When most people search for lawyers, they search the Internet. So why don't more lawyers have websites?
It's a safe bet that when most people want to search for almost anything these days, including legal services, they turn on their computer or get out their smart phone or tablet and start with an Internet search.
But while the Internet is often considered the new "yellow pages," many attorneys - especially those in solo practice or small firms - have not yet chosen to create their own website.
"For a lot of lawyers the business model continues to be referrals," said Michael P. Downy, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale, LLP in St. Louis and a member of ISBA's Committee on Professional Conduct. "They are just not expecting to generate business from it."
Downy believes that many attorneys in solo practice chose to use third-party sites such as findlaw.com or lawyers.com instead.
"It's not their own URL but they do have a presence," he said, adding that a lot of attorneys don't see the need to go through all the work and expense they perceive it to be to create and maintain a website.
Nerino Petro, practice management advisor for the law office management assistance program of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a member of ISBA's Committee on Legal Technology, said that a basic website is a must for an attorney in today's practice environment.
"The alternative of having nothing is even worse," he said. "The Internet really is the modern day yellow pages. As the potential client base gets younger, more and more the way people look for information is on the Internet."
Chicago attorney and ISBA Committee on Legal Technology member Todd Flaming agreed.
"Probably pretty much every attorney should have a presence on the web," he said. "I am surprised how many solos don't."
Taking control of your web presence
Petro said there are a number of reasons why solo practitioners and small firms still do not have websites. Some lawyers don't see the benefit, he said, while others aren't sure what needs to be done to get a site up and running. In addition, some lawyers think it is too expensive to have an attractive website and others don't want to create a website because they don't think they can maintain it.
Experts agree that a law firm benefits from having a website.
A website is the best way for a lawyer to take control of his or her web presence, Downy noted.
"A Google search of a lawyer or law firm is likely to turn up something even if that attorney or firm doesn't have a website," he said. "Most lawyers have some content out there. And without a website you are giving up control over what that is."
Petro also noted that a website provides usual information to potential clients. "Even a static website with only a downloadable brochure has potential. If the person who finds the website doesn't become a client, that person may pass that brochure along to someone else who does," he said.
And a website can be especially valuable if you are trying to build a niche practice.
"You can post articles you have written that show your knowledge in a specific area," Petro said. "You are building credibility to a potential client base." (See sidebar for ethical issues that arise for lawyers with websites.)
'[D]esign it to do what you want it do to'
Once an attorney sees the value of a website, the choices that accompany a decision to create a website can be daunting. Do you want a simple one-page site with basic directory information or something with multiple pages? Do you want people to be able to send e-mails to you through the site and, if so, what are the ethical implications of that contact (see sidebar)? Do you want to link to other sites? Do you want to start a blog? All of these questions will need to be answered at some point, but not necessarily at the beginning.
"My thought is to start small," said Bryan Sims, of Sims Law Firm, Ltd., in Naperville and the ISBA's Committee on Legal Technology. "It doesn't have to be perfect but people need to be able to find you and see that you are legitimate."
Experts agree that the type of website a firm ends up with should be driven by the firm's needs and expectations for the site. Is it to be a "yellow page" listing, a more detailed look at the firm, a marketing tool, a communications vehicle for new and continuing clients, a showcase for expertise, or all of the above?
Although he describes himself as a "card-carrying nerd," Flaming cautioned against technology for technology's sake. "You have to design your website to do to serve a purpose."
When Flaming started Kraus Flaming, LLC with partner Ken Kraus in 2011, he had already been involved in creating several websites, including one for his former law firm. As a result, he had some pretty clear ideas about how he wanted his new firm's website to look and what purpose he wanted it to serve.
"You have to design it to do what you want it to do," he said. His firm was not particularly interested in using the site as a way for people to randomly find it. The site has pages that hold the firm's vision, biographies of Flaming and Kraus, contact information and information about the types of cases the firm litigates.
"The work we do, we are not going to attract clients that way," he said. Instead, the site is meant to help someone who is looking for more information on the firm after hearing about Kraus Flaming through referral or some other means.
"For the most part, we don't change it much," he said. "All we are updating are our areas of expertise."
The result is an informative website with some unusual elements that don't necessarily jump out at the viewer but that make the site professional and unique.
"I'm not in favor of bells and whistles," said Flaming. "Keep it simple is my philosophy."
And while Flaming did not design his website with the goal of attracting random business, that is what many law firms are looking for. If that were the goal, Flaming would change the content of his website more.
"People like information," Flaming said. "Search engines elevate a page that is updated frequently, especially if it is one that people link to from other sites."
Chicago solo practitioner Gianna Scatchell agreed. She said a law firm serious about attracting new business through its website has to be more conscious about its content, especially in highly competitive areas of the law.
"If you don't have dynamic content, your posts start falling," she said. "In highly competitive areas, personal injury for instance, it is important to create new content because that is where you are going to make your biggest impact."
Obviously, a website's purpose is going to drive both the cost for creating and maintaining it and the decision about whether to hire someone to do that work or to try and do it yourself.
Sims started his solo practice about two and one-half years ago and at that time he was simply concerned with getting a site up and running that would help prospective clients learn about him and his new firm.
"Any time anybody goes out to try a new service or a new company, they find out about that via the Internet," he said. "It is important to have a presence there. I know there are those law firms that don't yet have a website but I've yet to hear a good explanation for it."
