Marketing Your Firm On The Net

The Internet opens up entirely new ways for law firms to communicate.

By Erik J. Heels and Richard P. Klau

First published 8/1/2000; The New York Law Journal newspaper; publisher: New York Law Publishing Company

Several years ago, a Dilbert cartoon dealt with a transfer Dilbert received: he was being moved from engineering to marketing. Since he and his colleagues knew as much about marketing as they knew about, well, competent management, he had no idea what to expect. The final frame of the comic has Dilbert walking into the marketing department, where an enormous banner proclaims: “Marketing Department: Two Drink Minimum.”

Many professionals view marketing the same way men view haircuts: it’s necessary, but don’t waste too much time or money on it. Dilbert’s complete lack of understanding about marketing’s role in his company was equaled only by his complete lack of surprise at the two drink minimum: and in that series of frames, many of the misconceptions about marketing are summed up.

Indeed, the emergence of the Internet as a mass communications medium has made marketing eminently more available to lawyers, regardless of the size of the firm. Yet much of what’s being done with the Internet – at least in the way of marketing – proves that there are still many law firms who have as much to learn about marketing as Dilbert does.

Why should your firm be “on the Internet”? We’ve been asked this question repeatedly over the past several years, and firms are likely to continue to ask for years to come. Much of the uncertainty concerning this issue revolves around a lack of fundamental understanding of the benefits of being online. Not surprisingly, the uncertainty also stems from misunderstandings about the role of marketing in a law firm.

On the Internet?

A firm can be said to be on the Internet when they have a web site. What’s a web site? Nothing more than a collection of documents that a user can view by typing in a unique address. The “address” (commonly called a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL) starts with http://, and is followed by something like www.smithjones.com, where “smithjones” is the law firm’s “domain name.”

Your firm’s first decision in getting on the Internet will be to choose a domain name. Much like choosing the name of a new company, you want to choose something memorable, something that is not easily confused, and something that connects with your firm. While many law firms have adopted the convention of using the named partners initials and adding the word “law”, (example: Smith, Jones and Johnson would be sjjlaw.com), this is generally a bad idea. Not only is it difficult to remember (firms with more than three or four named partners are often referred to just by the first two names… which means few people will know all seven initials), but it is easily confused with other similar firms. For example, two Florida firms have virtually identical domain names: Fowler, White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal and Banker is at fowlerwhite.com, while Fowler, White, Burnett, Hurley, Banick & Strickroot is at fowler-white.com. What are the odds that some clients have mistakenly ended up at the other firm’s web site without realizing it?

One trend we’ve seen among law firms (especially small to mid-sized firms) is that firms often focus on the type of practice they specialize in, rather than on the name of the firm. In many cases, this is an excellent way to broaden your firm’s scope. If you practice corporate environmental defense, isn’t “superfundlawyers.com” much more memorable than “bsjlslaw.com”? In fact, one Denver firm registered the domain name “afewgoodlawyers.com”. Want to bet that their firm culture is fairly laid back, and that it’s a characteristic they use to attract particular clients? More on this in a minute.

So you’ve chosen your domain name, and now you need to decide what people will see when they type “www.nylawyers.com”. Many firms in their first foray on the Web spend months (really) trying to decide what to put on their site. Should the attorney biographies have color photos or black and white? Should the firm history include pictures of the original offices? What about the logo? How big should the ampersand be?

This is not exaggeration. And it’s a textbook example of how not to develop an effective web site.

The Medium Is Not The Message

Like any good marketing strategy, you should first decide what your message is. Are you an old-fashioned firm with decades of history? Or a younger firm that conveys a more casual approach (recall the Denver firm and “afewgoodlawyers.com”)? Once you’ve decided on your message, justify every single decision you make by asking whether or not it fits within the message.

With your message in mind, try to picture your target audience: who do you envision visiting your site? Existing clients, looking for information about issues of interest to them? Or prospective clients, deciding whether or not you have the expertise to represent them? Law students looking for a job? Once you’ve identified your target audience (and there can be more than one group), concentrate on what they want to hear, not on what you want to tell them. Instead of publishing thirteen-paragraph biographies of each attorney including where they went to high school, what hobbies they enjoy, and how many children they have, think about your audience: if a prospective client, they will likely want to know whether your attorneys represent other clients like them.

Having identified your message and your intended audience, the next step is to determine your goal: what do you want to happen? Are you looking to generate new business? Or do you want to cross-sell your services among your existing clientele? Perhaps you want tech-savvy law students to apply to your firm. Whatever the case, tailor the site to what will persuade your visitors to make the next step. (Existing client: continue to be satisfied with your work. Prospective client: call. Law student: apply for a job.)

