Management Assistance Program on www.OKbar.org

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Getting Noticed Online

By Jim Calloway, Director, OBA Management Assistance Program

Discussing the growth of the Internet and the explosion of social media is almost cliché at this point. However, there are many lawyers who are not using the Internet for practice development. Almost every law firm or solo lawyer needs a website. There may be a few exceptions, but my unscientific guess is that well over 90 percent of law firms can benefit from a website.

The Internet is where information flows today. When that former satisfied client gets a call from a friend needing a lawyer, you want them to be able to locate you right then and give their friend your name, your phone number and your web address. You want them to find you instantly. You do not want to hope they go to the trouble of locating that old dog-eared business card or they will pull out a directory or Yellow Pages when they don’t find you online. Of real concern is that they might do a few more searches and stumble across another lawyer’s name to give their friend.

Many would disagree with me, but almost any website is better than none at all. “80 percent of success is just showing up” is a truism attributed to Woody Allen (as I just learned from a quick Internet search). Every lawyer should be concerned about not “showing up” online when people are trying to locate you.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe that a modest inexpensive basic website will garner your firm a lot of business without doing more. But we have reached the time when not having a website can cost your business. People today use the Internet to make all sorts of purchasing decisions. They also use it to verify decisions that they have already tentatively made. When potential clients are referred to you, many will look for you online before they give your office a call.

This article will focus on the very basics of developing a website and online presence for lawyers. Since most law firms already have websites, this article will be directed to the solo lawyer or those firms with two or three lawyers. Solo lawyers without a website are not alone. According to the 2010 American Bar Association Legal Technology Survey Report, 52 percent of solo lawyers have a website, while 48 percent do not. But for law firms of two to five lawyers, the percentage who have a site jumps to over 80 percent.

Many lawyers are deterred from having a website because they do not understand the technology and there is a need to rely on consultants. Website design companies tend to bundle several different types of services together to provide a “turnkey” service. 

To have a website, you need to first locate and reserve a domain name. Domains are registered through a registrar approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-governmental organization that manages domain names. One can find a list of domain name registrars or by using a search engine.

If your name is Smith or Jones, you obviously may have a more difficult time formulating a unique web address than if you have a very unusual last name. Shorter domain names are thought to be better, but with so many domains already claimed, that may not always be an option. But don’t forget that a very long domain name may not easily fit on your business card or letterhead. Personally I like a domain name that is easy to remember and tell someone verbally. Some domain names that are derived from the initials of the law firm can be tongue-twisters, like DGBDLaw.com.

It is still thought that the .com domain names are best for law firms, even though many also reserve the same name with a .pro, .net or other additional extensions and use those addresses to forward people to the primary website. Many web design services offer free domain registration, but it is important to make sure that the law firm is listed as owner so that notices of renewal fees in future years come to you and not a now-defunct web design company.

After the law firm decides on and registers a domain name, the focus turns to content, web design and web hosting. Web hosting can be fairly inexpensive and so is often included in the quote from a web design company.

Fees charged by web design and hosting companies range from small fees to tens of thousands of dollars. Sadly, often one does not get what is paid for by using a higher-priced service. I’ve received more than one call from frustrated lawyers who paid a design firm $10,000 and,  months later, still had no website at all. You should check references and, just like dealing with any contractor, avoid paying too much in advance. The basic elements of this contract should be in writing like any other.

Most communities now have local designers. Many community colleges and tech training schools offer website design classes. Using an amateur can result in great savings. It can also result in a poor design that does not have the basic elements that get the site noticed by the search engines or just looks very unprofessional. 

Selecting your website designer is perhaps the most challenging part of this process. Your Internet home page is important, and you have to invest time and develop a level of trust with someone or some firm.

CONTENT IS STILL KING

Lawyers are wordsmiths and we can turn out lots of text. Great original content should be a cornerstone of your website. But, people tend to have a very short attention span online and a seven-page essay may not be read by as many as one or three paragraphs. It may be that you can have both, with a three-paragraph summary and a link to the longer treatment. But the time a visitor will spend on your website will likely be measured in seconds or at most a couple of minutes and you should plan accordingly.

The basics of a website should include information identifying you and your law practice. Your contact information, including your street address and phone number, should be prominently displayed. 

The web is a visual medium. Therefore it is important for you to have graphics and other images on your site. Some will elect to purchase stock graphics for their website.

But in this age of digital cameras, it is fairly easy to either make some photographs yourself or have an acquaintance with more skill make some original photographs for you. This way you can be sure that the images on your website will not be duplicated in many other law firm websites across the internet. 

