This article first appeared in LAW PRACTICE TODAY on April 14, 2017. A moderated panel by Nicholas Gaffney.
Websites have come a long way since the original online brochure. Today’s websites not only offer information about a firm’s people and practices, they’re designed to engage clients and potential clients with compelling content and offer opportunities to connect through blogs and links to the firm’s social media channels. Some firms do it better than others with sites that boldly define the firm’s brand, and inspire visitors to take that decisive call to action. How can you be sure your site is one of those high performers? This month, our panel of experts discusses best practices for law firm website design.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a veteran public relations practitioner with Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.
Rahul Alim (RA) is the founder and CEO of Custom Creatives, a digital marketing agency in Los Angeles, CA that specializes in attorney marketing and website design.
Darren Kall (DK) is the managing director of Specific Clarity, a user experience (UX) company helping companies of all sizes create the best product experiences for their customers, employees and all types of users. Before co-founding Specific Clarity, Darren worked at Microsoft, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, LexisNexis, and IBM. He was a US representative to the standards body of the UN’s agency for information and communication technologies.
Jeff Lantz (JL) is an attorney and the CEO of Esquire Interactive LLC, a leading provider of custom website development, branding, internet marketing, social media, and video services for attorneys and law firms. He is also the author of the ABA book Internet Branding for Lawyers: Creating The Client-Centered Website, and works with lawyers to develop and implement personalized branding and marketing strategies.
Deborah McMurray (DMM) is the founder and CEO of Content Pilot LLC, a strategy, design, content, and technology company. A former law firm CMO, Deborah and her team help law firms from global powerhouses to local boutiques with the design and launch of websites and proposal centers, experience databases and other marketing technology tools. In 2008, she was among the first inductees into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame, and in 2007, was elected as a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In December 2013, she was on the inaugural list of National Law Journal’s “2013 Top 50 Legal Business Trailblazers & Pioneers.” Deborah’s latest ABA book was just released: Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 4th Edition – available at https://shop.americanbar.org/eBus/Store/ProductDetails.aspx?productId=273628281&term=marketing+on+the+Internet
Lynda Decker (LD) is president and creative director of Decker Design, a New York City-based design consultancy. Believing that there was a way to combine the wit of advertising and the discipline of design, she established Decker Design in 1996. The firm has grown steadily with clients such as Boise, Schiller Flexner; White & Case; Dechert; Citigroup, and International Paper. The firm has won recognition from Communication Arts, Webby, AIGA, Print Magazine, and numerous others. Last year she published the book Responsive Branding: Why Agility Beats Structure in a Multi-Channel World.
Ben M. Rose (BMR) is the founder of The Law Offices of Ben M. Rose, PLLC, where he practices general litigation for small and medium-sized businesses throughout the State of Tennessee. Prior to forming his own firm, Ben practiced for larger litigation firms in Nashville and Knoxville. He is also a former legislative staffer for the U.S. House of Representatives.
NG: Best practices in website design are constantly evolving. What new design practices do you suggest that law firms and their designers consider?
RA: Start with your target audience. Before you get started on a website project, you must define the purpose of your new website. Is it for credibility, gaining new customers online, educate your existing customers or potential new prospects, or build lots of leads. Knowing this upfront is very important to how you approach the flow of the design to attract the right type of person.
Create your plan. Next up is establishing your pages and navigation through the website. Keep it simple for users; remember they are not attorneys. Typically most attorneys will have pages such as home page, about us, our attorneys, results/testimonies, contact us, free case analysis, attorney blog, locations. As content becomes more important, internet-savvy attorneys are moving into podcasts and videos on a regular basis.
Communicate your message clearly and effectively. Keep language and information targeted towards your audience, which can vary by practice area and location. Use clear call to actions on your website, like a free consultation. Add credibility with testimonies, awards, credentials, publications, etc. to impress your visitor. Your content is used to convert views to leads; tell your story well.
