Hanging Out Your Shingle on the World Wide Web: Promoting Your Practice in a Digital Era – Article

[NOTE: This is another in the series of repostings of my previously-published articles. This article is another favorite ofmine. Earlier versions of this article appeared in the September 2000 issue of the Missouri Bar Bulletin and the Spring 1997 issue of the St. Louis Bar Journal. Please note that parts of this article are dated, but I’ve not updated it to give you a sense of history. This was my first significant to capture what I thought I had learned about the use of web pages by lawyers. It’s instructive to see how many of the links are dead in even an article like this one with a short list of footnotes. In early 1997, there were only a few articles like this one available and it seems like all of the authors sought the other others out for guidance. In a real sense, this article led to my chance to meet Jerry Lawson and built the foundation for the Internet Roundtable columns that Jerry Lawson, Brenda Howard and I (along with the occasional guest author) wrote on LLRX.com that I think constitute some of the best analysis and advice about lawyers using websites that you can find. It’s also interesting how blogs, by their nature, create the content-based approaches I advocated in this article.]
Hanging Out Your Shingle on the World Wide Web: Promoting Your Practice in a Digital Era
While many attorneys have focused on the use of the Internet for legal research, others have learned that the most innovative uses of the Internet by lawyers can be found in the area of marketing. In January 1995, no more than twenty law firms had web pages.[1] In the past few years, however, thousands of law firms and lawyers have created web pages and many more firms will debut web pages this year. If you have not thought seriously about implementing a web page for yourself or your firm, now is the time to consider your options.
Individual attorneys and law firms have been attracted by the demographics of the hundreds of millions of users of the World Wide Web – generally more educated and more affluent than the population at large. Attorneys have seen their clients, potential clients and competitors establish presences on the World Wide Web. Internet-savvy firms have learned that web pages can be excellent ways to deliver and enhance client services and to develop cross-selling opportunities with existing clients. A web page can also provide a cost-effective way to supplement or enhance other marketing efforts.[2]
Peter Martin has said that “enterprises moving serious commercial activities onto the Internet undoubtedly will want legal counsel and representation from lawyers who understand the Internet and show that they can work comfortably in that environment. They will be looking for law firms with branches already established in this new enterprise zone.”[3] A web page offers a lawyer or law firm a chance to create a presence in and gain access to this new enterprise zone.
This article will focus on the two types of World Wide Web pages commonly used by lawyers — the law firm web page and what I call the specialty page, offer some practical tips on getting started and publicizing your web page, and discuss realistic expectations of results.
The Law Firm Web Page.
There are two general types of law firm web pages: the “static” web page, which is basically an electronic business card or brochure, and the “dynamic” web page, which adds a number of enhancements and interactive features.
A static web page generally is a simple conversion of an existing marketing brochure into electronic form. Such a page might contain biographical information about attorneys, information about firm practice areas, contact information and other marketing materials. In some cases, a static page is no more than an electronic business card or billboard. Other static pages are electronic copies of existing marketing brochures or recyclings of existing marketing materials. The major drawback to static pages is that there is no reason to visit them more than once.
A dynamic web page includes much of the same material found in a static page, but adds a number of important enhancements, such as articles and memos written by firm members, e-mail newsletters, lists of links to other web pages and other information helpful to clients and non-clients alike. Each of these enhancements is designed to prompt some form of interactivity or to encourage a visitor to return to the page on a regular basis. New types of features incorporate the lessons of "e-commerce" learned from Internet companies like Amazon.com and might include personalization, private areas and discussion areas.
You will want to have a dynamic web page because the main goal with a web page is to create a high volume of traffic and, especially, return traffic from visitors of the type that you want to attract. Return traffic creates potential clients, potential referrals and enhances your reputation or that of your firm.
You can give people a reason to return to your page by providing interesting and changing content which highlights the specific aspects of your firm which you wish to market. One of the key maxims on the Web is that “content is king.” Your page should offer content that is valuable to visitors of your page and which gives them value on each visit to the page. Your web site should also provide easy and speedy navigation through all of the pages comprising the site so that visitors can easily find content which would be useful to them and e-mail contact to request more information or follow-up with you.
