This four part series will show you everything you need to know about creating successful legal websites.

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Part 1: Where to Begin

In this four part series we’re going to look at the entire process of creating a successful website for the legal sector: from determining whether you need a website right up to testing and launching. Although we’re focusing on the legal sector, these same principles are also applicable to most professional service industries.

Why build a (new) website?

There’s a pretty obvious answer to this. Everyone needs a website to advertise their goods and/or services. Think about it, every website you visit is trying to sell itself or something else. Maybe you aren’t paying for the service, but someone is.

So clearly, every law firm — no matter their size, specialties, or location — needs to let the world know they exist. You may have a small two or three person practice or a multinational, multi-million dollar legal juggernaut. While the size may determine your budget, it can also guide the approachyou take when presenting yourself to site visitors.

But, what if you already have a website? Do you need a new one? Perhaps. First, there are some questions that you need to ask yourself about your current website:

  • Does my site display and function properly on cell phones and/or tablets?
  • Are visitors able to find the content they need quickly and easily?
  • Are people finding my site on Google and other search engines?
  • When I post a link to my site on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, does it look the way I’d like it to?
  • Am I keeping my content up to date?

If you’ve answered “no” to any of these questions, it may be time to consider a new website.

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What do you need to prepare?

Once you’ve decided that you need a new website, then it’s time to move forward and prepare your firm for the new project. First things first: who is in charge?

This time, the roles are reversed and you are the client. As a client, you’re in the best position to choose your project leader, or leaders. Project leaders won’t make all of the decisions, but these should be people who can appreciate the concerns of all stakeholders and communicate those concerns to the web agency. These people will make decisions like choosing whether an email address is displayed before or after a phone number on your people profiles, these aren’t the people who’ll decide if there are people profiles.

Typically one or all of these project leaders should be from your marketing department or have a marketing background. Of course with smaller firms, these people may wear many hats internally, but it’s important that they be able to understand the needs of everyone using the website (e.g. client and prospective clients, internal staff, external law professionals.)

So, you have your project leader(s) who will be working directly with the web agency, but what about all those other people who want to have a say?

Management, HR, Senior Partners, other Lawyers with the firm all want to have input. So, your team should establish a steering committee with representatives from each department that has an interest in the website. Your steering committee needs to meet on a regular basis and it’s crucial that all members are able to make most, if not all of the meetings.

Steering committee meetings should not include the web agency. There will be opportunities for everyone to get together a couple of times throughout the project, but having your 8–10 person steering committee meet with two to four team members from the web agency will result in long meetings that leave questions unanswered and eat through the project budget.

Your web agency should provide you with a Project Manager or Account Manager. This person will work with you to establish project timelines, including scheduled meetings with your project leader(s). Your steering committee meetings should then be built around the outcomes of these project meetings. Questions may be raised by the web agency that require input from the steering committee and vice versa.

Now that your team is established, it’s time to think about what kind of website you want. In most cases, there are three main approaches to legal web design.

The first is the “service and industry” focus. This is the focus of choice for a lot of firms who work in a handful of industry sectors or only provide a set number of services. This approach can be tailored to the size of your firm. If you’re only offering three services in two industry sectors, your web project can be scaled down and the budget can be reduced accordingly. This approach is an effective way to call out your services or industry foci on your site. Your site may feature news posts, blogs posts, lawyer profiles, etc., but everything will be connected back to a particular service or industry you specialize in. For instance, a user should be able to find a blog post on your site that leads them directly to a related service page or people profile.

The second approach is the “people” focus. This approach tends to be most popular among large firms with many partners. It isn’t hard to understand the appeal of this approach. We naturally love to let the world know who we are. It’s an especially effective strategy for firms with high profile, well-known partners. However, when the people profiles become the focus, it’s important to avoid saturating the profiles with information that isn’t useful to most users. Including too much content on your site may cause visitors to disengage and can also take a hefty chunk out of your web development budget.

The third approach the “education” focus. This is a somewhat less common, but nonetheless interesting approach. Sites that focus on education tend to provide lots of top quality content, making your website a hub of legal information. In this way, your site can become a valuable resource, not just for your clients and prospective clients, but for other law professionals as well. This approach achieves success when it establishes your firm as an industry leader. This approach requires the most investment by your firm, but has the potential to garner national, or even international recognition for your firm as one of the best in the business.

Naturally, your site can, and should include aspects of each of these approaches, but it’s important to choose a primary focus and stick to it.

How do you find the right web agency?

I’ve hired legal professionals in the past for various reasons, and I’ve never hired one who had their office in their basement. You shouldn’t be hiring someone like this to design your legal website. No disrespect to the freelancing community, but your legal website needs to be able to support your brand, your identity and reliably get the information you need out to your site visitors. This requires a team of experts from a variety of fields.

There are two ways to go about hiring a web agency.

The first is referral by word of mouth. This might involve soliciting recommendations from other firms, or researching legal sites that accord with your own goals and reaching out to the agency that created that site.

The second, and much more common approach is to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP). This is a document that outlines your needs, goals and expectations for your new website. Add as much relevant detail as possible.

  • Do you want a Twitter feed on your home page? Include it in your RFP.
  • Do you need to integrate with a third party content management system? Include it in your RFP.

A quick Google search for “How to write an RFP” should turn up a few useful resources on properly crafting the document.

Now that you have your RFP, who should you send it to? The short answer is: not everyone.

Seek out agencies that you would actually like to work with. Find websites you like and find out who made them. Often times the site will display a link to the agency’s website. However, on legal websites, these are often left out. If this is the case, don’t hesitate to reach out to the owner of the site. Whether they had a great or terrible experience, you’ll normally get reliable, honest advice. If you belong to a marketing association or other community, your peers may know of other agencies doing great things.

Once you have a list of agencies, send out your RFP. Make sure you’ve given the agencies sufficient time to respond. A great proposal doesn’t come in a day. A serious proposal needs to be run by multiple high level decision-makers so as to ensure that the agency can stick to the quotes they’ve provided. A great proposal should anticipate and address all of your questions about the project and the agency itself.

It’s also important to allow agencies to ask you questions. Typically, RFPs include a deadline for questions. All questions should be collected and answered in a single addendum issued to all agencies. During the evaluation process it’s important to weigh the questions asked into the equation.

  • Did the agency ask a question that was already answered by the RFP?
  • Did the agency ask something off topic?
  • Did the agency ask a question that hadn’t been considered but needed to be addressed?

During the evaluation process you will typically narrow your options down to 3–5 agencies. It’s okay to consider cost as a factor when making your decision, but cost shouldn’t be at the top of your priority list. If cost is an issue, be sure to consider the billable hours. If two agencies provide the same dollar quote with different time estimates, you need to consider why one agency is charging more per hour than another.

Don’t let the sticker price alone prevent you from choosing an otherwise great agency. Perhaps your budget isn’t consistent with your project scope. A great agency will work with you to help identify opportunities to reduce the scope of your project in certain areas while still delivering a world class website within (or close to) your original budget.

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