Evolve. Change with change. Just like the law changes, so does design and more importantly your audience. They are attracted to the best content, the best story, the fastest-loading website.
Growth. Market your website online. If you build they may come, but if you market it, you can get in front of your customer when they are searching for your service.
Often on the internet, you get just one chance to make an impression. Make it count and use your website as leverage to gain more clients.
DK: Many design practices would benefit any business website. Because of the nature of legal business, two design factors should get specific attention from law firms:
Responsive Web Design (RWD): While not new, RWD is table stakes for a law firm website. Your potential clients are checking out your site on a variety of devices with different screen sizes. If your site is not responding to their mobile device screen, it is putting speed bumps in the way of getting to your content. Users will move on to another practice’s site rather than deal with the friction of using yours.
Performance: The ability of a site to load quickly and respond to user actions, is gaining renewed focus in 2017. Since many legal sites have bloated image files, carousels, and other bandwidth gluttons the waiting time for sites to load exceeds user patience. People under normal circumstances make amazingly quick decisions about reputation, likeability, and their personal threshold for waiting. Under stress, these decisions are accelerated. They move on, never having seen your brand or your services.
JL: Large professional imagery of the firm and firm attorneys, especially on a website’s home page. Quality artistic images (not headshots), in my view, are immeasurable in enhancing the perceived quality of a law firm. Focused messages—again on the home page in particular—are also a must.
DMM: Content Pilot has conducted and sponsored six comprehensive studies of the websites of the largest law firms in the world based on an evolving set of 10 foundational best practices. The first five studies used the AmLaw 100 firms as the body of firms analyzed. The 2016 study focused on the AmLaw Global 50 firms. The websites were analyzed in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2013, and 2016. Mobility is the greatest game-changer for design that we have seen since we started our research—and it is now a case of the mobile tail wagging the desktop dog.
Responsive design is an important design trend that rapidly became a best practice. With 25% or more of visitors viewing law firm websites on mobile devices, beautiful design on-the-go is essential. 20 of the Global 50 law firms in the 2016 study were not responsive, but 100% of all websites launched in 2016 and later are.
LD: Often when confronted with a redesign, law firms will make several common errors. These are:
- Technology is intimidating and often a law firm will choose a web (vendor) partner that leads with technology and subordinates the importance of communication or design principles. Communication becomes subjugated to the needs of the software. It’s one reason that so many law firm websites look alike. Fear of making an (expensive) mistake combined with the unfamiliarity of the latest technological protocols drives people to place a disproportionate focus on technology. Technology is important, but technology is a tool to serve the master, which is effective communication.
- A rush to the finish line. Often firms will put off addressing the website until they are desperate to get it done. And then they want to dismiss the work it takes and the time to uncover the firm’s unique value proposition. “Discovery” should be phase one of the proposal and it is by far the most critical. Most law firms are very similar but each one possess a difference that can be emphasized.
- Failure to really consider the benefits of design. It’s easy to understand and recognize good copy but design is another question. Many of us in the industry would say that the contribution of design to a web experience is often underestimated, if not marginalized. Design is not an exercise in superficial aesthetics or styling, but rather, a far more serious matter of problem-solving and experience-shaping, driven by a rigorous approach that includes observation and inquiry. It synthesizes human behavior and improves engagement, to say nothing of creating an opportunity to connect more meaningfully with an audience.
BMR: I think websites serve two purposes: to attract new client prospects and to qualify and funnel those client prospects into leads, which hopefully result in new clients. When designing a website, those purposes should come first. Beyond that, I think a website is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out among your peers. You should not be afraid to try something unique, or novel, to set you apart from the rest of the pack.
NG: Nobody wants to have a “leisure suit” website that looks hopelessly outdated. What design aspects used in the past for law firm websites should be avoided?
RA: Today you must have a mobile-friendly website. Don’t kid yourself that no one searches for your type of service on phones. They do, and go elsewhere if you are not mobile-friendly and easy to navigate.
