By Deborah McMurray
Law firms are investing more in the design and development of their websites than ever. But are your visitors any happier?
No matter your law firm’s size or budget, visitors expect the same intuitive experience that they have with CNN.com, Southwest.com or Opentable.com. And your site is being judged by the same criteria: (1) Is it easy to navigate and search—meaning do I quickly find what I want and need? and (2) does it answer my question or solve my problem?
If you have marketing or business development expectations of your law firm website, then you must view this medium and investment very differently.
1. Start at the Beginning: Is Your Strategy Clear? The reason so many law firm websites are poor is because too few firms pay attention to firm vision and goals, understand their target markets or develop a website strategy. Firm strategy, key messages and points of differentiation should shape every decision that’s made in creating design, determining functionality and developing content. Your firm strategy should be clear when a visitor comes to your site. You have one chance to make the right impression—and you have about five seconds to make it before your visitors make a “stay/leave” decision. Don’t risk making the wrong impression by not spending time on this critical step.
2. Do You Know Why Your Visitors Are There? Business-to-business buyers of legal services want to know three things: 1) what you’ve done, 2) for whom you’ve done it and 3) what you can do for them. If you don’t answer these questions, they’ll leave your site and won’t come back. The first time a visitor pulls up or links to your site, it’s likely that a colleague or friend referred you or your firm to them. These visitors are validating the referral. What do you want them to know about you? What will sell them on you? Feed your experience into your bios and practice descriptions.
3. How Sound Is Your Site’s Architecture? Focus on site architecture. Builders don’t start pouring building foundations without a comprehensive architectural schematic. Your site strategy will dictate your functionality, features and navigation. Each major section of your website (everything in your top level or global navigation) should have its own architectural drawing that defines exactly what will appear. These site diagrams define the entire scope of your website. With these, you define and lock in your budget. Without them, count on “budget creep.”
4. Now, Focus on YOU: Is Your Biography Effective? Write your resume as copy, not content. Your resume should reflect the best you’ve done, not everything you’ve done. Lawyer website bios are more varied than anything else on the Internet, ranging from no more than a Martindale-style listing to voluminous reports of everything a lawyer has achieved. Neither is effective. Your bio should answer the questions in number two, on this page. List client names if the state bar rules allow it—but always get client permission first. Don’t boast, but don’t undersell your strengths and capabilities, either.
5. Is Your Bio SEO-Friendly? What does this mean? Look at the first two to three sentences of your bio. Then conduct a Google search on your name. If your website bio link comes up in the search results (it’s trouble if it doesn’t surface on page one), look at the first 200 characters of the Google result—it likely repeats the first 200 characters of your bio. Bingo! Make it compelling. Make it relevant. Change the focus as the work you are doing changes along with regulations, legislation, etc. For example, look at Pete Broderick’s bio overview on the Cox Smith site, then Google “Pete Broderick.” This comes up in the search results: Pete Broderick has built an extensive commercial real estate leasing practice representing landlords and tenants of commercial properties of all kinds. This top-of-the-page Google result copies the first 150 characters of his bio overview. It’s relevant and represents Pete’s practice focus well. One more tip: Use your formal name as the header in your bio, but use your first name or nickname in all other references. For example, Pete’s bio header is Peter R. “Pete” Broderick. His bio overview starts, “Pete Broderick has…” and all subsequent references are to “Pete,” not Mr. Broderick. As casual as the Internet has become, it comes across as unfriendly, overly conservative or inaccessible to use Mr. or Ms.
6. Can Your Site Be Accessed on a Smartphone or PDA? You don’t need to hire someone to create a mobile app of your whole website, but people still want to access your site on their smartphones. Ensure that your designer understands how to design your site so that is fully accessible and navigable on mobile devices—without having to pay more for it. Even the largest sites should be accessible via smartphones.
7. Have You Written for the Scanning Reader? No one has time (even if they have the inclination) to pore through pages and pages of data on your firm’s site. Break up your website content into smaller pieces and shorter paragraphs. Use headlines, call-outs or sidebars to highlight calls to action or critical points you don’t want readers to miss. For example, Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell’s practice and industry descriptions take a consistent approach—using a box with important links to client successes, news, events, blogs and more, plus short paragraphs with relevant case studies.
8. Is Your Site “Usable”? Designing a site so that it’s “usable” is both an art and a science. There are countless law firm sites that are difficult to navigate, and where it’s impossible to find anything. They don’t offer keyword and advanced searches, and force a visitor to click multiple times. Creating a highly usable site requires an understanding of both human behavior and graphic and information design. “Answers in one or two clicks from the home page” (but one click is better than two) is the mantra for ultimate usability. In addition, a keyword and advanced search on every page is basic website hygiene. Try using cascading “mega-menus” from your global navigation bar that preview the pages inside each section. Two great examples: Miller & Chevalier and Cox Smith.
9. Is It Clear that You Care? Every lawyer should care about his or her firm’s website. What is it communicating about you and your firm? Is it a hodgepodge of old data? Does it have a “What’s New” button with nothing more recent than the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act? Care about how you look, what you say, how you are perceived. Then care some more. Take some chances. Stretch—this is the medium to do it.
Deborah McMurray is CEO and Strategy Architect of Content Pilot LLC, a strategy and technology company. Deborah is a Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame inductee and a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. She is a co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 3rd Ed. and co-editor of The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing Your Practice, 2nd Ed. with James A. Durham. The article was first published at www.attorneyatwork.com.