Law firms that have generated clients from their web pages point to the use of e-mail newsletters and mailing lists as the key to a high number of return visits and the production of business directly attributable to the web page.[4] E-mail newsletters can help enhance your reputation for expertise in a given area or provide you with a ready means of contacts with people who are already interested in your firm, whether they are clients or not. As a result, you can use the e-mail newsletter for targeted marketing efforts. An e-mail newsletter also provides a built-in feedback mechanism to help you measure the impact and effectiveness of your web page.
Since a primary purpose of a law firm web page is to market your firm, you will want to know how well your efforts are working. Web counters are available which will count the number of visitors you have had to your page, but these simple counters do not inform you whether you had one-time visitors or prospective clients. More sophisticated tools are becoming available and should be used as a matter of course, but simple features like e-mail newsletters and guest books will help you count the number of quality visits to your page. A subscriber to your e-mail newsletter shows much more interest in your firm than a casual browser. These simple techniques can help you gain useful marketing data and quantify the benefits of the web page.
There are many innovative and useful law firm web pages. Visiting even a few law firm web pages will give you an idea of some of the potential benefits of a web page for your firm. A great listing of reviews and links to many law firm web pages can be found at http://www.redstreet.com.
[NOTE: Website no longer in existence.]
The Specialty Page.
The second type of web page being used by lawyers is the “specialty” web page. A specialty web page is a page that is devoted to one specialty topic; for example, estate planning. A specialty page can be a stand-alone page done by an individual attorney or it can be a sub-page on a law firm’s overall web site.
Specialty pages tend to be built around a set of articles written by an attorney or a set of links to other web pages dealing with the same specialty topic. Specialty pages generally grow out of an attorney’s personal interest or as an attempt to fill a perceived need for such a page.
I created my first web site because I simply wanted to have a handy collection of web pages dealing with estate planning and tax information on the Internet. I decided that the information would be useful to a wider audience and my page then grew and evolved to cover a large number of related legal areas. Similarly, a lawyer who has written a few articles might start a specialty page containing only those articles. Over time, such a page might grow to include related links, other articles, practice pointers and recent decisions. A good specialty page can be an excellent starting point to get a quick overview of a specialty area and can also be helpful to those looking for technical and in-depth treatments of specialty subjects. Often such a page can be an excellent point of entry to a specific legal topic.
Specialty pages are typically designed to help others, provide educational materials, publish or publicize written material, or enhance an attorney’s reputation as an expert in a specialty area. They are not usually designed with the primary intent to produce clients directly.[6] By developing a reputation on the Web, however, an attorney might expect to get referrals or new clients as an indirect benefit, in much the same way as would an attorney who lectures at seminars.
Not every area of the law currently has a web page devoted to it. With a little effort and persistence you can have a nationally-known specialty page. My estate planning page, for example, was personally rewarding and seems to have been helpful to a good number of people all around the world. Every attorney has a unique perspective and expertise and is capable of producing a creative and interesting web page.
Getting Started With Your Web Page.
The very best way to get started is to spend some time on the Web and look at as many law firm and law-related web pages as you can. There are a number of web pages that will direct you to some of the best legal and law firm web pages.[7] Again, I especially recommend the Redstreet Consulting list (http://www.redstreet.com [NOTE: Website no longer in existence.]). You will know after you look at a number of pages if having your own web page is going to appeal to you. In addition, you will gain a good understanding of what seems to work for other firms and what features might work well on your page.
You will want to take the time to get a strong understanding of what your goals are with your page and how you will determine whether those goals are being met. Sketch out your ideas for the page, drawing the graphics, layout and navigation scheme. You should think at all times like someone who will be using the page. Will the page be easy to navigate? Will the most valuable information be easy to find? Will your features enhance the visitor’s experience or simply lead to long, frustrating delays? Will it be easy to contact you from the page? Fortunately, there are many resources on the World Wide Web about effective web page design to assist you in this process.[8]
Before you implement your page, you will need to resolve two important issues. The first question is should you create the page yourself or should you bring in an expert? There are pluses and minuses of each approach. The programming language for creating web pages, “HTML” (HyperText Markup Language), is not difficult to learn. You can buy a book on HTML[9] and put together a solid web page after a couple of weekends of reading and work. Web page creation programs, like Microsoft’s FrontPage, make the process even easier because they eliminate the need to learn the underlying HTML code before you create your page.