Avoid old photos and stock photos. Realtors do this all the time, but avoid it. It diminishes your credibility.
Remove any flash objects that appear on your website. Flash no longer works on most browsers and mobile devices. It creates a blank space on the website that is unattractive, like an abandoned building.
Get other people’s opinions of your website, such as peers or design agencies.
JL: Trying to cram too much information “above the fold” (or even on a page). Resist the urge to add more text even where there is space to do so—your audience will thank you.
DK: User perception of law firm websites isn’t just about noticing if the style is outdated. Users also notice when the style is “ill-fitted.” Users recognize the subtle clues when a site is simply content pushed into a template designed for another purpose. And the firm’s brand loses credibility. Good design adds instant credibility to a law firm website. Don’t just buy or use a website template and fill it out. Instead, have intention and design for your specific purpose, and your specific brand. Investing in design shows that the law firm cares, and that level of investment translates into clients believing that you will show the same level of attention to their problems and concerns. Good user experience design speaks loudly.
Law firms are at a deficit compared to other businesses because of the cultural impression of lawyers. Like it or not, these stereotypes are something law firms must invest in to overcome just to reach parity. Don’t let your website act like most people expect lawyers to act:
- Don’t launch an audio or video track when someone lands on a page. Let users choose to have you talk at them.
- Get rid of the banners, flashing objects, and other cluttered distractions. Show that you’re focused, calm, and listening instead.
- Dump your stock photos and clip-art legal graphics. Images of scales and photos of beautiful people having happy meetings are not going to help your brand because they’re not authentic, and not representative of your value. More than other professions, law firms need to control their impression management with better images. That goes for the stiff, “high-school yearbook” posed photos of partners and staff too. You should hire professional photographers to create the best images of your staff possible.
DMM: The biggest thing that says “leisure suit” is the width of the website. Websites at 1024×768 were the best practice in 2005 and 2006 (replacing 800×600), but we still see them for law firms large and small. Today, we must assume that visitors are viewing the website across multiple devices of all different sizes—a desktop monitor of 30+ inches to an Apple Watch. This is another argument for responsive design, which ensures that the design scales to fit the device on which it is viewed.
Dense content home pages and heavy interior pages have a “template” look that screams “yesterday”—as well as stock images of conference tables, people shaking hands, gavels, columns, and courthouses. A lot of unfortunate imagery is on law firm websites. Choose iconic and arresting images that help you tell your story.
(One more thing that makes your visitors shudder: Lawyer photos that are 10 or more years old. Own those 10 extra pounds and that receding hairline!)
LD: Law firm sites tend to be formulaic. Remember this is a profession where success based on precedent. It is very conservative. There are very few outliers.
First and foremost a website must be responsive. Mobile is critical and there are still firms who have sites that do not function well across all devices. Boies Schiller Flexner until recently had a website with a navigation that worked like pages in a book. It was an interesting approach when websites were in their nascent phase, but was unusable in today’s smartphone environment. Creating websites that would function like a piece of print represented a moment—a moment that should not be repeated. Digital communication should be harnessed for its full power providing links to related content, video and thought leadership.
I’ve been seeing a trend among smaller, boutique firms. They often tend to use photos of their offices—empty offices. What does that mean in terms of brand message? What does that say in terms of positioning? It’s too much of an emphasis on interior design and not on the impact a firm may have on their clients.
BMR: Excessive borders, background gradients, and beveled buttons are all examples of dated design trends. A really easy way to date a site is to over-design it. So, keeping things simple and clean is a great way to avoid that. When my website for the new firm was initially designed, it was the standard, cookie-cutter frames site that every other law firm uses. I wanted something different. I think we accomplished that goal, especially on a rather modest budget.
NG: A variety of content management system (CMS) are available that allow law firms to easily manage their website without knowing how to code. What CMS platform would you recommend, and why?
