This is a copy of a post which I wrote for The Law Wizard blog,
dated 19 March 2014.


The internet is now the most common way for 18-34 year-olds to find a legal service provider, and it’s not far off the number 1 spot for the 35-54 age bracket. Where once law firms relied on physical shop windows, today a law firm’s shop window is its website. Notwithstanding, around 99.5% are pretty bad (ok, that’s a guess, but I don’t think I’m far off), and even some that have been recently overhauled have made basic mistakes.

I’ve not only been involved in building and commissioning a number of websites, I’ve also browsed more law firm websites than I care to imagine. If I was tasked with building the best law firm website in the world, this is how I’d do it.

Content before design

Content before design. The easiest and biggest mistake to make when creating a website is to ask someone to make something pretty, and then work out what to do with it. In fact, I would say that the ‘design’ in its most limited sense, i.e. making a website look nice, is one of the last tasks, and arguably one of the less important.

While it may be interesting to see examples of attractive law firm websites, content must always come first.

So much more than a website

So, how do you decide on content? Details of services, office addresses, solicitor profiles… that’s easy, and can be done later.

The first steps in deciding content include a clear understanding of core values, including:

  1. Who are the firm’s clients?
  2. Who is the website aimed at?
  3. What is the impression / what are the brand values that the firm wishes to convey?
  4. What do you want the website to achieve? (For example, is Search Engine Optimisation important? Perhaps less so for a small, boutique firm relying on word of mouth and repeat business.)
  5. How do your competitors convey themselves online, and what can you do to stand out?
  6. What is the tone of language you wish to use? (A nice, high end commercial firm may wish to adopt a different tone than a generalist high street firm.)
  7. Does the firm’s identity (commonly known as branding) need a refresh?

Scratch the surface of these questions (and others too), and you may find that there is much more to be done before the website even begins to take shape.

Take point 7. I would be reluctant to build a website around a tired identity. A law firm’s brand – i.e. not only its logo but more generally the impression it wishes to convey – is at the heart of the website. The two go hand in hand. Many law firms undergo a re-branding exercise at the same time as building a new website; I think this is a very sensible approach.

Accessibility

With the core values agreed, some more specific work can begin (we’re still a long way off from making things look pretty).

At this stage, my focus would be on ‘accessibility’, i.e. using the website to break down the barriers between solicitor and client. Among consumers there is “an acceptance that¬†legal services would be somewhat inaccessible and incomprehensible“. Anecdotally, this is the most common concern I hear about legal services.

A law firm’s website should do all it can to counter this perception and demystify the organisation. In doing so, it is far more likely to attract enquiries / encourage the visitor to take action.

Many law firms do this very badly (I quickly found an example of a terribly inaccessible website from a law firm in York, as of March 2014). Some do it very well. For example, a firm I came across recently in Liverpool called EAD Solicitors. I’m so impressed that I took a quick screenshot and highlighted some of the ways – just in the top half of the home page – that EAD’s website stands out in terms of accessibility.

EAD achieves a big tick for accessibility thanks in part to:

  1. Imagery, particularly faces of staff members, that demystify the people involved;
  2. Prominent telephone numbers (not shown in the image above, but fairly prominent throughout the site);
  3. Multiple communication channels, including chat, Skype and Twitter;
  4. Informal, friendly language (for example, ‘Hello’ instead of the usual ‘Home’).

The use of space and modern look-and-feel also helps, though that’s arguably getting into the realms of ‘making things pretty’ – remember, we’re not ready for that yet!

Validation

Reputation, reputation, reputation. It’s by far the number one factor influencing a consumer’s choice of legal service provider. Judging by many law firm websites, it seems that solicitors assume their reputation always precedes them. That’s not always so, and your website should shout about your firm’s reputation.

In more common website parlance, this is validation. In other words: persuading the visitor that you are the safest, best choice.

Almost without exception, law firm websites don’t cut the mustard in terms of validation. For example, there’s no reason why a law firm can’t use stats and surveys like Basecamp and Xero (totally different services) do on their websites.

If your firm helped buy and sell 250 homes last year, say so. If 95% of your clients were very satisfied with your service, say so. So few law firms do this that it’s a relatively easy way to stand out, but it also helps visitors to understand your size, strengths and quality.

Ramsdens website stat

Very well done to Ramsdens, a law firm in West Yorkshire, which says for example that 98% of clients felt they gave them advice that was easy to understand.

Better, not different?

With the philosophy and content of the website beginning to take shape, bear in mind that you’re aiming for better – not necessarily different.

This is not necessarily the best philosophy for everything, but in terms of building websites, people are used to browsing the web in a particular way. While creating the most innovative, unusual web experience may win awards, it may not win customers.

However, an example of a law firm website which manages to be captivatingly different while still offering a usable interface is Axiom.

Imagery and video

A long time before instructing a web design agency, I would be tempted to instruct a video marketing agency and a high quality professional photographer.

High quality photos are a wonderful asset for a website, not only to break down barriers but also on an aesthetic level. EAD Solicitors (mentioned above) do this well, not only with staff photos but also with carefully-chosen stock photos. Stock photos can make a website look horrendously tacky if mis-chosen, but good stock photography will add interest and colour.

The jury’s out about video. It must be done properly or it will do more harm than good. Doing it properly probably means instructing a professional video marketing agency. That costs money, not to mention time and effort. Not all visitors will watch the video (only a few dozen have watched ours since it went live in late January).

However, video can be a unique and wonderful way to convey a message and philosophy. If your website already receives significant monthly hits (a few thousand at least), it may well be worth it, as you could be reaching a wide audience.

Making it look pretty, and some technical considerations

I’ve skipped a few steps including structure, navigation, calls to action, SEO, online services, blogging, content marketing and how to choose a web agency – maybe more on those in a future blog post.

By now, you’re getting close to making the website look pretty, the tip of the iceberg in terms of design. While a web designer will most likely handle much of this for, bear in mind:

  1. Easy content management: you need relatively non-skilled members of your team to be able to add and update content frequently and easily (WordPress is one of the most common CMS platforms – we use it at thelawwizard.com);
  2. Every month, the number of mobile / tablet users increases – make sure the website is responsive, i.e. it adapts to different-size displays;
  3. The psychology of colour – actually, part of your earlier brand decisions;
  4. Keep it flexible – the website should adapt over time.

Why bother anyway?

Is it all worth the bother? Aside from the fact that more people are shopping around and going online to find legal services (see above), consider these often lesser-appreciated benefits of a new website…

Your philosophy will be clearer. The process of building a website should include a long hard look at your outlook, brand, customers and philosophy. Condensing it all into a website can be a revealing and motivational experience.

Your staff will be happier; happier staff are more productive; your firm will make more money. Yes, I’ll stand by these bold assertions! A website not only looks outwards to clients but also inwards to staff; it can help to convey the firm’s philosophy, and make your team even more proud to work for you. My sister Flo is a trainee at Leeds law firm Clarion. She agrees, and says she’d be disappointed if the firm had a bad website. Luckily, Clarion recently relaunched its website, providing another great example of law firm web design.

You’re more likely to attract better staff. Your website is not only a shop window for clients, but also for solicitors. Again, my trainee solicitor sister, having recently gone through the process of choosing a law firm, agrees.

And after it’s all done, remember that it’s not just the website that matters, but the whole service. So, if you don’t have well-trained, helpful staff manning phones, and if you only reply to web enquiries after two weeks, it may have all been for nothing.

If you are in the process of relaunching your website, the very best of luck!