Every lawyer in the law firm should have a picture and a brief biographical sketch on the website. It is okay to include pictures of your staff, but as a lawyer, you will obviously want to have them sign a release before using any of their photographs on your commercial website. If you do not have a recent picture of yourself that you like, go make an appointment with a professional photographer and bring several sets of clothes to the session. Failing to have a personal photo on the website is a serious misstep. As noted, many people use the web to see the lawyer and get a feel for the things that they consider important before scheduling an appointment. The picture and some original heartfelt language are therefore critical.

Traditional images on law firm websites that are now felt to be trite and unimaginative include images of scales of justice or rows of law books. But it is better to have those than no graphics at all. A good original image might be the front of your office, especially if it might be hard to find. A map (or directions) to your office location is a good idea as well unless your office is on a primary street in your community. Many just link to the Google map of their address for their website.

Practice areas in which the firm is accepting new clients should also be identified on the website. Although one should be cautious and pay attention to ethical prohibitations against identifying yourself as a specialist in any particular area.

It is possible to do harm with a website as well. A requirement for any law firm website is flawlessly written content. There should be no misspellings or poor grammar on your website. If you are concerned about this or if you are concerned that you will create too much impenetrable legalese on your website, you should not be embarrassed to ask for help from someone. 

Remember that the search engines will favor your website based on how often it is updated. Therefore it is important to update the website at least twice a year. A static unchanging website may get lower and lower rankings in Google and other search engines, making it harder for people to find you online.

Some of the best items of content to put on a website are original paragraphs by you on a substantive law area. If you have published an article in some professional magazine, like The Oklahoma Bar Journal, reprinting this content on the website is a great idea because it shows you have expertise that is recognized by other lawyers. If you have taught a continuing legal education class, this is also a good thing to include on your website, but it is important to include a few paragraphs about what you covered and not just mention that you taught a class to lawyers. 

BLOWING YOUR OWN ONLINE HORN

Once you have a website created, you want to make others aware of it.

An initial step is to set up a Google profile with a link to your website because Google is obviously the most important search engine at this point, and a Google profile is free. A Google profile can be very simple with just a few references as to your background and professional qualifications, a picture of you and a link to your website. You can set this up by registering. GMail users can use their same login credentials. 

The most important reason to have a Google profile is that when people search for your name in Google, the link to the Google profile should show up at the bottom of the first page of search results. Many companies will pay thousands of dollars to be listed on the first page of search results, so using a Google profile to make sure your link is there for your name is a simple and easy, but very important thing to do.

It is important to promote your website by having the web address on your business cards and stationery. Make sure that the website address is in your signature block in your e-mail account and that of everybody who works in your law firm. You will be surprised at the number of people who will click on the link to a website when they notice a new website in the signature block of someone they know. Some law firms even have a discreet sign in their reception area: “Visit us online at ____."

Oklahoma Bar Association members should be sure to list their practice areas with Oklahoma Find A Lawyer. This is done by logging into My Okbar from the OBA web page. While there is no ability to link to your web page from this service, it is free and will generate some leads for you.

There are other online directories of lawyers where you may wish to list yourself or your firm. At this point, I would advise against most paid directory listings. If one was going to invest in paying for Internet exposure, one could purchase Google AdWords for primary practice areas in the lawyer’s city or state. One can limit the exposure of expense on Google AdWords by noting that you will only pay a limit of so much per week or month.

Do cultivate links to your website.

Be careful what you post on message boards or social networking sites. Participating in online communities of interest and  public message boards increases your online visibility. But disagreeable or controversial posting might also alienate potential clients so lawyers have to make the decision as to how much online free speech they want to exercise.

Blogs, online communities and other social media can all be used to drive traffic to your website and to promote your practice, but nurturing these tools takes a great deal of time. This topic will be discussed in more depth in a later edition of The Oklahoma Bar Journal this fall. 

FINALLY, A WORD ABOUT SEO (SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION)

Many marketing firms claim great expertise in SEO. This is the art or science (or voodoo) that is done behind the scenes to make your site appear higher in search results. Certainly there would be enormous value in guaranteeing that a lawyer’s website would be the first result (or even in the top 10) when someone searches for “bankruptcy Oklahoma” or any other legal topic. Before you invest a lot of money chasing SEO, be sure to read “Making Your Website Visible: How to Find a Good SEO Company” by Sharon Nelson and John Simek in the May/June Issue of Law Practice magazine. 

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Aug. 7, 2012 -- Vol. 81, No. 20