RA: WordPress hands down. It is the #1 website platform on the planet and has the most flexibility to customize designs, great for optimizing for search engines (like Google), and has a huge developer community. It is very easy to use for non-techy users for basic updates. It does not require special software to make edits, and it is easier to scale up when needed rather than starting over.
The only caution is that since it is so popular, and like anything in the world, there are good designs/developers and there are bad ones. Choosing the wrong person can hurt you.
JL: This one is easy for me: WordPress. It’s free, secure, easy to use by those with no coding knowledge, and has over 40,000 plugins (apps) which have been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times. WordPress now powers about 25% of all new websites in the world (about 10 times the number of the second-most popular CMS platform). Hundreds of thousands of developers are using WordPress, and almost all hosting companies host WordPress sites, so firms will never have to worry that they can’t find a developer or hosting company for their needs.
DMM: In my latest book, which is on ABA and other bookstore shelves, “Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, 4th Edition,” we identify several proprietary platforms that have been built and customized exclusively for law firms. Content Pilot (my company) has such a CMS platform. More and more, WordPress is a popular platform because it has literally thousands of people around the world developing plug-ins and widgets for it. Some security risk comes with this of which to be aware—there are nefarious people who are seeking access to your confidential data and systems. Another large and quite popular CMS is Sitecore.
LD: We like RubyLaw, a custom CMS created by Rubenstein Technology. For small firms, a simple CMS like WordPress is great. WordPress has to be maintained, however; if it is not updated on a regular basis it has security issues. And small firms often do not want to pay for maintenance.
BMR: WordPress and Drupal are the most used content management systems in the world right now, for good reasons. They are open source, extendable, and come with great tools for SEO. There is also a large community of developers that are familiar and can work with them. For a law firm like ours, this also means that we can avoid issues with proprietary code and have a lot of flexibility when selecting our marketing or web development partners.
NG: There has been a lot of hype recently about the new Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) Project and its standards for mobile websites, which allow mobile website pages to load hyper-fast, and which potentially may provide higher rankings in the mobile search results for websites using AMP. The downside is that some functionality, such as contact forms and slideshows, won’t work with AMP coding. What are your thoughts on Google AMP—should law firms embrace this technology and convert their mobile sites to AMP, or avoid AMP?
DK: Normally you’ll hear me saying that given a list of user experience improvements I would choose fast performance over most any other user experience improvement. Since AMP is stripped down, it stomps at performance. But functionality, adoption and support are still evolving, which means that using AMP means consciously trading out some functionality and user experiences. For clients with a clear matching need I would suggest experimenting with AMP and measuring the impact on your KPIs. Since it is not the ambition of most law firms to be iterating designs on the cutting edge, I recommend waiting until AMP matures, then decide.
JL: I’m not currently recommending AMP for law firms, as I think that the functionality that often must be given up is not worth the slight increase in speed for mobile websites. This is particularly the case for firms for which high search engine rankings are not critical.
BMR: AMP’s objective is to put the needs of the website visitor first, which is a good thing in my view. But, even if we look at AMP as a potential fad—something that might fade over time—we are still faced with the reality that Google favors websites that utilize the technology and will continue to do so, perhaps even more in the future. So, I think anyone who is invested in digital marketing should certainly consider investing in AMP.
NG: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a critical part of solid website development. In light of Google’s ever-changing rankings algorithms, what should developers and website owners be the most focused on today with respect to the development of their website?
RA: Focus on users first, Google and other search engines second. After all, you are targeting humans. I know you want to rank and be seen on search engines too, which is why your copy should be relevant to your business and practice area. Website design and SEO go hand in hand, they are also itemized tasks, sort of like different practice areas that overlap but are not conducted by the same person. If they are done by the same person something is wrong—rarely can you find a jack of all trades, typically that means a master of none.