Realistic Objectives

Some perspective is in order here. Simply creating a web site will not generate a 30% increase in billable hours for the upcoming year, won’t uncover the diamond-in-the-rough law student who will be a star rainmaker for your firm, won’t double the business among your existing clients. So why bother? Back to Dilbert for a minute: one of the most commonly held frustrations that non-marketing people have with marketers is the lack of quantifiable results. If you advertise in a magazine, how do you know how much new business it generated? If you sponsor a radio program, what good does it do you? Accustomed to the black-and-white world of litigation, attorneys often mistake the lack of extremes in marketing as evidence of its futility.

A good marketing plan is like a good appellate brief: any one argument in a brief may not be a winner. But taken together, the whole of the brief is convincing enough to sway the appeals court to rule in your favor. So it is with marketing: the web site may not be the one thing that causes the intended result. But it will be one “touch” among many – and the expectation is that the more times your audience is “touched”, the more likely it is that they will do what you want.

So where does a web site fit in? A web site should be a component of any firm’s marketing strategy. While it need not be tremendously costly, keep in mind that your firm’s web site will be viewed by more people than any other document that your firm produces. There are more than 80 million people on the Internet today, half of whom are located in the United States. Gone are the days that the Internet could be called an academic network, or a business network: America Online is the largest service provider in the world with more than 14 million users, the vast majority of whom are U.S. families. So whether you practice white collar defense or personal injury law, chances are that some number of your prospective clients are online.

When presented with those facts, several lawyers have responded by arguing that while these people may be online, they probably aren’t looking for lawyers. While that may have been true three years ago, it’s no longer the case. One need look no further than the recent debut of “lawyers.com” – a version of Martindale-Hubbell’s 900,000 attorney directory that is geared specifically towards consumers (as opposed to Martindale’s traditional focus, which is other professionals).

And firms looking for concrete examples of rainmaking online need go no further than Arent Fox’s web site (at arentfox.com) which generated more than $500,000 for the firm in 1997. While firms should probably not assume that their first year will produce that much business (Arent Fox’s site has been online since 1994), firms like Arent Fox are definitely not alone.

Will your site be a failure if it doesn’t generate new business? Absolutely not. Just like with advertising, the point of a web site is not to guarantee new business, but to increase the likelihood that business will come your way. Your prospects may look to your site to support a buying decision, or they may find you on the web, then make phone calls to colleagues to check your reputation… however they convince themselves to hire you, your web site can play a part.

Take a hypothetical: a growing company in England is looking to expand. They produce an engineered wool that their research tells them will sell well in Rochester. Your firm (a small, ten attorney firm) specializes in international trade, as you represent both local Rochester companies who export to other countries as well as other international companies who export to Rochester. This familiarity with import and export laws makes your firm an ideal match for this client. As the client’s operations grow, they could become one of your larger clients over the next five years. In the days prior to the web, the likelihood that the client would find your firm was low. Today, a well-crafted web site that demonstrates (a) your legal expertise, (b) your geographic location, and (c) your past experience with similar clients, will almost guarantee that the client will at least be aware of you. Is it likely that they’ll use the web to look for representation? The answer has to be yes: the low cost of access, coupled with the fact that the information is available any time of day, make it an increasingly popular option for information gathering.

Marketing your firm in this way means that your firm’s geographic reach will increase. Will you be deluged with phone calls requesting your help? Unlikely. But could you get a handful of calls in the first year, one or two of which might turn into a client? Possibly. Given the relatively low cost of developing a site (see below), it is hard to argue against creating a web site for your firm.

What Should Be On The Site

To suggest that there’s a magic formula for all law firm web sites would be to invite hundreds of look-alike sites. Once firms go through the process outlined above, they will undoubtedly come up with different answers. Some firms, in an effort to convey authority, will emphasize the political connections, track record, and recognition of the partners. Other firms, eager to humanize their attorneys, may provide individual attorney bios that talk about families, hobbies, and volunteer activities. Marketing is all about differentiation: because you control your site at all times, the opportunity to differentiate doesn’t get much better.

That said, are there some “musts” with a site? With the caveat that there will be exceptions to this list, the answer is a qualified yes. In most cases, visitors will want to be able to find out about individual attorneys. At the very least, take advantage of the fact that you can link directly to each attorney’s entry in Martindale-Hubbell. If you want to make the bios more marketing-oriented, develop custom bios that supplement their Martindale-Hubbell bios.

Keeping in mind your message and audience, consider what kind of publications your firm produces. Do you publish a newsletter? Client bulletins? If so, put them on the site. Old publications may even be useful – especially if they demonstrate your expertise over a prolonged period of time.

