Leaping into the Dark: Web 2.0 and Law Firm Web Sites

May 30, 2008

Uncertainty and muddled thinking often surround the application of new technology like too many lawyers around a case. A harsh analogy? Perhaps, but there is a grain of truth in it. Our research – led by our flagship Fast Fifty website benchmarking report – shows that even the most strategically-adept firms are taking something of a leap in the dark when they roll-out podcasts covering a stressed trainee’s life, or a blog from a corporate lawyer with John Grisham aspirations, or costly online legal services. According to law firms themselves, 80% admit to a lack of user-based testing.
Intendance’s Fast Fifty assessment of the 50 fastest-growing law firm websites includes a survey of key online decision-makers. Their comments on everything from partner buy-in to implementing Web 2.0 give insightful views on the challenges that marketing and IT staff face when developing their firms’ online capabilities. Yet when answering the statement ‘significant new website concepts are tested on clients before implementation’; as many as 52% disagreed, while 28% strongly disagreed. This suggests that little thought is given to whether clients actually want these website add-ons. Whether this is down to lack of time or insufficient budget is irrelevant, as testing should always be factored in at the planning stage, especially given the slightly conservative nature of the B2B market. Hence law firms only have themselves to blame if these new media platforms fail to inspire their users. 

The same survey contains the following statistic: 65% of respondents agree that incorporating Web 2.0 will be a key component of their online strategy within the next 1-2 years. This clearly shows that the majority of firms are warming to the potential benefits of Web 2.0, yet the overriding feeling is that many firms are unsure of which applications work best for which audiences.

Our research shows that specialist microsites like those for CSR and graduate recruitment have been blazing the new technology trail for firms wanting to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. Addleshaw Goddard is a good example of a firm that has put great effort into this area, with significant rewards. As well as winning several awards (including two from Intendance for best CSR and graduate microsites) the firm has seen a “25% increase in the number of applicants and attracted a better standard of graduate”, according to Brett Galloway, manager of AG’s graduate microsite.  

These dedicated microsites allow firms to impress the graduate fraternity with blogs, video clips and podcasts explaining how great trainee life is at the firm. This is a successful way of marketing the firm towards a specific audience without impinging on the overall flavour of the main site, which is usually focused more towards clients, potential and actual. So Web 2.0 works well for firms in this manner, but what does the audience think of these microsites?

Our survey of graduates’ attitudes on this matter received some polarised answers. On the subject of new media presentations, some cynically questioned not the method but the substance, one respondent saying: “I am never going to be convinced of a glowing impression of the firm delivered by a trainee in front of a camera and probably their boss. They are hardly likely to say anything like ‘I hate this place…I wish I never came’”. In typically fickle student fashion, 60% of respondents said they were likely to use such technology, but 38% thought that videos were a ‘gimmick’. It seems that there is still a certain amount of scepticism towards Web 2.0, even from the audience most likely to be au fait with it.

Two less risky and more effective uses of technology in the legal profession are for online services that augment the client-lawyer relationship, allowing greater client access to transactional documents, and for internal knowledge management. This year’s Fast Fifty winner – Allen & Overy – is one of the leaders in this field with its impressive range of online services. Part of our report features a lengthy interview with those responsible for the A&O website, some of which explains the technology, and its associated problems, behind these complex, but cost-cutting systems.

According to Jules Widdowson, Senior e-Business Manager at A&O: “These sophisticated services provide an unprecedented consistency in the analysis of legal information, reduce clients’ legal risk and save them significant time and money. However, the systems need to integrate closely with the IT environment and the client. In some cases, they may need to feed directly to contract management, risk management or trading systems.”

Through our research we have found that firms are much more comfortable with the use of social media technology for internal purposes. Knowledge management is a key part of a skills-based discipline like law. The amount of content created by some firms can be exhaustive, but as this knowledge is such a fundamental asset, it needs harnessing, organising, distributing and sharing in an efficient manner. Wikis are particularly useful in this respect, as a document can be worked on collaboratively and updated instantaneously, leading to a streamlining of otherwise laborious procedures. The downside to this autonomy is that the system is open to abuse and inaccuracy, hence its suitability purely as an internal tool.

Although A&O are part of the magic circle, we felt that their website was certainly unusually advanced among its peers. Our research found that smaller firms, like the winner in the content category, regional law firm Freeth Cartwright, were often the ones that put more thought into content, provided they had a dedicated team working on the website development. Smaller firms’ sites are often let down by their lack of marketing and sometimes average design, while the larger firms rarely adapt as quickly to technology developments and new opportunities to deliver content as would have been expected.

James Tuke is Head of Intendance Research. Intendance is a full-service website company comprised of four divisions – Intendance Systems, Research, Consulting and Design. All divisions work closely with each other to create a holistic approach to website development, from planning and design through to maintenance and optimization: www.intendance.com/research