On the other hand, a web page consultant who comes highly recommended might produce a great web page with graphic design and features that you could not produce or think of on your own. A professional designer might also help you avoid problems that you would only discover through experience. A professional will charge a fee; if you do it yourself, the cost is your time or the time of someone on your staff. Lately, the balance has probably shifted over to professional design of most law firm sites.
The second and more important question, however, is who will keep the page updated? In order to get return traffic, you must have a page that regularly provides new or updated content. Even if someone else created your web page, you will need to decide if that person will update the page on an ongoing basis or whether it is more reasonable to update it yourself. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to update on a regular basis. If you do not, people simply will not return to your page. Nothing turns off a web page visitor more than finding that a page has not been updated for several months.
Five more tips on getting started:
1. Do not overwhelm yourself by trying to design a perfect, feature-laden web page which you never complete. Start with a solid effort and then build and improve as you see what does and does not work.
2. Commit to the web page. If you or your firm has tried other marketing techniques and they have been successful, your web page is more likely to be successful. If you have started newsletters or other marketing efforts which have been discontinued, then you will probably need to hire out the updating of your web page. Be honest with yourself.
3. Be guided at all times by two concerns: (i) your goals with respect to the page and (ii) the viewpoint of the potential user of the page.
4. Find a good, reliable host for your page. Web pages are not self-executing; after you design and code your page, you will need to put your page files on a computer that is attached to the Internet (a “server”). The complications of hosting your own page on your own server are outside the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that most web pages are hosted by a third-party provider.
5. Become familiar with the applicable ethical rules. The use of web pages raises important ethical considerations, but, as an example, the ethical guidance in Missouri has been favorable to web page development. You will need to know the applicable rules of your jurisdiction and monitor developments.[10]
Getting Publicity For Your Page.
The world’s greatest web page will do you no good if no one sees it. You will want to make sure that the people that you want to see the page can find it. Your guiding question should be: how do you want people to find your page? By concentrating on this question, you will be forced to consider what your target audience is, how that audience will use your page and in what ways you want your audience to find your page.
I have gradually come to the conclusion that planning for getting publicity for your page is more important than planning for the actual design of the page itself. I suggest taking plenty of time to draw up a written plan for getting publicity for your web page. Do not forget that publicizing your web page is an ongoing project.
Your web page is one part of your overall marketing effort. Once your web page is online, you should send out an announcement about your web page and mention the page in every marketing mailing. The address of your web page should be placed on business cards, stationary, brochures and your yellow pages ad. If you have a newsletter, you will want to run a feature article on the new web page, as well as create an e-mail version of that newsletter which can be subscribed to from your web page.
It is vital to let your existing clients know about the page. One of the best uses of a web page is to help existing clients find out about other services your firm can provide. Every marketing consultant will tell you that the best way to increase your business is to cross-sell your existing clients and provide other services to them that they are not now getting from you and may not even know that you can provide.
How does someone find your page if you do not tell them about it yourself? There is no single index to the World Wide Web. People using the World Wide Web find information by using what are known as “search engines.” Search engines are web pages which allow you to use key words to search a database consisting of indexed information from actual web pages and produce a list of links to web pages that best match your search request.[11] Each of these search engines allows you to submit your web page to be added to its index. You should definitely do that as a starting point to publicize your page. But they are only starting points.
You will also want to consider getting your web page listed on one of the Web’s directories of law-related web pages. Two examples are the large collections of legal web pages found at Findlaw[12] or CataLaw [13] You will probably want to add a link to your web page from your firm’s online Martindale-Hubbell listing.[14 ] If you have done your homework, you will probably have a list of law-related web pages on which you would like to have your web page listed. You simply need to contact those web pages and ask them if they will add a link to your page. A very important way to get publicity for specialty pages is to give and get these "reciprocal links."
If you want people to find your page by searching, for example, for “St. Louis law firms,” then you must learn enough about search engines to find out how you can guarantee that your web site will found by someone doing a search using those key words.[15] You should also submit your page to all of the online St. Louis business directories. If you want your page to be found because it contains specialty information, you must design a strategy so that people looking for that type of information will find a link to your page when they use the most likely key words on one of the major search engines. You must stay focused on how you want someone to find your page.
You will get the best results if you develop and execute a plan to gain publicity for your site and monitor your results. Be innovative, take advantage of free publicity and remember that getting publicity for your page is an ongoing process.
Realistic Expectations of Results.
