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September 2, 2008 5:16 PM

Still Loading: Law Firms Lag Behind the Rest of Corporate America on the Web

Posted by Jonathan Thrope

First he struts across the screen. Then he stretches, stares, and lets out a long yawn. Winston the bulldog, the mascot of Winston-Salem-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, is right at home at the top of Womble Carlyle's Web site, alongside his immaculate red doghouse.

But don't let Winston send the wrong message. Womble Carlyle takes its Web site very seriously. With 50 blogging attorneys, an Internet marketing manager, and a Web site facelift expected to go live by mid-September, Womble Carlyle sees its Web efforts as central to its vast marketing push.

"We regard [the Web site] as the most important communications tool that we have," says the firm's Internet marketing manager, Aden Dauchess. "We really approach it not from a law firm perspective, but from a business perspective."

Womble is not the only firm in recent years to recognize the central importance of its Web site, though it is certainly ahead of the curve. While Womble and others are accessorizing their sites with podcasts, blogs, videos, and rss feeds, many other firms remain entrenched in the world of Web 1.0.

"Considering the size of some of the firms in the top, say, 250, there are still law firms of substantial size that have relatively poor Web site offerings, surprisingly poor Web sites," says Stephen Roussan, president of Web development firm ICVM, which has worked with Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, among others, to redesign their sites. "If you compared the top 250 law firm Web sites against another 250 corporate or financial services firms of similar size, [you would find] that as a whole, the law firm group would lag behind in terms of the depth and quality of their Web sites."

"Most law firm sites are like law firm brochures--they're all about the law firm, they're not very client- sensitive," says Charles "Biff" Maddock, a partner at legal consulting firm Altman Weil--a new kid on the block in Web development, having worked on 10 to 15 firm Web sites, including one for Thompson & Knight. "In most cases, they're pretty boring. And they really don't give you a reason to come back over and over again."

In the last few years, though, Web development and marketing professionals say law firms have gotten increasingly serious about the Web. Slowly, the gap in quality between Am Law 200 Web sites and those of Fortune 500 companies has narrowed, as an increasing number of firms have put in the investment and manpower to make their sites more than just regurgitations of what can be found in print.

"From the standpoint of branding, marketing, and sophistication of marketing materials, the law firm sector has always been a little behind other professional services, other kinds of corporate entities," says Roussan. "[In the past couple years] I think there's been a substantial shift in the attorney mindset when it comes to Web sites and marketing in general."

This requires firms to commit considerable time and money. "The days of the $50,000 Web site are pretty much gone," says Jeff Yerkey, a founding partner at Charette Communication Design, which has designed sites for Shearman & Sterling, as well as K&L Gates, and is currently designing and conceiving sites for four other major law firms. Yerkey says a Web site can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $1 million, depending on the size and needs of a firm. Roussan put the range at a more modest $10,000-$200,000. As for the time commitment, Web developers say they generally work on a project for six to 12 months, though it depends on the complexity of the project.

New York-based Herrick Feinstein, a 180 attorney firm, launched a new Web site July 28, developed by ICVM--almost six years after its original site went up, and nearly one and half years since planning for the relaunch began. The site's calling card is its interactivity, in that everything is linked to everything else.

"A Web site can be a very effective recruiting and marketing tool, but ours was really a dinosaur that had very little interactivity. It was basically an online brochure and deal list," says Herrick's director of marketing Geoff Goldberg, who arrived at the firm in 2006 and embarked on a mission to makeover the Web site soon after. "Before, our Web site did little but prove that we actually exist; now it is a very interactive and powerful information tool."

Standing Out on the Web
So what makes a good Web site? Developers and marketers have a number of ideas. For Roussan, a Web site is all about distinguishing a firm from the pack. "The single most important exercise is to have an introspective discussion about what your firm is about and what makes your firm different from other firms, and really present that as part of your brand." Roussan says that sites on the Web so often look the same, because firms go with the trendy designs, and don't focus on the core identity of the firm. "You've got to get at what the essence of the firm is about."

"What is it that law firms can do to be bookmarked?" asks Maddock. "That's really one of the big questions. Because [then] your traffic is a lot of repeat business, and your repeat business is purchases." Maddock says that blogs and videos are just some ways firms can do this. Maddock thinks they can also make their sites a little entertaining. "They're so conversant with their subject, they're so comfortable with it, they could have a little fun with it....You don’t see law firms having fun with their Web sites." 

Yerkey says the key is for firms to expand their Web presences above and beyond their home sites, be it through Facebook or microblogging tools like Twitter. As Yerkey heard at a recent Web conference, "The era of the walled garden is coming to an end." It is no longer just about having clients or recruits head to a firm's Web site, says Yerksy, now law firms have to bring content to them.

Ranking the Web Sites of The Am Law 100

When I started as an intern here in June, I knew nothing of the personalities, cases, or scandals that have shaped the reputations of the firms in The Am Law 200. All I knew were the firm's Web sites, and that is where I formed my first judgments.

Along the way, I was entertained, underwhelmed, made dizzy, and kept waiting. While some sites sent a clear message of what the firm was about, others left me a bit confounded. After consulting with others in the newsroom, here is an unscientific, subjective, highly debatable listing of The Am Law 100's best and worst Web sites, based on appearance, content, and special features. If nothing less, it proves that there is not a positive correlation between Web site design and revenue per partner.

The Top Web Sites in The Am Law 100:
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice: Winston the bulldog sucks you in, but there's a tremendous amount of content to follow. Check out the results of the firm's Web site update (expected to go live by mid-September).

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher: A newsroom favorite--clean, crisp, and concise. (Maybe we like it because it looks like a newspaper?)

White & Case: A frequent favorite of the Web developers I spoke to for this article.