Developers should follow the basics of SEO such as relevant meta tags, xml sitemap, setting robots.txt, schema mark up, setting Google analytics, Google tag manager, and Google search console. I would recommend leaving the heavy lifting of SEO to a digital marketing agency that has results to back it up.
For website owners, I recommend educating yourself on just the basics. Do research so you know a bit about what you want and how to hire someone. Understand your goals and review them with your agency; any good firm will tell it to you straight.
JL: High rankings in large part depend upon having quality content that is frequently updated and using SEO best practices to help Google understand how to best index the content. Attorneys should start blogging if they are not already doing so. Blogging will help convey expertise, improve website rankings, and create an opening for a conversation with potential clients.
DMM: Focus on designing a perfect experience for your human visitors and chances are, you will also be making the search engine robots “happy.” In addition, focus on the basics. “Site Optimization and Online Search” is the eighth foundational best practice in the research study we just completed. Here is a list of the “foundational” things every website should have. The score at the end of each attribute is how the Global 50 law firm websites scored on that attribute—on a scale of 1 to 100.
- High-quality back-links and link relevancy are present throughout the site / 100
- Site features strong, properly structured HTML content on the home page and interior pages / 65
- HTML site-maps are present and include all pages organized in a clear hierarchy / 65
- Smart URLs with appropriate syntax are used in all sections / 76
- Page titles, meta-descriptions and natural keyword usage are used throughout the site / 68
- Images have alt tags that provide alternative text when images cannot be displayed / 56
- Tabbed bio and practice/industry pages all have the same page URL / 72
- Correct schema mark-up is present throughout the site / 12
- Site provides fast page load (less than 4 seconds) / 81
BMR: The best thing you can do to future proof your site is to ensure that you are providing the best content you possibly can. Google’s updates are focused on improving its ability to help the consumer find what they are looking for. This means faster websites and more relevant content. The better your content speaks to the questions and needs your prospects have, the better you will rank.
NG: Are there any SEO aspects that worked well in the past, but not today?
JL: A lot of the past link-building practices (link farms, paid links, etc.) will now harm rankings, and should be avoided. Spamming keywords in pages doesn’t work either; no one would ever start a paragraph with, “the Chicago personal injury lawyers of XYZ practice personal injury law in Chicago and help personal injury victims recover compensation for personal injuries.”
BMR: I have learned that there are a lot of SEO practices that have changed with time. One big change has been the use of meta keywords and “keyword stuffing,” which has been degraded to the point that it has no value anymore.
NG: What advice would you give a law firm in terms of how to best convey their brand on their website in a way that will resonate with potential clients?
DK: User experience professionals should not be representing themselves in legal matters or writing their own contracts. Lawyers should not be creating their brands or designing their own websites. It is not what they are good at.
Lawyers are experts at what they do and should express who they are to people who are experts at creating brand representations. Let user experience experts transform the law firm’s identity into a brand that will convey that expertise to the target audience of clients. Together they can optimize the representation of the brand.
To succeed with a brand realization, know your business goals clearly, and know your audience deeply. No one-size-fits-all solution to convey brand, just like there is no one-size-fits-all brand for law firms. Law firms vary by practice area, in their desire to appeal to a precise audience with specific needs and means, e.g. “I’m the perfect legal partner.” “I’m the one to call when you’re in trouble.” “I can help you avoid predictable dangers.”
JL: Focus on your clients and their needs. Make a list of their key needs and objectives, and create messages targeted to those needs and objectives. Address the matters that your clients want to see.
LD: By now, everyone knows the most traffic on a law firm site is in the biography area. It’s critical to have great photography here, and a consistent format with clear, concise writing. The homepage is the best place to differentiate the firm from the competition. Each firm is different and there is no formula other than a thorough Discovery process to unearth the key differentiators.
DMM: Be true to who you are. Be authentic. And don’t be afraid to make bold choices and be different. If you look the same as every firm in your city, state or region, you will never be hired as often as you could be. A firm down the street with a more compelling message will be chosen over you.
