A Web Strategy for 2000 and Beyond

June 30, 2000

It is now so easy and cheap to get a few pages of text and graphics up on the Web that around about 1,000 law firms in England and Wales have achieved some sort of Web presence (roughly 10% of all firms). They range from the one page name and address site, to Linklaters’ highly technical Blue Flag offering.

However I doubt that very many firms have really got any sort of defined strategy for the future maintenance, promotion and development of their Web site. Web sites, it seems, could be destined to become the lawyers’ marketing database fiasco for the 21st century. If we have learned nothing else from marketing databases, we should at least have realised that the reason they have failed is because they were not properly resourced. Investment in the initial technology and the software is wasted if there is not a continuing investment in the maintenance of the product. I have yet to come across a law firm that is happy with the information contained within, and the performance of, its marketing database. And the main reason is a lack of ongoing funding to the project. Little wonder then that it is inaccurate and still sends out Christmas cards to clients who have moved, divorced or died. The same lack of resources and commitment is true of almost all the legal Web sites that I see when researching sites to add to the various LAW on the WEB directories. The trouble is that the Web (and therefore your Web site) is going to be far more important than any marketing database could ever have been.

The Web’s Advantages
The beauty, and indeed the curse, of the Web is the ability to publish information to a worldwide audience almost instaneously. Create it on your PC one minute, load it up to your ISP the next, and at the click of a button you have a potential audience of hundreds of millions. It is estimated that over 10 million people in the UK alone already have access to the Web. Because there are those with the resources (mainly outside the law) to ensure that the information on their sites is accurate and up-to-the-minute (if not the second) then this is the standard of information that ‘Web-consumers’ have come to expect from everyone on the Web. As a result static brochure sites and those which purport to provide ‘new information’ but which are not regularly and accurately updated will be considered inferior and, with so much choice available, they will be discarded or forgotten. This is a fast-moving, fast-changing environment.

It is no longer enough for law firms simply to have a presence on the Web. The novelty of being able to add the URL of your Web site to your notepaper and brochures has worn off. People are actually starting to look at the content and effectiveness of your site. Everybody and their dog now has a Web site, why should anybody come to yours?

I suppose the Luddites will argue that it hardly seems worth bothering at all: ‘It will cost us lots of money; will need to be constantly updated; and it will be a constant battle to remain at the front of the pack’. All very true. The problem with this attitude is that the Internet is the future – not just for plane tickets and hotel rooms, but for all goods and services. New Internet deals are announced every day. Within two years (or sooner if Chancellor Gordon Brown has his way), BT’s local call monopoly will end, which will dramatically reduce the cost to ISPs of connecting potential Internet customers to their services. This will allow them to provide 24-hour dial-up access, free, as in the US. The major ISPs are already announcing free telephone call packages, and they will all follow in the weeks and months to come. Within six months no-one will be paying for their telephone calls to the Web. Once that happens, hold on to your hats.

Get a Strategy Now
So what then should law firms be doing now about their Web strategy?

The first important step is to appoint a Web Manager (I am not sure that many law firms could live with the term Web Master). The ideal candidate is an enthusiastic, IT/Web literate lawyer, with vision as to the future provision of legal services over the Web. The Web should be their prime (if not their only) responsibility. It will, of course, depend on the resources of the firm, but, however large or small the firm, they should be given sufficient time (and have any fee-earning target cut) to be able to concentrate their efforts on the firm’s Web strategy and implementation. The alternative is to employ an outside consultant to fulfill the same task, but there are few with the necessary skills and understanding of the subject matter.

Their initial task, in conjunction with others in the firm (perhaps IT, marketing and some of the fee earners), is to assess the firm’s potential to service the legal Web market – it covers everyone and everything – both commercial clients (business to business or B2B in the jargon) and private clients (the less sexy end of the market, but perhaps more relevant to the majority of legal practices). Also bear in mind that this is a worldwide audience – you will be amazed how many hits your site will get from all over the world.

From this enormous potential client base firms need to focus on the targets that they can successfully service and then set about creating a Web strategy to achieve their aims. The plan will be different for every firm, but the key is to use the Web to make the legal process easier and more open for the potential client. That is not to say that you have to give all your services away. Just give away on your site what clients could find out anywhere else.

Creating or simply updating an existing brochure site is simply not an option if a firm wants to be taken seriously on the Web. Web-users need more – not mere gimmicks though (although some fun stuff never goes amiss – perhaps a screensaver or an ability to send an e-Xmas or e-birthday card from the site for example). Here are just some of the current options that firms might consider.

