State of the Art Legal Web Sites

November 1, 2001

What makes a Web site ‘state of the art’? The dictionary definition doesn’t help much as state of the art equates to phrases like ‘up to the minute’ and ‘the latest and therefore the best’. John Gailey explains what it means in practical terms for law firms. This article derives from his presentation following the SSCL AGM.

Being ‘state of the art’ didn’t help much. Basically a retail site (clicks’n’mortar), Boo aimed to provide stylish clothing and accessories for the youth market. It was tipped to be a huge success as this was exactly the group who spent most time and energy on the Web. The site was set up full of technical innovation that meant it was only really accessible to the possessor of a top-of-the range computer, running on a high-speed link. Nobody else could be bothered to put up with graphics which took ages to download and which, in truth, added very little – their funkiness and atmosphere building quality eroded by the ennui engendered by the speed of access available to the mass market. The other problem was that the enterprise was a triumph of packaging over practicality and, if someone managed to stay awake long enough to complete an order, it was often not fulfilled.

Like a Christmas selection box, the promissory note issued by the packaging simply wasn’t honoured by the contents. This year’s boxes may well be dressed in Harry Potter clothes or Star Trek (episode 875) livery, but a Mars Bar is still just a Mars Bar.

It is obvious that the dictionary definition may be the debater’s friend but it doesn’t really help here. Let’s stick to the colloquial sense where ‘state of the art’ simply means ‘really good’. In this context, the spotlight falls on Web sites set up by lawyers – which of those are state of the art?

At this point, I defer to the survey generated by the LRG (Legal Research Group: see This was produced by canvassing consumers of legal services from companies ranging in size from less than 10 to 1000+ staff. These respondents were asked to grade and mark law firm Web sites (from the Legal 500) based on the criteria of appearance, structure, usability and content. The survey has appeared in a variety of publications and some of its findings are quite amazing.

Eventually, 420 sites were tested (the implication being that 80 sites were so obscure that they couldn’t be found!) and, of those, 104 had to be excluded as, for a variety of reasons ranging from ‘under construction’ to ‘server error’, they could not be tested. Surely this beggars belief. It is rather like spending thousands or tens of thousands of pounds designing and producing a brochure and forgetting to send it out or losing the key to the stores cupboard where the brochures are kept. And that’s based on the assumption that a simple ‘here we are’ site (e.g. brochureware) is enough. But the survey the respondents were looking for was more than just a presence on the Web.

Contact Information

Even the most discreet and tasteful business card will provide contact details. Not so the target Web sites – 2% (at least 6 of the 320 working sites plus a proportion of the others) had no discernible telephone number so that even if the enquirer found the solution to their problem there and then, they’d have to phone Directory Enquiries or send a letter – or more likely pass on to someone else.

The plot thickens as we discover that (perhaps not surprisingly) 5% had no fax number and 20% didn’t bother with an e-mail address. Is it just me or is it generally obvious to assume that someone using an electronic medium to look at a Web site will be keen to make contact in the same way – there and then?

A lesser gulf yawned between the desire for direct phone numbers and its fulfilment, as most sites seemed to provide this and almost half of the sites managed to provide information on how to find the firm’s premises.

What Everyone Wants

One of the things that all the respondents agreed on was the desirability of fee information, although this was provided by only 7% of the sites tested. This was second only to partner information (eg CVs and biographies) as this is, after all, a service that’s going to be provided, rather than just a commodity. Whilst all this may seem quite incredible and indicate that there’s a lot of blue water between what law firms provide in their sites and what clients (and let’s not forget prospective clients) actually want, experience from the other side of another blue water reveals that this would appear to be a global situation.

It so happens that the US Greenfield/Belser consultancy ( have also conducted a similar survey (in their case interviewing 130 in-house lawyers who regularly instructed outside counsel) which highlights astonishingly similar findings.

In the US context, 70% of the interviewees actively trawled law firm sites looking for appropriate firms to instruct. As far as they were concerned, the prime factor is evidence of relevant experience, gleaned from staff CVs and case studies. In this light, it’s no surprise that on both sides of the Atlantic, the prospective client wants to see a search engine so that they can look for material relevant to their problem or situation without having to dredge through the whole site.

US seekers of counsel were quite clear that relevant experience would drive their choice and that this could also be demonstrated through the provision of well formatted case summaries and updates – for which 75% were willing to pay! Prospective UK clients were also keen to see case tracking and update services. However, there was a divergence in that in the UK we seem to be interested in general news, whereas in the US they don’t care if a leading light has just run a marathon or scaled a peak.

