Choosing the Right Web Site Components

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by Carole Levitt J.D., M.L.S. & Mark Rosch

A successful Web site and a fine meal have a lot in common. Both of these items need to include the right ingredients, have a variety of components, be presented in an attractive manner, satisfy an immediate need, and be easy to digest. A successful Web site should be capable of attracting and retaining clients, addressing their legal concerns, and making visitors feel comfortable.

To reach these goals, first consider the siteís overall presentation. With a Web site, much will depend upon the selection of its programming language and graphics. In short, how showy should the site be? Should it be developed principally in standard, plain HTML or should it be developed with Flash (which is an aptly named Web design application)? In addition, should the site include an audio component or components - for example music or spoken words - in its introduction? How creative or complicated should the graphic elements be? The answers to these questions depend on the type of clientele the firm wants to attract. For example, a labor law firm that represents management probably has a more conservative clientele who are not expecting anything flamboyant. If the firm's site uses Flash for its introduction, the conservative potential client may be alienated and skip that firm's site. So that firm may be better off using HTML. However, an entertainment firm may have more reason to use Flash (for an example, users may visit entertainmentlawyermiami.com). The firmís potential clients, who are members of the entertainment industry, may expect some panache, even from a lawyer.

When Flash is used, a common practice is to post on the home page a prominent link that allows users to skip the introduction or skip Flash. With this type of link, clients and potential clients will not be excluded from the site because they cannot view Flash (because they have yet to download the Flash plug-in), find it too slow to load (because they lack high-speed Internet access), or simply want to get to the meat of the site without fanfare.

A law firm Web site will likely need to tread between the extremes of plainness and ornamentation. A way to conceptualize the right balance is to design the firmís site to be as inviting as the firmís reception area, which pre-sumably looks neither dowdy nor garish. Taking this advice to heart is the firm of Payne & Fears (www.paynefears.com), whose site invites visitors to enter by using a graphic of a handsome double door on its home page (a welcome change from the standard law firm graphic of the scales of justice). To enter the site, one clicks on the door.

Memorable Domains The first component of a Web site is its domain name. It should be descriptive enough to grab the attention of the firmís intended audience but short enough to be easy for a client to remember. For example, a lawyer who rep-resents dog bite victims who uses the domain name dogbitelaw.com or dogbitelawyer.com rather than the lawyerís name would be more likely to attract new clients. Adding geographical information to the domain name - for example, losangelesdogbitelawyer.com - may also be useful. Surprisingly, the American Bar Association's 2001 legal technology survey found that "[o]nly 5.0% of respondents report using a generic domain name relating to one of the firmís practice areas." On the other hand, the survey found that "[o]ver half (50.1%) use their firm name or some version of it," as their domain name. If a firm's intended audience is its current and former clients only, using the firm's name for the domain name may suffice. Because people may not remember a firmís full name (especially if it is longer than two names), it is best to limit the domain name to the first one or two named partners to make the URL easier to remember. Some firms use the first initial of each named partnerís last name, but then the domain name is memorable only to those people who actually know each named partner's last name. Therefore, it is advisable to use names and not initials.

After the domain name, the next component to consider is the home page. A site's home page should include an internal search engine to ensure easy navigation. Not every Web user wants to click on icons or search through topic pages in the hope of finding desired information. Providing a search engine allows potential clients who know what they want to type key words into the search engineís query box. This is especially true when a client wants information about a specific attorney or issue; the internal search engine is the most direct route.

In addition to internal search engines, some firms have interactive components on their sites. For example, the personal injury firm of Parker & Waichman (www.yourlawyer.com) hosts numerous interactive discussion forums in which potential clients can discuss their injuries and seek emotional support from those in similar straits. Topics are wide ranging, from clergy abuse to Ford Explorer rollover accidents. To facilitate intake, some firms add an intake form component that is filled out online by potential clients. Other firms may add a government forms component.