He is now looking at redesigning the site he has used since his firm's inception.
"Essentially, the site is information cobbled together from where I used to be before the firm broke up," he said. "I hired somebody to put it together and when I want changes done, I have him do it."
Petro said that the cost of having someone else create a page for a law firm can be as low as $50 depending on the content (see sidebar). In the past, he said, people thought you had to spend thousands of dollars to have a website and while you still can spend that much, it isn't necessary.
"The reality is that it's affordable for anyone to get some type of web presence up," he said.
Flaming also uses a service to maintain and host his web page. But, he noted, there are plenty of opportunities for a law firm to create and maintain a site on its own.
Choices for content management software include everything from templates that allow you to fill in predefined fields to packages that allow design from scratch.
In the end, Petro said, the lawyer needs to decide how much time and money or combination of the two to invest.
"Some people have taken the idea of having a website to heart and update it regularly themselves," said Petro. "Others don't want to go to all that trouble. It comes down to whether you are going to be spending your time as a web guru or a lawyer."
Either way, Flaming said, the fact that lawyers need a website cannot be reiterated enough.
"It doesn't have to be a big expensive thing," he said. "Just having a website is worth something."
Bonnie Booth <firstname.lastname@example.org> is a lawyer and freelance journalist.
Here are just a few of the many resources available to lawyers who want to create and maintain a website.
Lawyers looking for a simple, low-cost, low-tech approach to creating a website should consider EsqSites123.com. Find out more at http://www.isba.org/practicetech
Starting a Website from the ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center
You'll find a lengthy article with advice on creating content, finding a web host, and many other topics at http://www.americanbar.org/groups/departments_offices/legal_technology_resources/resources/charts_fyis/websitefyi.html#Other
Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys: How to Select a Website Designer from LLRX.com
A good, if dated, article on choosing a website designer from the ABA's webmaster: http://www.llrx.com/columns/faulkner6.htm
Get Found! Search Engine Optimization Demystified from GPSolo (May/June 2012)
A look at the important topic of making your website show up higher in search engine results: http://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2012/may_june/get_found_search_engine_optimization_demystified.html
Lawyers must take care not to inadvertently create an attorney-client relationship or make false or misleading statements via their websites.
It is not uncommon for lawyers who create websites for their firm to make them interactive by creating a page a reader can use to send a comment or question back to the firm. Such an option could trigger Rule 1.18 of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct regarding prospective clients.
The rule states that a person who discusses with a lawyer the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter is a prospective client. It's easy to understand how a phone conversation triggers this rule but it's a little more complicated when a person communicates to a lawyer or law firm through the firm's website.
American Bar Association Formal Opinion 10-457 provides helpful guidance about when the rule is triggered. If a lawyer website specifically requests submission of information concerning the possibility of forming a client-lawyer relationship with respect to a matter, a "discussion" for purposes of Rule 1.18 will result when a website visitor submits the requested information, according to the opinion. If a website visitor submits information to a site that does not specifically require or invite this, the lawyer's response to that submission will determine whether a discussion under Rule 1.18 has occurred.
The opinion states that Rule 1.18 can be triggered when a website specifically encourages a visitor to submit a personal inquiry about proposed representation on a website electronic form which when responded to can begin a discussion about proposed representation and, absent any cautionary language, invites submission of confidential information.
Experts recommend a couple of ways to avoid creating a prospective client issue by using inquiry options on a law firm website.
"Generally in order to prevent forming a relationship, the website needs to have a click-through disclaimer," said Nerino Petro of the State Bar of Wisconsin. "This includes screen pop-ups with a disclaimer that says that no attorney-client relationship has been established. In order to send an e-mail, you have to read the disclaimer and agree."
Chicago attorney Gianna Scatchell also said the extra precautions are necessary to make sure the relationship is not initiated by the visitor responding to an inquiry option. She advocates a three-step process for any visitor who wants to submit a question through a website.
She recommends starting with a disclaimer. Once the visitor has agreed to it, a smart form pops up that gives him or her an option for stating the nature of the questions using a word limit that prevents too much information from being transmitted. That form, she said, should be followed by a click box in which the sender indicates that he understands that submitting the question doesn't create an attorney-client relationship.
Accurate, up-to-date bios
Attorneys also need to be aware that a website is considered advertising under most states' rules of professional conduct and the rules that pertain to advertising and communications of fields of practice can apply.
"A lawyer will be held ethically responsible for all content on [the firm's] website," said St. Louis lawyer Michael P. Downy.
That means that all information about an attorney's credentials, education, and experience must be reported accurately on the website and kept current.
"Generally, most states interpret rules (of professional conduct) to mean that if a portion of a statement is untrue or misleading, the entire statement is untrue," said Petro. "If a statement can be interpreted by someone to indicate that you provide better results than another attorney or a level of knowledge that you don't have, you have to be careful about saying any of that."
Opinion 96-10 from the Illinois State Bar Association Advisory Opinion on Professional Conduct also provides information about the rules of professional conduct that govern websites. You'll find it at http://www.isba.org/ethics. Consulting it, as well as the ABA opinion, will guide attorneys in the creation of websites that are unlikely to run afoul of the rules.
And experts agree that the rules should not discourage the creation of firm websites. "Having to comply with the rules of professional responsibility is not a reason not to create a website," said Naperville lawyer Bryan Sims.
- Bonnie Booth