There seems to be a general loathing of spurious hi-res graphics and flash animation sequences. Does a 360° virtual waltz through your reception area really say anything of value beyond ‘someone suckered us into accepting this as a design statement’. Let’s just call this the 8-second rule, neglected by at their peril.

URLs and Keywords

Perceived size seems to matter with a URL – rates higher than Remember too to keep up to date with new domains such as .biz. Extra marks were earned for direct accessibility through ownership of all the most obvious URLs as many users prefer to guess the URL and work from there, rather than hunting by using a search engine. It is vitally important to maintain the firm’s virtual profile by ensuring that all relevant keywords and metatags have been disseminated as widely as possible. Someone looking for ‘a jolly good firm that can handle ADR work’ isn’t going to find your firm, even though this is your specialist field, if the only keywords that were used come from the firm’s name.

I realise that all of this may seem blindingly obvious but it would appear to have escaped the notice of many of us.

Apart from anything else, capturing a goodly range of URLs (eg not just, but also,, and so forth), indicates a decent working knowledge of the virtual world and how e-commerce operates. It is not a bad idea to give such an indication, especially if this happens to be your firm’s professed field of expertise.

The Crunch, The Runners and the Lessons

The crunch comes in the guise of a general conclusion (from the respondents/interviewees) running along the lines of ‘if they can’t run a decent Web site, I’ll find a firm that can’.

The top ten from the LRG survey are as follows:

Irwin Mitchell


Berwin Leighton Paisner

Fox Williams

Burges Salmon

Clarke Wilmott & Clarke


Sidley & Austin

Weil Gotshal & Manges

It is interesting to have a look at these sites and see where the similarities are. I’ve looked through most of them (not exhaustively as there’s only so many hours in the day) and accessibility and consistency seem to be the key defining characteristics. Run a search on any of these sites and you’re likely to find items of relevance that are linked to other relevant items. In this way, a search for ‘dotcom start-up’ might lead me to some articles, as well as staff biographies. If I look at any of those items, I’m liable to find that there are tempting juicy links to other potential areas of interest, leading me through the site from one nugget to another.

This is in stark contrast to sites where all this information may exist but it is carefully stacked in water-tight compartments: the press articles are divorced from their dramatis personae. If I see something that triggers a burning desire to get in touch, I have to navigate my way through a series of menus to get to a general e-mail address. Let’s say that you found this article by searching through back issues on the SCL Web site for articles on ‘Legal Web sites’ and you wanted to find out what sort of tick wrote it and vent your spleen immediately. You can’t, because at the time of writing the SCL site doesn’t have a search engine, the articles are just dead unindexed text files and there are no hyperlinks from an article to its author, their credentials and contact details – nobody’s perfect (although the next incarnation of the Society’s Web site will be able to manage this basic and useful functionality).

This kind of approach also manifests itself in law firm e-commerce sites. It’s easy to take an off-the-shelf product like iManage or even Microsoft’s Sharepoint and with a modicum of cash and expertise, hey presto, here’s my online collaboration suite. . Going a little bit further adds a whole new dimension in usability and usefulness. Linklater’s client access module adds layers of meta-data so that I don’t just have the ability to view a document or find out who drafted it, I’m shown a photo of the culprit and given their contact details. This isn’t rocket science at the bleeding edge, merely a careful repackaging of data that’s lying around on the office systems, designed to meet client needs. ‘State of the art’ doesn’t have to be dangerously high tech – thoughtful and creative count for just as much. Sites like and Blue Flag take existing information and repackage them in an innovative fashion. Reading through turgid documentation isn’t every client’s cup of tea, but sweeten it by turning a descriptive document into a checklist (possibly going the extra mile to make it an interactive flow chart) and now you’ve got something with a much broader appeal, guaranteed to make friends.

In the first example above (from Blue Flag, reproduced with the kind permission of Linklaters), data on two separate jurisdictions is displayed simultaneously, presumably based on the proposition that users will want to compare a known scenario against an unknown one. This would, of course, be much more difficult if the information existed simply as monolithic articles that had to be teased out by the reader.

The second example shows an alternative style (once again from Blue Flag) where information is repackaged as an interactive flow chart, leading the user through complex information based on their responses.

For the purposes of this piece, there just wasn’t time to gather in all the great and the good. The aim was simply to show that perhaps we’re aiming wide of the mark and that in some instances we’re not even on the same field as the target.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, fads and fashions come and go but quality always shines out. Make your Web site state of the art if you want but be careful whose taste you adopt. Your designer may have a penchant for Jackson Pollock but is that what hangs on the walls of your clients’ offices?

John Gailey is with Pilgrim Systems and is a member of the SSCL Programme Sub-Committee.