How People Really Use Law Firm Web Sites

April 30, 1998

One of the most interesting (well, to me anyway!) aspects of the plethora of material which purports to advise law firms on how their Web sites should be used is the near total lack of any published data on how people actually use legal Web sites.

As an accountant, a lack of numbers when decisions are being made always worries me. As a person who has worked extensively (and, I immodestly claim, with some success)  on the Web, some of the advice I have seen from ‘Web-savvy designers’ worries me  too – as indeed do some of the law firm sites I see (Flash introduction? No!). But I digress.

In order to get a firmer handle on how law firm Web sites are actually used by the people accessing them, I enlisted the aid of Andrew Gray of law firm Web site provider Conscious Solutions (, who are one of the leading providers of law firm Web sites in the UK. Andrew was a director of the company that set me running to build the LawZone legal community, sold to The Lawyer in 2003. He kindly provided me with raw data on the browsing habits of people who access their client’s sites and some interesting lessons lay therein.

Those of you thinking of revamping or investing in a new Web site should pay close attention to what the numbers tell us. The following analysis is based on actual Web sites and their actual traffic.

But first, let’s stop and have a think about using law firm Web sites from the user’s perspective, as I think this might shed some light on why a lot of the sites are ‘off the mark’. I think the key issue is that legal services are not bought and sold in the same way that mp3 players are. Few law firm sites have any real e-commerce and they are not likely to sell if they did. The point is to:

  • create a sufficiently good impression of the firm to generate a contact between potential client and professional staff – these are the casual browsers who have a problem and are looking for a solution; or

  • to facilitate contact with someone who already knows you are there – in this case, the idea is to make it easy for people to telephone/e-mail/come to see you.

The difference is that the actual ‘buy’ decision is not normally made on the site – it is a ‘take the next step’ decision, akin to putting the items in the shopping basket on an e-commerce enabled Web site. At the end of the day, people buy people when it comes to professional services. (As you will see, it may be that people buy firms, not people per se, but it is a ‘people to people’ business.)

The implication of this is that the purpose of the Web site is to build a picture of professionalism, friendliness and competence, such that the browser (ie a new client) feels your firm is better equipped than the one down the road to represent or advise him or her.

If the above is true, we would expect to see traffic arriving at Web sites to be based on relevant search terms based on types of matter for people who do not know the firm and search terms related to the firm for people who do.

What the numbers show:

                              Firm’s name     Staff Name     Legal Topic     Location

Search Term (%)           27                   2                      57               14

Here we see the split between browsers and people who know the firm already. Those who know the firm search for it by name. Those who do not, look either for ‘solicitors + town’ or use a term connected with their problem. Incidentally, the search terms used included a very large percentage which dealt with business and/or tax planning or IHT issues – big earners for law firms who capture the business.

From search engines, the arrivals go to the home page where the search term is the name, to ‘contact us’ where it is the location or to ‘services’ or content (articles on topics) where the search term is based on a legal problem (eg ‘divorce’ or ‘unfair dismissal’). Indeed, 27% of the pages viewed are in that category.

After the first searches, the expectation would be that the people wanting to get to know what the firm is about would head straight for the ‘about us’ pages to see if they like the cut of your people’s respective jibs and are keen on your firm’s news. This is where it gets interesting, because it isn’t so. If the site has legal content, only 6% of the pages looked at are about your people; 3% are further searches, with people looking for more information about legal questions. The big receiver of pages (indeed, significantly more than half of all pages looked at in total) is the legal content (ie articles about legal topics, cases and so on). The only other significant receiver of attention from Web users are the ‘services’ pages, which receive 12% of all views.

What it Means for You

Be easy to find 
The implication for this for law firms is clear. You should aim for quick, clean and easy-to-use design, because that will make it easy for your site users to find your phone number, location or e-mail address.

I suggest you make sure your site has, in a really easy to see place (on all pages), a button linking to the ‘contact us’ page, which includes:

  • A really good map of the office locations, showing car parking, nearest stations etc. This should include a scale, so people can judge distances and walking times. Show details of car parking fees if appropriate.

  • Contact details for people under their work type (not order of seniority). It is a judgement call whether you show direct-dial numbers or e-mail addresses. It is user-friendly but has a downside. The important thing here is that if you are contacted by a prospective client, you must react. If the phone call is answered by your competitor and not you, you have probably lost already.

Information the client wants
You just can’t get away from the fact that more than half of all the pages looked at are those that contain legal news and articles (not news about the firm), so make sure you site has up-to-date and relevant Web content dealing with legal issues and news. This will inform the client of the issues and also the fact that you are likely to have answers to the questions they want to ask. It will give them the idea that you are open, switched on etc, in a way that a million pages of saying that your are great people, highly competent, have wonderful client care and so on will not.besides, all your competitors say exactly the same things (even those who are lousy people who are not competent and have terrible client care).

The implication of this is that you should have a really good content management system, so you can update your site frequently without the delay and cost of using your site managers/developers. Writing such material is a very costly exercise in terms of lost fee-earning time, so the alternative is to have a site which has this sort of material added automatically as part of the contract or to buy material in and put it on.

What you can’t escape is the fact that much of the time you spend agonising over your partner profiles is probably wasted, as they attract little attention from users.

The moral is clear: if you want your Web site to work, build it to deal with issues of interest to your clients and prospective clients, not to appeal to Web designers and/or the partners.

One thing that surprised me a great deal in the data was the proportion of searches (which was about half) that did not come from Google. The other search engines used were several, with Yahoo and Ask Jeeves being the next most frequent. What was most interesting, however, was the fact that less than 10% of searches were from lawyer referral sites of various ilks – the ones where you pay to be on a site that drives traffic to yours. The conclusion I draw is that, before you pay a referral site to drive traffic to your site, look carefully at the guarantees and get-out clauses in the contract, and I would measure the ‘click-throughs’ carefully. It looks to me like paying for good search-engine positioning on the main search engines might be a better bet.

A final thought on branding
One of the things this has made me think about is the extent to which your Web site represents part of your brand offering. For younger people (who know everything about the Web, it seems, but little about Yellow Pages), having a competitive Web offering may represent one of the best ways possible to promote your brand and a quality firm’s brand should mean that real goodwill exists. Your Web site statistics offer you a way (perhaps crude) of measuring the relative strengths of your firm’s goodwill and that owned by the individuals in it (their ‘following value’). If the searches for the firm’s name are high relative to the names of fee earners, it seems to me that the goodwill rests predominantly in the name of the firm. If the searches are for individuals in it, one could infer that the firm’s goodwill value is relatively weak. It is too early, in the absence of comparative data, to know what these figures mean in an absolute sense, but firm managers might care to keep tabs on the direction in which the ratio of searches for the firm/searches for members of the firm is going.

Joe Reevy MSc FCA is director of law practice management mentors and trainers and legal Web content providers