Private Practice & the Role of a Professional Website
Trial Lawyers Association of BC | The Verdict | Issue 156
In the world of private practice, a professional website remains the cornerstone of a strong online presence. Searching online is the first thing that most people do when they have a legal question or need a lawyer. Even people who already have a lawyer may look online to save time or avoid contacting their lawyer for fear that they might receive a bill in the mail. Because you can’t predict who is searching online and if that person may become a future client, it’s important that lawyers maintain polished websites with engaging content.
YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE
What do people find when they search for you online? Do they find you in a legal directory? Do they find that you have written articles or blog posts? Do they find that you have social media accounts? Do they find your profile on your website or your firm’s website? If you’re a lawyer in private practice, you can ideally be found online by some or all of these means. The best case scenario is that your website or your firm’s website is the first search result that shows up when someone searches for you or for a lawyer who does what you do giving you a competitive edge in converting window-shoppers to clients.
Your website is your online platform to communicate who you are, what you do, and how you do it. The text and photos on your website will be used by people to connect with you and differentiate you from other lawyers. In most markets, consumers of legal services have many lawyers to choose from. Competition is at an all-time high with new firms opening and new calls looking for their place in the industry. By seeing pictures and reading about you, people may decide to stay with you, switch to you, or use you over another lawyer who they may be considering. Even if you’re in a market where there are fewer lawyers to choose from, your website is a powerful tool in establishing your connection to the region.
CALL TO ACTION AND MESSAGE
A call to action is a message that you convey to someone to encourage them to act in a particular way: read your website, contact you, hire you, etc. Having a strong call to action on the first page of your website (your homepage) is a powerful way to direct visitors and encourage them to explore your website. A particularly effective method of conveying a call to action that has become popular in recent years is to present a homepage containing a simple, centred message on a large area of background or whitespace. The size and central positioning of the message captures attention and establishes the tone of the website. Because visitors read only a fraction of the words that appear on a website, a website should not be overloaded with too much text and too many images. A lawyer’s website should be concise and contain carefully drafted text to convey the central message about who the lawyer is, what the lawyer does, and what makes that lawyer great.
DESIGN AND PURPOSE
In terms of design, websites should be attractive, informative and easy to use. Keep it simple. The primary purpose of a website for a lawyer is to provide contact and practice information. People generally want to know where you are, what you do, and how to contact you. I recommend that basic contact information appear at the bottom of every page in a website so that it is always easy to find. Some lawyers also post content about their philosophy on the law and legal practice, the process they follow with their clients, resources that they recommend to their clients, answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs), testimonials that they may have received from their clients and other unique content. The goal of this and all content is to encourage people to work with you. When it comes to your content, you have to dress to impress. Prospective clients may choose to hire you and current clients may choose to stay with you based on what they read on your website. Not all lawyers, and not all websites, are created equal. If you want your website to stand out, consider adding more focused content.
INTERESTING PROFILE INFORMATION
Some lawyers find that adding interesting information about themselves in their profile helps them connect with clients and provides insight into whether people are actually reading their online profile. Clients often ask me about my participation in local community theatre. At the end of the discussion I always ask how the person learned about my acting. I’m always happy when they report that they read about it on my profile. In addition to having something to chat about with my clients, I gain the valuable insight of knowing that my website is engaging people.
TEXT AND IMAGES
When it comes to words, website content should be clearly written and typo-free. Lawyers should present their message in common language without using legal jargon. People expect lawyers to be detail-focused. Lawyers should use simple, easy-to-read language and not allow typos on their website that may tarnish their professional image. Before content is added to a website, proof-readers should manually read the text and then run it through spell-check software. In addition to text, images should appear on webpages to enhance design appeal and convey information that can’t be conveyed in words. Some people may choose a lawyer based on the feeling that they get from how the lawyer looks. A picture is worth a thousand words. A gentleman once called me and told me that his lawyer retired and that he wanted me to be his new lawyer because he saw a picture and liked the look of me. I told him that I didn’t agree with his criteria but that I would nonetheless be happy to represent him. The reality is that some people choose lawyers based on how they look.
RESPONSIVE AND MOBILE-FRIENDLY
With the increased use of tablets and mobile devices in recent years, websites need to be responsive, meaning, they must render equally well on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile devices and smartphones. Because of differences in screen sizes and physical hardware, your website shouldn’t be identical on all devices but no matter what device a visitor uses your website should be consistently attractive and navigable. It should be effortless for visitors to access, search, and find what they’re looking for all at the scroll of a mouse or touch of a finger. Webpages shouldn’t be designed for particular screen sizes and shouldn’t include cumbersome features such as flash animation or complex navigation. Single-level dropdown menus may be useful but multi-level sub-menus within dropdown menus should be avoided because they are usually difficult and frustrating to use. Websites also need to be mobile-friendly. Mobile-friendly websites contain specific features making it easier for users to interact with the website on mobile devices and smartphones. Selectable phone numbers on your mobile site allow users to call you from your website without having to take the extra step of writing down your phone number or remembering it and then re-entering it into their phone. Access to GPS software on smartphones allows users to click maps on your website and receive driving or walking directions. To see if your website is responsive and mobile-friendly, visit it from a variety of makes and models of computers and devices (mobile and non-mobile). If your website isn’t responsive and mobile-friendly, you may be missing a large part of the market. Statistics suggest that soon more people will access the internet from mobile devices and smartphones than from non-mobile devices. Further, some of the major internet search engines have hinted that they may begin indexing search results based on how mobile-friendly a website is; this means that in the future, if your website isn’t mobile-friendly, it may not appear in online search results. Most people simply search online for what they’re looking for and do not manually enter web addresses into web-browsers. Not appearing in online search results treads dangerously close to not appearing online at all.
