Planning a Successful Law Firm Website

Recent surveys indicate that over 65% of large firms, 50% of medium firms and 25% of small firms have a website presence on the World Wide Web. These firms achieve several objectives with their websites, including marketing, recruiting and public-service goals. Visitors to the sites may include clients, prospects, recruits, vendors, and media, as well as members of the legal community and the general public. This article reviews several matters law firms should consider both prior to and after creating a website. References are provided to a number of books , articles , and Internet resources available to aid law firms in building a home on the Web.

Selecting Content
A website usually consists of one or more "pages" accessed through to the Internet. The site is normally accessed through a "home" page which serves as a combination title page, business card and site index. Home page design, content and ease of use will likely affect the number and frequency of visitors to the site. The most popular law firm websites usually contain pages with law firm contact information (address, phone, fax, and e-mail), biographical data for each firm member, profiles of the firm's practice areas, copies of firm newsletters, and articles written by firm members, as well as recruiting information for lawyers, paralegals, and secretaries interested in careers with the firm. Information posted at firm sites may also include such things as seminar announcements, press releases and descriptions of firm member pro bono activities.

Appointing a Webmaster
Usually one individual, often referred to as the webmaster, or, perhaps, a committee will have the responsibility for website design, maintenance, content, writing assignments, editing submissions and responding to e-mail sent by visitors to the site. Editorial considerations should include review of relevant rules of professional ethics to assure website compliance.

Budgeting for Your Site
Firms opting to acquire and maintain a website will incur design, web hosting and maintenance costs. Many firms retain a website designer because they lack the technical expertise to design their own website. Design costs are a one-time fees charged by a website designer to create web page graphics and site formats. One commentator has recommended budgeting between $750 and $3,000 for a small firm site, $1,500 to $5,000 for a mid-sized firm and $3,000 to $10,000 for a large firm. Design costs can be significantly reduced by using pre-designed law firm websites available from several vendors to the legal industry.

Choosing a Web Host
A web "host" is a computer connected to the Internet where the website resides. The web host computer also contains the programs necessary to connect the website to the Internet and permit website communication. Web hosting on in-house computers may be very expensive and requires a high level of technical expertise usually found only in the largest law firms. Therefore, most firms outsource website hosting to a commercial provider. The most important criteria for selecting a website host are cost, reliability and the speed at which the firm's website can be accessed by visitors. A firm can switch to a new service provider if its website host does not provide a satisfactory level of service for a reasonable fee. Although free hosting is available from some legal vendors and Internet service providers, these alternative do not allow for customized domain names (e.g. www.yourlawfirmname.com) and limit website customization opportunities. The cost of a commercially hosted website varies depending on the size of the website, the number of times it is visited and ancillary services such as e-mail boxes. A typical commercial "hosting" package providing 20MB storage (about 20,000 text pages) and 10 e-mail boxes can range from $20 to $250 a month. Firms can comparison shop by reviewing directories of website hosting companies and obtaining references from other law firms.

Maintaining the Site
Websites are best maintained by frequent updating and adding of information. Updates include revisions to lawyer and staff biographies, as well as the addition of new articles, or firm newsletters. The cost of maintenance can be minimized by training members of the firm's support staff to update the website. Although the cost of fee-based website maintenance varies widely, the cost to maintain an informative and professional website typically ranges between $50 and $500 per month.

Selecting a Domain Name...www.mylawfirm.com
Selection of a domain name for a firm website is somewhat like choosing the name for a firm newsletter. However, unlike the name of a firm newsletter, a domain name must be registered. Domain names consist of words or an acronym plus an abbreviation chosen from the convention adopted by the Internet Network Information Center. Prompt registration of the desired domain name is important since the number of available, desirable names is dwindling as more firms establish websites. Many law firms have selected domain names consisting of all or part of the firm's name, like http://www.hunterlaw.com, the domain name of Hunter, Blazier, O'Dowd & Moreno of Lake Charles. Some firms use a domain name derived from the firm name or initials, e.g. http://www.spsr-law.com, the domain name for Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn, L.L.P. of New Orleans. Other firms have chosen domain names that project images of their specialized practice areas, e.g http://www.visalaw.com, the domain name used by Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine of Nashville, an immigration law firm that pioneered the use of law firm websites in 1995.

Publicizing Your Site
Law firms employ a number of techniques to make clients, prospects and recruits aware of their website. Many firms mail an announcement to clients and issue a press release to announce their website. Most firms also publicize their websites by including the domain name in directory listings, on firm stationary and business cards and e-mail signature lines. Firms should also not overlook the importance of listing their website with Internet search engines and the many legal websites that have been created on the World Wide Web.

Ethical Considerations
Ethical considerations play an important role in planning for firm websites. Ethical rules govern the content and manner of publicizing firm websites. To avoid potential ethical violations, the webmaster or design committee should review the rules of professional responsibility for each state in which the firm practices before, during and after implementing plans for creating, as well as maintaining and promoting the website.

Conclusion
Law firms routinely use the Internet websites for client development and retention, as well as recruiting lawyers and support staff. The rapid pace of improvements in technology coupled with the steady decrease in the cost of computers has resulted in affordable websites for the smallest of law firms. A successful law firm website can be created using the books, articles and Internet resources mentioned in this article or by outsourcing. A prudent investment in a quality firm website will be justified by the goodwill and potential business that can be generated from the firm's presence on the Internet.


Reprinted From: Louisiana Bar Journal, vol. 47, no.2 Copyright, 1999, Published by the Lousiana State Bar Association, 601 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, La. 70130.
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