Honorable Mention: Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner and Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

The Worst Sites of The Am Law 100:

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz: Reminiscent of a seventh-grade history project.

Davis Polk & Wardell: Not much better than Wachtell's. Simply a brochure placed online.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore: As one Web reporter described it, this site is Spartan. Associates don't even get bios, and the attorneys that do have meager descriptions.

Pepper Hamilton: White space can sometimes be a good thing, but not when it makes up a third of your home page. Is something still loading?

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom: Skadden apparently thinks the Cold War is ongoing--and they're on the side of the Soviets.

Honorable Mention: Sullivan & Cromwell and Kaye Scholer.

[Let us know if a relaunch is coming!]

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Have you noticed that the worst web sites correspond rather closely with the most profitable firms in the world? Perhaps web sites don't matter as much as you posit . . .

A law firm's web site is an important component for branding and highlighting the firm's philosophy and problem solving services--interactively. The task is for firms not to stop merely at the web site in its marketing measures. Many Attorneys still don't see themselves as businesspeople, let alone salespeople. Law schools teach attorneys how to think like lawyers, not necessarily about the business of law. While many attorneys may be articulate, few are charismatic or persuasive. Although, many attorneys aren't litigators, all attorneys are "problem solvers," which require a high level of interpersonal skills and persuasion. Left to their own device, many attorneys would be happier dealing with the technical aspects of law and leaving client development alone. Every industry in the marketplace has to compete for limited resources from education to religion to banking. The law profession can usher itself into the global economy or be dragged onto the world stage--kicking and screaming. The market place has already decided what will happen.

Edward Brown
Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute

Your list of good and bad websites is very subjective.

I think the bulldog is hokey and from a web development standpoint, the imbedded Flash player took for ever to load and had me reaching for the Back button.

Gibson & Dunn is absolutely horrible! There are no visual cues for your eye to follow. And what's with the useless news ticker at the bottom of the page? For anyone who reads faster than a 2nd grader, this is just frustratingly slow and pointless.

White & Case is the only one you got right, and that was probably because you had the input of actual web developers.

While the Herrick site is nice; clean, logical navigation and crisp copy, I fail to see the interactivity that you speak of? There was nothing compelling on the site. Nothing that would make me bookmark it or go back to it. It's brochure ware. Agreed it is better than some, but it is still full of marketing speak and no interactive conversation. The media section is weak. Where are the expert profiles or down loadable media files or photos? And worst of all the page urls are not optimized. The addresses are numbers and letters associated with the database and meaningless to search engines. All surface, no substance.

Without website objectives in place it is not surprising that firms define their sites in terms of handsome imagery, clever branding or pricey bells and whistles. Hence the law firm website-as-brochure paradigm. The problem: few law firms define strategic objectives for their website. It is even rarer for one to measure performance of their site against these strategic objectives. And it is most unusual to find a firm that uses its analytics to undertake a process for ongoing improvement.

One cannot imagine a transaction website that doesn’t tinker with improving the transaction funnel. Or an ad-supported website that wouldn’t strive for an increase in page views and time on page. Yet law firm websites are often ignoring or mis-identifying their Key Performance Indicators. Herrick’s “calling card” is their internal linkage. Thud. It is a “powerful information tool” Thud .Or is it “distinguishing a firm from the pack”? Thud. Or being “bookmarked” Thud. Bogus. Straw men.

Although this is oversimplified, the targeted personas for law firms are clients, prospect, potential lateral transfers and first year lawyers. Each persona has different content acquisition objectives. Define these, measure these and optimize them and law firm websites will improve. Until targeted site visitors are served and a law firm’s strategic objectives are met law firm websites will remain in the caboose.

Without website objectives in place it is not surprising that firms define their sites in terms of handsome imagery, clever branding or pricey bells and whistles. Hence the law firm website-as-brochure paradigm. The problem: few law firms define strategic objectives for their website. It is even rarer for one to measure performance of their site against these strategic objectives. And it is most unusual to find a firm that uses its analytics to undertake a process for ongoing improvement.

One cannot imagine a transaction website that doesn’t tinker with improving the transaction funnel. Or an ad-supported website that wouldn’t strive for an increase in page views and time on page. Yet law firm websites are often ignoring or mis-identifying their Key Performance Indicators. Herrick’s “calling card” is their internal linkage. Thud. It is a “powerful information tool” Thud .Or is it “distinguishing a firm from the pack”? Thud. Or being “bookmarked” Thud. Bogus. Straw men.

Although this is oversimplified, the targeted personas for law firms are clients, prospect, potential lateral transfers and first year lawyers. Each persona has different content acquisition objectives. Define these, measure these and optimize them and law firm websites will improve. Until targeted site visitors are served and a law firm’s strategic objectives are met law firm websites will remain in the caboose.

A law firm's marketing message on their website shoudl be "We want YOU to be satisfied."

Here's something refreshing: the General Counsel of AutoZone described in 20 words or less what his company does. He said:

"We are in the customer satisfaction business."

Notice that he didn't say he was in the business of selling auto parts. The company was all about making customer happy. And this quote is from a company lawyer, not a salesperson.

I read this in the new issue of momentum, the annual report magazine published by the Nashville law firm of Bass, Berry & Sims.

Law firms can learn a lesson from this client service attitude. Imagine if a law firm's marketing message were, "We're in the client satisfaction business, and do so by providing personalized legal services."

But instead, most law firms state on their websites some version of:

"For nearly two decades, our firm has been known as a premier law firm. Each of our practice areas is highly regarded, and our lawyers are recognized for their commitment to the representation of our clients’ interests throughout the U.S."

The difference is clear: one message focuses on the client, the latter focuses on the law firm.

Larry Bodine, Esq.
Apollo Business Development
http://twitter.com/LarryBodine

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