In addition to the basic features that should appear on a lawyer’s website, enhanced features can be added to save time and make it easier for lawyers to work with existing and potential clients. Adding contact forms to webpages saves visitors from having to record your e-mail address and log into their e-mail to send you a message; visitors are instead encouraged to strike while the iron is hot and send you a message before leaving your website. Contact form messages are more useful than messages received from traditional e-mail because contact forms can require users to provide other information along with their message such as their name, phone number, e-mail address and the practice area they are inquiring about. Contact form messages present more opportunities for tracking, organizing, and routing than messages sent from traditional e-mail. For example, messages received regarding real estate can be made to have the phrase ‘real estate’ appear in the subject line and then be routed directly to your conveyancing department or a lawyer who specializes in real estate at your firm. In addition to contact forms, websites can include other advanced features such as online booking (allowing pre-approved clients to book meetings with you that fit your schedule), online account payments (allowing clients to pay their accounts online reducing errors and saving time for your staff and accountant) and secure file transfers (allowing clients to send you documents and receive documents from you in a way that is more secure than using traditional e-mail). The promise of better systems and time-savings may make advanced features worth the effort. With many advanced features, your web-developer would need to coordinate with your I.T. provider to ensure that the system is working on both ends (on your website and in your office). With the recent rise in cybersecurity issues, efforts to implement advanced features must be done in observance of high-level security measures.
Just as how a website appears is important, where a website appears is also important. Lawyers should consider registering multiple domains in order to enhance their online search ranking and attract more clients by making it easier to find their website. Firms located in British Columbia should register multiple .com, .ca and .law domains for their firm name, the acronym of their firm name and any common misspellings of the firm name. Individual lawyers, even those who work with a firm, may also want to register domains for their own names in order to build their own profile and prevent cybersquatting, i.e., the practice of people registering internet domains with the sole intention of reselling them at an inflated price. In addition to having my profile on my firm website, I have also registered the .com for my name and hosted a website there. While some domain names can be expensive, most domain names can be acquired for a relatively low price.
Most web-designers do not have legal experience or backgrounds working with lawyers. If possible, lawyers should hire web-designers with legal backgrounds or experience developing websites for lawyers and law firms because, in addition to knowing the basics of effective web-design, they will understand how to present legal content, how to remove or re-word legal jargon where necessary and how to present information that will encourage clients and potential clients to follow through with the lawyer’s call to action. Many lawyers treat their website as an afterthought and go years running it without questioning how much they’re paying and what kind of product they’re getting. Most lawyers would benefit from receiving a quote from another web-developer to ensure that they’re paying fairly for their website. Lawyers could save money and have higher-quality work by hiring web-developers who specialize in working with lawyers and law firms. If a lawyer decides that they want to switch to a new web-developer, the process is relatively simple and requires getting any necessary passwords from the outgoing web-developer.
In recent years social media has become increasingly useful for lawyers who want to establish themselves online. One of the major benefits of social media for lawyers is that it is a do-it-yourself platform that doesn’t require any particular web-development training. While social media has its place in a lawyer’s online arsenal, lawyers can’t rely on using social media alone for their online presence because it doesn’t provide enough space for lawyers to provide information about themselves and their message. Also, although many younger people (a relatively small section of the legal market) use social media, many older people (a relatively large section of the legal market) do not. Although social media provides lawyers with cheap and simple ways to appear online, people who search online for lawyers still expect to find a professional website.
LAWYERS WITH POOR OR NO WEBSITES
Lawyers who have websites that are outdated, unattractive, uninformative, cumbersome, non-responsive, mobile-unfriendly and otherwise defective (contain typos, broken hyperlinks and malfunctioning coding), should contact their web-developer for a tune-up or seek a new web-developer to produce a new design and review their content. A lawyer misses an opportunity every time someone visits their website and leaves because they don’t like what they see, can’t find what they’re looking for or aren’t able to use the site. Similarly, lawyers who have no website miss the opportunity to connect altogether and should at least have a homepage which provides their basic information: name, address, phone number and practice areas. People may assume that a lawyer is no longer practicing if online information about them is sparse or non-existent.
Many people search for lawyers online: people who don’t have a lawyer, people who already have a lawyer but are open to switching, people who are following up on a referral, people who are kicking tires and people who are looking for free legal advice. No matter who is searching, lawyers in private practice should care about people finding them online and being happy with what they find. Attracting new clients and retaining existing clients will always be central to the business of private practice. People routinely contact and ultimately hire lawyers based solely on the strength of their website. The promise of people searching for legal services online presents a significant opportunity for lawyers to retain existing clients and win new ones; a professional website is a critical element to converting those opportunities into business. Professional websites which contain strong content and observe good design principles maintain and propel the reputations of lawyers by announcing that they are on their game and open for business. In the online world where a website is like a salesperson who never sleeps, ensure that your salesperson isn’t asleep on the job and is hard at work for you.
Sean Dillman is a lawyer and web-developer based in Victoria, BC. His legal practice consists mostly of civil litigation, residential real estate conveyancing, estate administration, and wills and incapacity planning. As a web-developer, Sean works with lawyers to create or improve existing websites with a focus on conveying the specific strengths of the lawyer or firm. In all aspects of his work, Sean aims to provide principled service based on transparency and accountability. In his personal life, Sean enjoys going to the gym, participating in local community theatre and learning to speak Croatian from his girlfriend’s parents. More on Sean can be found at: www.seandillman.com & www.firmdesignworks.com
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