  • Split sites – If the target markets are very different, think about splitting your site into separate areas or even into completely separate sites, and giving them a separate look and feel. What appeals to a more staid private client may not appeal to a young IT entrepreneur.

  • Secondary sites – If you have a particular industry or legal specialisation, why not create a separate, appropriately named, site to cover just this topic – perhaps looking beyond just the law. It can be promoted to that particular industry sector, or those seeking that particular legal service. The main advantage here is that you can register the site with the main search engines under the specific category, rather than the more generic (and hugely populated) general law categories. You can also use more appropriate and accurate meta-tags.

  • Genuine online services – By this I mean interactive services, not just accepting instructions by e-mail or online forms, although this is a start. Unbelievably, very few solicitors yet offer any form of genuine online legal advice, or even a quote system.

  • Residential conveyancing screams out for an instant quote facility via a Web site. It is a relatively simple procedure to set-up a database with all the relevant information for a quote, which can then be interrogated and can provide an ‘instant’ quote. As far as I know there are only two Web sites that currently provide this service. Non-lawyers are already muscling in and providing online legal services. The public have no loyalty to lawyers and will use any services that are available.

  • Links to case management systems – Allowing clients and/or contacts the ability to look at or interrogate your case management system, so that they know what stage their transaction has reached is now quite feasible. If this is a route that you are considering you will need to ensure that your case management system is ‘Web-compatible’.

  • Information capture – You will have to give away a certain amount of information on your site, but you can also gather information on potential clients. Keep certain areas of the site open only to those who register with you. There will need to be something of value behind the registration area. For example, you could have an employment law updater service for employers.

  • E-mail news service – You could also invite visitors to your site to subscribe to various services that you offer, for example e-mailed updates on changes in the law and online or hard copy newsletters.

  • Industry specific updates – If you have, or are developing, a specific industry or sector specialisation, offer visitors the chance to subscribe to specific industry information, either on the site, via a password protected area, or via regular e-mail updates. The more valuable (and useful) this information, the more likely you are to get clients subscribing – and they may even be willing to pay.

  • Age-related updates – One of the neglected areas of the Web relates to more senior users. With the advent of free telephone calls and non-PC access to the Web, the profile of Web-users is likely to shift to an older profile – they also have the time to surf. This could be an ‘industry sector’ for you to target.

These are just a few ideas. By surfing the Web (not just the legal sites) you will find plenty more to put into the melting pot. You will not be able to do them all. The important thing is to pick the right ones for your target market and carry them out well.

Other Tasks for the Web Master/Manager
Some of the other things that the Web Master will need to ensure are right are listed below:

  • E-mail policy – You can have the best site in the world, but if your e-mail system is a mess it will count for nothing. Web browsers expect to be able to communicate efficiently and effectively with their solicitors via e-mail. This means investing in training for all users, creating, implementing and policing a sensible e-mail policy, and ensuring the stability and usability of your e-mail system.

  • Search engines – It is still important to ensure that your site is registered with all the major search engines. Your Web developer may do this for you, and may also set-up the relevant meta-tags to identify your site, but these need constant attention. There are now a variety of agencies who can also now help you in your quest to reach the top of the search engine lists, if you do not have the time yourselves.

  • Portal and directory registrations – Check out the various legal portals and directories and ensure that you have the right coverage for the type of work you do. With the growth of the Web, portals are taking on an increasingly significant role in signposting traffic to your site.

  • Creating and updating material in-house – The Web Manager and his/her assistant need to be familiar with the structure of their Web site and confident enough to make their own amendments. This will mean spending some time learning one of the various HTML programming packages, such as Dreamweaver, Frontpage or HoTMetaL. This allows the firm to react almost instantly to changes in the law and creates added flexibility in a constantly changing medium.

  • Link to in-house intranet – All the time, effort and money that goes into creating your Web site should be used to good effect in-house. Allow and encourage your staff to access your site, so that they can keep themselves up-to-date with what the site is saying and what other parts of the firm are doing, and use the same style and format for your internal intranet to reinforce the corporate image. Again Web-publishing skills will prove invaluable in keeping the intranet up-to-date.

Looking after your Web site is a full-time job and the firm’s Web team will become an increasingly important marketing and business development. Invest in it now, and continue to invest, or you risk being drowned in the wake of those that have.

Martin Davies was a solicitor formerly in private practice and now runs LAW on the WEB (www.lawontheweb.co.uk), one of the leading legal information portals. He may be contacted at martin.davies@lawontheweb.co.uk.