You’d probably be surprised to hear a lawyer or law firm marketer say that designing and programming a new website can be a positive and immensely rewarding experience. With all the never-doing-it-again stories out there, we thought readers of the magazine could benefit hearing from law firm leaders who have built award-winning websites and did the project “right.”
1. Do It Right The First Time
Revamping a website is not something firms normally do on an annual basis. Since technology is constantly evolving, the average website is revamped every three to five years. Take the time to do it right the first time. That means:
- Get input from all major decision-makers at the outset of the project
- Be clear about what the firm likes and dislikes
- Be realistic about what functionality would help the firm grow
- Make sure the website reflects your messaging
- Ensure the site represents the firm’s capabilities
Remember that the process of redesigning a website can be a valuable exercise in establishing talking points for internal personnel. Howard Seufer, partner and marketing chair at Bowles Rice, a firm of 140 attorneys with offices throughout the Appalachian Basin, noted that what surprised him the most about the process was “the extent to which the process promoted healthy introspection about our firm’s brand and structure.”
2. Pick A Partner, Not Simply A Vendor
The very best websites are a collaborative effort that includes the law firm’s top officials, the marketing group, the website committee, and the website agency. It’s imperative that the firm has a vision, but also appreciates the expertise of the partner with whom the firm chooses to work.
Sheppard Mullin, an international law firm with 700 attorneys and 15 offices, has a long-standing relationship with its web development company. Victoria Spang, the firm’s chief marketing officer explained, “When initially choosing a web design and development company, our aim was to find a partner, not simply a vendor. The partnership between Sheppard Mullin and our web development company spans a decade and has covered multiple projects, including our main website, an alumni extranet, a recruiting microsite, an automated proposal generation system, intranet data feeds, and foreign language capabilities. Over the years, we’ve established rapport with our web partner; they anticipate our needs, and we trust them to propose the best possible solutions.”
Building a website is a process—a firm should plan to spend at least four months on the project itself and the relationship often continues beyond the initial project with additions, redesigns, and trouble-shooting. The firm should ensure that the agency that they choose is represented by people they trust, respect, and enjoy. As Barbara Joseph, marketing and client services director at Bowles Rice explained, “There were many times during the process when we came to a fork in the road and had to make a decision on something we hadn’t previously considered. It was rewarding to know we had an experienced project manager who was always willing to listen to our questions, give advice or make a recommendation — and we weren’t alone in the wilderness.”
3. Choose The Right People Internally To Weigh In
Remember that the ultimate goal of your website is to allow your audience to get to know the firm – your values, your strengths, and your personality. Perhaps the best way to ensure your new website will powerfully convey the firm’s value proposition is to assemble a website committee that is big enough to cover the gamut of competing opinions, but not so large as to become paralyzed by indecision. And most importantly, you need the managing partner behind the committee, even if he or she isn’t actively involved, to ensure the process set by your agency and the decisions of the committee are respected.
According to Josh Bowlin, partner at Chamberlain Hrdlicka, a law firm of approximately 115 attorneys and multiple offices, balancing the advice of the experts you hire against the opinions of stakeholders is both a challenge and a coup in a web project. “When we as a firm decided to redesign our site, we reached out to a manageable, yet diverse, set of attorneys to identify our objectives and desired ‘look.’ After the design was agreed upon, we could reduce our internal group. However, then the role of our website design and development company became essential. After sharing our objectives and needs, we had to trust that our external partner could then deliver the best possible product to achieve those objectives.”
Obviously, unless your firm is a glutton for punishment, not everyone at the firm can be on a web committee or give input. “Getting subsequent buy-in for the final product from those whose input wasn’t reflected was challenging—but being able to explain that decisions were made based on best practices or other more objective criteria was ultimately successful,” explained Barbara Joseph. The challenge in the design phase is having the confidence to stick the course and not allowing every comment to change the design or direction of the site.
4. Remember Law Firms Have Unique Needs
Sure, a compelling design is important. But just as important is a back-end database that works for you as a law firm. Not all content management systems (CMS) are built with law firms in mind. When asked what they were most excited about when deciding to redesign their website, Sara Kornaus and Paulette Yanow Valentin of SmithAmundsen, a full-service firm based in the Midwest, said “A client friendly, cutting-edge front end and a marketing-team-friendly, cutting-edge back end!” You need to be able to anticipate the nuanced needs of law firms from a database and content perspective.
Many firms are lured in by “free,” off-the-shelf systems. These systems are not built with law firms in mind and can be missing essential functionality. The mismatch in needs often ends up costing the law firm in both time and money. In addition, some firms using off-the-shelf systems have the unpleasant surprise of finding out that their CMS faces major security vulnerabilities, because their web company is not properly or sufficiently updating the system as new versions are released.
5. Clients Expect Certain Information On A Website
Providing information expected by site visitors was important to Hodgson Russ, a multi-state, international law firm based in New York. Linda Schineller, the firm’s marketing director explained, “We feel that we’ve tried to bring as much of the media experience that they’re getting from other aspects of technology into what is a business-to-business site. When they come to a website, they expect all of the other features they’re seeing everywhere else.” Before diving into the website design, Hodgson Russ did its research and decided that the website needed to embrace new user interfaces and content delivery systems.
Importantly, the firm also recognized the need for mobile compatibility as people are looking for information on their phones and tablets at all hours of the day. Having a mobile site goes beyond the convenience of site visitors, however. Google recently announced that it is using mobile friendliness as a “significant factor” in its search-ranking algorithm. Yet less than half of the AmLaw 200 firms have reached mobile usability on their websites.
6. Build For Today, Plan For Tomorrow
Your website partner must provide cutting-edge solutions that can effortlessly scale in the future to meet evolving technology and marketing strategy demands. But not only should your web partner be able to implement new solutions; your partner needs to do so cost-effectively, to avoid being financially “paralyzed” in adopting new features and modules in the future.
Will Delgado, partner at the Los Angeles-based trial firm of Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado, explained, “When we launched our first website, our firm was still very young. We anticipated growth, but we didn’t know exactly what website functionality the firm would need and when. As the firm grew and received litigation accolades, features such as automated print and proposal systems and a searchable experience database became more important to our business development initiatives. Because our web design and development company had anticipated a dynamic site that would grow with the firm, we were able to add features as needed as opposed to having to start from scratch.”
When building your website, ensure that you will later have the option to incorporate features such as proposal generators, typeset-quality print materials, electronic HTML newsletters, listservs, newsfeeds, streaming videos, blogs, recruiting databases, alumni extranets, practice-specific microsites, and interactive client service features. These features may not be priorities now and you might not have the budget for them in the first phase of the project; however, a good web developer will leave these options open for a later date. Be sure to ask for these assurances up-front when choosing a web design and development company.
With these tips in mind, the process of designing and developing your website can be rewarding and enjoyable. Ask the necessary questions before you choose a website designer and/or developer. While design and technical capability are “musts,” so is the practical, day-to-day relationship that will dictate the tone of the process and the ultimate success of the website.
Perhaps the marketing team of SmithAmundsen said it best: “Cost and brand name don’t always mean you’re getting the best. Don’t learn that the hard way! Client service is so much more important than big names or bells and whistles. We needed a product that was designed well, that looked good and was designed by people we truly enjoyed working with.”
About the Authors
Swati Agrawal (left) and Janice Ugaki (right) are the founders of Firmseek, a web design and development agency, and are attorneys. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.