It starts with a unique and differentiating positioning strategy. That comes first. Your brand design should infuse your firm with personality—it should humanize you. Ultimately, the questions you should first ask are: Who are your clients? What keeps them awake at night? Why are they hiring you? Where are their industries going? What markets are they expanding to? What are their greatest fears and risks? What makes them happy?
Answer these questions and then be the exactly right fit and solution to what they need. Your brand and design will organically evolve from that.
BMR: Craft an experience and a message that matters to them. Make sure that your design and marketing team understand that audience very well. User personas of your target audience can help a lot.
NG: Is having more content on a website homepage better, or is having less content better? How does a law firm determine what kind of information to put on their homepage?
DK: The information architecture of a home page is goal-specific. It is not a question of more or less being better. The question is: “Does the amount of content matches your user’s goals?” The content, its amount, the arrangement, and flow of content elements depend on the nature of your law firm’s business, market conditions, and the priority of your goals. The content decision must match the task of the target client’s purpose at the time they visit your home page. For example, when the potential client comes to your site, are they a first-time user or repeat client? Are they directed there because of a personal contact or did they land there through a search? Are they at the research or decision phase of their task flow? Is the user looking for a generalist or a specialist? Know your user, then design your homepage content.
JL: Having a text-heavy home page is no longer a prerequisite for high rankings. Again, focusing on imagery and key messages are the most critical. Your home page should not be a dissertation on the 47 reasons that your firm is better than competitors.
DMM: There is a battle between beautiful design and a search engine optimized homepage. Designers today are generally promoting “less-is-more”—at least above the fold—and SEO proponents want to ensure that 500 or so words are on the home page within view. Firms must decide what’s most important to them—a minimalist, clean design that is inviting to buyers of legal services, or a home page that is chock-full of content for the search engines to find.
Another trend today is to design a “magazine-style” website that features arresting “hero” images, and a headline and several content segments that come to light when a visitor scrolls down. It is a way of ensuring that important content is on the home page, even if it appears below the fold.
LD: It depends. Some firms use their homepage as a portal—this seems to say that a firm just can’t be bothered with positioning.
The homepage is an ideal place to position a law firm. Boise Schiller Flexner and Quinn Emmanuel both effectively use their home page to establish their brands. Neither uses a lot of copy but you immediately get a sense of why they are different from other firms.
This question speaks to the communication objectives of the website. Is the firm known for thought leadership? Does it publish a great deal? What makes the firm different? Once the key differentiators are discovered, then positioning and a brand and marketing strategy can flow from that. A communication strategy would be created to support the brand and marketing strategy. It’s important to understand that there is no one answer, unless you want to commoditize your offering and blend in with your competition.
BMR: More content means more relevancy, but on the home page that can lead to confusion or over informing the prospect. The content on the home page should go back to the questions of what the prospect wants, needs, and is looking for when they visit the site. Typically, with a law firm, your goals are to quickly qualify your practice, demonstrate your unique value, and point the audience to internal pages containing expanded information on your specialties to further qualify you.
NG: Assuming that a website is well-optimized, what is the one critical thing that website owners should be doing to increase their organic rankings?
RA: Write good copy and distribute it online. Make it better than your competitors. Try different things like video and audio.
JL: Blog frequently on your firm’s website (not somewhere else). Postings that address frequently asked questions (FAQs) are a great way to start.
DMM: See the list above in question #5, then focus on creating relevant content that is current, focused and keyword-rich in the most important areas to your visitors and firm. Analytics that we track prove that 40-70% of visitors view lawyer bios. Yet, it is like pulling teeth to get lawyers to update their bios with their latest experience. It’s a best practice for lawyers to update bios quarterly—if the search engines see current and relevant content on the bio pages, overall the website will perform better.
BMR: Create a stream of content via a blog or news feed. Every new piece of content is a new web page and a new opportunity to be relevant for more search engine queries.