It has become a cliché when talking about web sites, but it bears repeating: content is king. Who cares whether your graphics blink, or something funky happens when a user moves their mouse over a picture? Any client who is going to make a buying decision based on the color of your graphics will likely not be a client worth keeping.

Cost

So you’re thinking about developing a site. What should it cost? This is akin to asking how much should a house cost: there’s a doublewide trailer, and there’s Bill Gates’s house. Technically speaking, both are houses. One has four zeroes. The other has seven. Big difference.

That notwithstanding, there are some benchmarks you can use. At the very least, you will need to have a graphic artist, a programmer, and an Internet Service Provider (ISP). (This assumes you do not have these resources in-house. See below.) Graphic artists are often freelancers, and their cost will vary depending on region. Expect to pay them between $50 and $150 per hour, and they can take between 10 and 30 hours to develop the graphics for your site. (Beware: developing the graphics can often be the biggest expense, generally because the firm can’t decide what they like. Be disciplined, give the designer some latitude, and go with “good enough.”) Estimate $500-2000 for graphics design.

Don’t overcommit to a site – by which we mean, don’t ask a programmer to incorporate all the latest bells and whistles with your site. Start out with a straightforward, effective site that focuses on content. As you learn more about how people use your site, you may see other ideas for how to improve your site. A programmer can help you add some interactivity to the site – forms to fill out for inquiries, or a search engine so users can browse your articles – and they may take a few hours to generate these features. Their rates can be higher than that of designers, but if you start small, you won’t be in over your head. You will also need someone to convert all of your content into HTML (the programming language for documents on the web) – so depending on the size of the site, this could take 30 or more hours for a consultant, much less for a company that specializes in this. Estimate between $1000 and $2000 for programming, but understand that more intricate work can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Finally, you’ll need somewhere to “host” your site. This simply means that you will want to pay a company to keep your web site on a computer connected to the Internet. Fortunately, costs have dropped dramatically in this area – and reliable, high speed web hosting can be had for as little as $25/month.

There are companies who will help you avoid dealing with individual consultants, and can provide “package” services that will incorporate design, development and hosting. These are often a good solution, as you will get expert advice and assistance throughout the process. Whether you work with consultants or web site design companies, focus only on those who are familiar working with law firms: you have needs that are specific to the legal profession, and people who have worked with firms before will be more able to help you achieve your goals.

Who Should Do It

Should you rely on in-house resources? In general, the answer is no. A firm’s IS staff should exist to support the lawyers in the firm – and they are generally not equipped to provide the same services as a full-time Internet Service Provider. Only you know whether working with someone in-house is the right answer. If you do choose to coordinate the project in-house, make sure that you work well with them, that they understand the goals for the site (i.e., is this a marketing site? If so, the IS people should not have final say in what goes on the site, except as it concerns technical considerations), and that they are responsive to your needs. If you can’t answer these issues positively, you may be better served looking outside the firm.

Maintenance

You’ve hired the consultants, developed a site you like, found a place to host it, and people have been visiting the site for a few months. You’re done, right? Wrong. From this point forward, you must commit to keeping the site current. Whether that means adding the new newsletters, or removing the biography of an attorney who left, or updating the “what’s new” page. Remember: the purpose (as we’ve defined it) for this site is to effectively market your firm. Every page on the web site contributes to the overall image of your firm (referred to as “packaging” – one of the Four P’s in what the marketing texts refer to as the “marketing mix”). Content that is a year old shows a lack of commitment to the project… hardly the image you are seeking to portray.

Promotion

Another of the Four P’s – promotion. If you are having success with your web site, make sure to promote the success to the rest of the firm. If the attorneys learn that new business is being generated from the web site, they’ll come to value the site as much as you do. If others recognize your site as a particularly good example of how to promote a firm, ensure that the rest of the firm is aware of the accolades. You are your own best advocate.

Without this attention to promotion, others in your firm are unlikely to realize the benefits of having the site in the first place. And when it comes time to add new content to the site, or to change the focus of the site, you will encounter resistance if you don’t have the internal support to see the project through.

Conclusion

More people will see your firm’s Web site than will ever see your brochure, letterhead, or business cards. You may not be interested in 90% the people who drop by – they may be casual “surfers” who followed a link to your firm out of curiosity, or they may be the competition trying to find out what other firms have done online. Whatever the case, it’s the remaining 10% that you’re concerned about. What will it take to make them contact you? How can you convince them that you can do the job?

The Internet opens up entirely new ways for you to communicate with your audience. Firms that recognize this, and that leverage their online presence, will be well-positioned to compete in the next millennium.

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