It is probably best to look at a law firm web page, at least initially, as a supplement to existing marketing efforts and part of a total marketing package. Use of a web page can generate substantial savings in terms of reduced printing, publication and postage costs related to ongoing marketing efforts. For example, changes to your marketing brochure require a new printing and a new mailing. Substantial changes can be made to the web page simply by making changes to the underlying computer file and uploading it to your web page.
On the other hand, there are firms, especially in the areas of immigration, intellectual property and technology law, that have developed a significant client base through the use of the World Wide Web. Greg Siskind has said that as much as two-thirds of his immigration law practice arises out of his web page.[16] Lew Rose, an Internet pioneer with an advertising law web page, reported that he had $175,000 of business in 1996 alone that he can trace to his web page.[17] Computer giant Sun Microsystems hired a law firm on the basis of the firm’s web page.[18]
Most lawyers and law firms, however, have had difficulty quantifying the dollars-and-cents benefits of having a World Wide Web page. However, remember that for certain firms there may be disadvantages of not having a web page. There is an expectation that leading firms and firms with certain types of practices, especially high tech and intellectual property, will have web pages. Firms without web pages risk creating an impression that they are not current with the cutting edge in either technology or law and losing out in their efforts to recruit young attorneys..
Conclusion.
The use of the Internet is dramatically changing the ways in which all business is being conducted. It is impossible for the Internet not to have a similarly dramatic impact on the practice of law and, especially, on the business of the practice of law. The Internet is certainly a new enterprise zone and that fact must be addressed by you and your law firm. A few years ago, having a web page for your law firm would have been a novelty. It later became a trend. Now, it is a necessity.


End Notes
[1] See http://www.collegehill.com/ilp-news/hornsby1.html.
[2] See generally http://www.bamsl.org/inet/dkmark01.htm (which covers topics addressed in this article in more detail and provides links to helpful web pages).
[3] Martin, Prospecting on the Internet, ABA Journal, Sept. 1995, at 52, 53.
[4] See Greg Siskind’s article, “Building a Law Firm Using the Internet”, at http://www.internetlawyer.com/siskind.htm. Siskind has also co-written the widely-praised book, The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet. For more information about his book, see http://www.lawmarketing.com/~law/ or http://www.visalaw.com.
[5] See http://www.estateplanninglinks.com.
[6] See http://www.ca-probate.com/results.htm.
[7] E.g., http://www.legalonline.com/bestoweb.htm; http://www.bamsl.org/inet/sereng.htm.
[8] See, e.g., some of the resources I list on the http://www.denniskennedy.com site and Jerry Lawson’s excellent Netlawtools site at http://www.netlawtools.com. A good discussion of designing law firm pages can be found in Cohen, "What Makes Web Pages Work: The Dos and Don’ts of Cyberspace", 1 AmLaw Tech, Winter 1997, at 56.
[9] I recommend any of Laura Lemay’s excellent "Teach Yourself Web Publishing" books from Sams.net Publishing.
[10] For a general discussion of ethical issues, see Mary Toy’s excellent article in the Spring 1997 issue of the St. Louis Bar Journal. Informal Advisory Opinion 960151 from the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel is the key guidance in Missouri. For example, in Missouri you also need to be familiar with Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct 4.7.1 -4.7.4. There are two excellent web sites covering ethical issues: http://www.legalethics.com and http://www.computerbar.org/netethics/. A good summary of ethical issues can be found at http://www.collegehill.com/ilp-news/hornsby1.html. Other ethical materials can be found in my discussion at http://www.bamsl.org/inet/dkmark01.htm.
[11] See my list of search engines and related web sites at http://www.bamsl.org/inet/sereng.htm.
[12] See http://www.findlaw.com/.
[13] See http:///www.law.indiana.edu/law/v-lib/lawindex.html.
[14] See http://www.lawyers.com.
[15] See, e.g., http://www.searchenginewatch.com.
[16] See Greg Siskind’s article, “Building a Law Firm Using the Internet”, at http://www.internetlawyer.com/siskind.htm.
[17] Cohen, "What Makes Web Pages Work: The Dos and Don’ts of Cyberspace," 1 AmLaw Tech, Winter 1997, at 56.
[18] Id. at 57.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
This post brought to you by Dennis Kennedy’s legal technology consulting services, featuring website and blog consulting and technology committee coaching packages for law firms, corporate legal departments and other professional services providers.