To show potential clients that a firm is staying on top of its practice areas, the firm can post current news articles. For example, Parker & Waichman has a Breaking News component on its home page. The current news on a law firmís site should be kept current; otherwise, the site will quickly look out-of-date instead of up-to-date.

Many firms list cases (or clients) on their Web sites along with their most successful verdicts and settlements. The Landmark Cases component of the Parker & Waichman site has brief summaries of its major cases, while its Significant Settlement component highlights verdicts (with one as high as $10 million). For those who choose to place the firm's cases, verdicts, and settlements on the firmís site, it is best to list the most recent cases first, but if it has been some years since the firm has had a memorable case, the site may list the largest verdict or settlement first or the case that features the most well-known parties first.

Another common practice is to include newsletters (current and archived) and offer visitors the option to have newsletters e-mailed to them. A searchable database for the newsletter archive helps visitors find the information they are seeking. To increase the marketing value of the newsletter, consider posting it as a PDF to keep the graphics (especially the firm logo) intact when visitors print them. On a related note, some Web visitors have a difficult time digesting information that appears only on a computer monitor. A law firm Web site should make it easy for visitors to read the site's information (and better understand the firmís mission) by allowing them to print pages from the site with ease. This can be accomplished with a component that often bears the label Printer Friendly. When users click on this label, they are presented with the contents of the page in a simple format that prints out neatly.

Another simple component that should not be overlooked is a map that helps clients and potential clients find the firmís office. The map should definitely be included in the elements of the site that appear on printer-friendly pages. To increase the chances that visitors keep and share pages from the firmís site, designers should also add an E-mail Document component that is easy to notice and use.

Personal Communication Firms can make their sites more inviting by personalizing them. Amazon.com, for example, welcomes returning visitors by name and recommends books based on ones previously purchased. Similarly, the law firm of Miller Nash (http://MillerNash.com) asks its online visitors to enter their name and industry (from agriculture to wholesalers) and then welcomes the visitor by name and offers a list of articles specific to the visitorís industry.

Law firm sites typically list practice areas by department (litigation, corporate, etc.), but firms with a keener marketing sense put themselves in the shoes of their clients and list their practice areas according to client industry. For example, Miller Nash places the names of departments that may service Affordable Housing clients under the heading of Affordable Housing.

Some Web visitors would rather commu-nicate with a person than search a site. This need can be addressed, at least partially, by adding a chat component to the site. During regular business hours, potential clients of the firm of Miller Nash can chat live with a client services representative (http://MillerNash.com/clientservices.asp). Another component that can help a firm speak more directly to clients is an extranet. At this secure online location, firms can present information to selected visitors. Firms can use extranets to share documents, case strategy, time lines, calendars, updates, and other information with clients and co-counsel. Only those who have been granted a user name and password for the extranet can access its contents.

A surefire way to make a site more appealing is with a free offer. When a potential client visiting Visalaw.com requests a consultation, he or she is offered registration on Visajobs.com. Visajobs.com links immigrants seeking jobs in the United States to sponsoring employers. The cost to register at Visajobs .com is usually $99, but Visalaw.com visitors get the registration for free. Law firm sites can also offer free educational information, includ-ing links to useful sites. Fisher & Phillips has a Legal Links component that directs visitors to useful research sites. Aside from general sites (e.g., search engines) and legal sites (e.g., courts), Fisher & Phillips links to sites that relate specifically to their practice area, labor law (e.g., the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

If a firm offers seminars to its clients or makes a presentation at a seminar or conference, an Events or Seminars component is in order. Lists of future and past presentations by topic and attorney name showcase the expertise of the firm and its attorneys.

In addition, it may be a relatively simple matter to add a Seminar component by compiling data from seminar brochures that are already written. No single presentation style or component will magically make a law firm’s Web site successful. While it takes some time and money to develop the initial site, periodically adding new components can keep the site fresh and useful to clients and does not require excessive time or money. In any case, each firm needs to decide who its audience is and then create a site that will meet the needs of that audience.

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