm. But wouldn’t this be best done as part of the law firm’s website rather than as an app? (North Carolina attorney Lee Rosen has done this.) It would not be wise for solo or small firm lawyers to invest the financial resources to create an app. So for the vast majority of law firms, an app does not seem to make sense for marketing purposes. For those with an interest, there is a good discussion of apps in the previously cited article by Robert Ambrogi.

ONE INTERESTING APP

The Litigation Resource App from Suffolk University Law School’s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation is online. This is an app that is not really an app in that you do not have to install it on your mobile device. But for a visual example of the topic of this column, just open that site up on your computer and then on your smart phone to see. Some readers may want to bookmark the site on their mobile device. The links to local materials are Massachusetts materials, but this app would give your phone quick access to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, Federal Rules of Evidence, Federal Sentencing Guidelines and Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.

It is certainly no surprise that Suffolk’s Institute is on the leading edge with products such as this. I have interviewed its director, Andrew M. Perlman, on my podcast and Professor Marc Lauritsen has long been regarded as an expert in document assembly and law office automation. The Institute recently announced a new “major” in legal technology and innovation.

CONCLUSION

It is easy for the busy lawyer to become frustrated by all of the technology issues associated with running a law practice. Practice management software is needed. Software seems to be too frequently upgraded. Both the lawyers and law firm staff likely need more training on the tools they currently use and it is difficult to find time for training.

But it is also very clear that we all are accessing the Internet more frequently via mobile devices. So as the Yellow Pages and other traditional marketing tools fade from lack of use, it is very important to make certain that people who are trying to locate a lawyer via their smart phones and other mobile devices are able to do so. When they find your law firm, you want them to be able to view and use your website.

A simple starting point is to visit the law firm’s website on various mobile devices and see if the home page should be designed more simply. Google did just fine with a very simple interface. What is the most important element that would help with mobile marketing? A row of oversized buttons might not look right, but one large button to place a phone call to the law firm is probably the best simple first step in making a law firm website more mobile friendly.

Mr. Calloway is director of the OBA Management Assistance Program. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help resolving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org. It’s a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- January 18, 2014 -- Vol. 85, No.2