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Technology: Lighting the Internet on Fire

by Daniel J. Siegel

Spring 2006, Vol. 69, No. 1

Virtually every lawyer has a listing in the phone book. Certainly, every law firm has a listing in the phone book. If I would even suggest that firms forgo their listings, most lawyers would say I was crazy. Why? Because a phone book listing is one of the most basic pieces of marketing you can do. After all, if clients or potential clients want to find you, they will look in the phone book, right? Well, maybe, but nowadays they are more apt to turn to the Internet. According to an October 2005 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, sixty-eight percent of American adults, or about 137 million people, use the Internet. That’s a huge market of potential clients.

Despite these overwhelming numbers, however, many lawyers and law firms have no presence on the Internet. Some do not have a Web site, while others do not use e-mail. One Pennsylvania-based bar association estimates that one-third of its members do not have e-mail addresses. That is an astounding statistic. In this day and age, clients and prospective clients expect you to have a Web site and, if you do not have one, you risk being perceived as completely out of touch with life in the twenty-first century.

Setting Up a Web Site

Why are so many attorneys averse to using the Internet? They provide many explanations, but in reality they are offering nothing more than excuses. In today’s technology-driven world, there are few valid reasons why any private law firm would choose not to have a Web site and e-mail. A Web site has become nearly as basic a marketing tool as a business card, and e-mail use is far more pervasive than fax machine use. Thus, this article will outline why every private law firm should have a Web site, even if it is nothing more than an online brochure, as well as e-mail addresses for each attorney and your support staff. In addition, I will dispel the myths that being Web-enabled is either complicated or expensive.

Generally, the excuses for why firms do not have a Web site fall into a few categories:
• It is too expensive;
• They do not have Internet access; or,
• They do not know how to use this newfangled technology.

None of these excuses is valid.

Not Too Pricey

Let’s look at the cost argument first. You hear it all the time—having a Web site is expensive. It is, and it isn’t. Just like purchasing an ad in the Yellow Pages, a Web site can cost as much or as little as your budget allows, and, like a phone book listing, what you spend does not always correlate with the business you receive. Some firms set up a Web site for literally pennies and generate lots of business, while there are firms that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the most technologically advanced Web site, only to discover that it is generating virtually no business. When you commit to setting up a Web site, you are really talking about two components—the hosting (the cost of storing the Web site on an Internet-accessible computer) and the design (its appearance and content).

Web hosting is not expensive (although you can pay a lot for it if you really want), and your firm does not need to have Internet access in order to have a Web site. Virtually all Web sites are hosted by companies that specialize in Web hosting, and all of the content is generally stored on the host company’s servers. For example, one of the larger hosting companies will store up to a 5,000 megabyte Web site for just $2.99 per month. To give you some idea how much storage that is, a twenty-five-page Web site might use three or four megabytes, which means that a 500-page Web site, which is far larger than most small or mid-sized firms have, will use only a fraction of the allotted space. And the $2.99 price includes registering the name (the www.com Internet address), hosting the Web site, 500 e-mail addresses, and free technical support twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That is a lot of bang for the price of a cup of designer coffee.

While other companies may charge more to host your Web site, they will probably provide additional value-added services. For example, a hosting service can track the number of hits (visitors) to your site and tell you from where they came. This type of information is very important when evaluating the effectiveness of the site.

But the real cost of a Web site is in the design. How much information you provide is your decision. If all you want is a Web site with only basic information about your firm, the cost to set up that type of site should be comparatively small. In this type of site, which is adequate for many firms, you would include the name of the firm, the location of its offices, the names of the attorneys, and the areas in which the firm practices. Even if that is your entire Web presence, you will still be providing clients and prospective clients with more information than they could have ever obtained from reading a Yellow Pages ad. In addition, if you are moderately tech savvy, you can probably set up this kind of site yourself, although I do not recommend the do-it-yourself approach.

On the flip side, you can create a more elaborate custom-designed site that changes daily, contains detailed data about your firm, and copies of all of the articles and other impressive stuff you do. Some Web sites, such as the Philadelphia Bar Association’s (www.philadelphiabar.org) offer the ability to have “live” feeds of news and other information. Others contain flash (fancy) graphics or streaming video (essentially online movies) or other additional features. If you spend enough money, your Web site can include almost every bell and whistle imaginable.

In between the basic and the fancy is the middle of the road, a category that encompasses most Web sites, not just those of law firms. These sites are frequently created from templates—stock designs—and then modified for a particular customer’s needs. The choice is yours.

Web Designers

Regardless of how extensive your Web site, you should probably hire a professional to design it. First, most lawyers are not designers, and creating a Web site is a skill just like cross-examination is. Second, there is more to a Web site than meets the eye. Web sites are written in computer code, generally known as “html.” Go to any Web page, click on the “View” tab, and then click on “Source.” What you will then see is the actual computer code for that page. Do you really want to try your hand at creating that?

In addition, there is more to having a Web site than a great design. Your content must be informative, easy-to-read and, if you are trying to get new clients, encourage visitors to retain your services. There are also behind-the-scenes things, like Titles and MetaTags and Keywords, which are vitally important if you want your Web site to show up prominently when potential clients search on Yahoo! or Google. And you have to know how to submit your site to the search engines. Not surprisingly, law schools do not teach these skills. There are numerous Web design companies. The big players in legal publish-
ing, LexisNexis®/Martindale-Hubbell® and Thomson West, offer Web design marketing services, and there are numerous other companies that offer similar services for lawyers. Look around, compare prices and obtain recommendations before hiring a Web designer.

Using E-mail

Now, let’s look at e-mail. It is simply no longer considered acceptable to say that you do not have e-mail because you either do not have a computer or because you do not know how to use it. It is the rare law firm that does not use the Internet in some fashion, generally for legal and other research.

There are numerous ways to have an e-mail address. Web sites like Yahoo!, Google and MSN offer them for free. Or, you can subscribe to services like AOL and pay a monthly fee that includes one or more e-mail addresses. Either way, the cost of an e-mail address is not a major expense. And whatever you spend for e-mail is likely to be far less than you would have paid if each e-mail was a letter that cost you thirty-nine cents to mail. Using e-mail software is easy. If you use AOL, for example, its e-mail program is designed for those to whom technology is something new and different. Most businesses use a product like Microsoft Outlook for sending and receiving e-mail. More complicated than AOL or Yahoo’s e-mail programs, Outlook is not hard to use (although you may want a tech person to set it up).

Regardless of which program you use, all you have to do is click on an e-mail to open it and read it. If the message requires no response, you delete it. If you need to respond, however, you simply hit the “reply” button and type your answer. If you have trouble typing or spelling, have no fear, because most e-mail programs can (and should) be set up to automatically spell-check all outgoing e-mail. As an additional bonus, in many offices, programs like Outlook link directly to your case management software and automatically store messages in a client’s folder.

No Excuses

In conclusion, there are really very few valid excuses for not having a Web site and not using e-mail. Clients and prospective clients expect you to have a Web site, and often prefer the ease of communicating by e-mail. Web sites also reach a broad audience and offer you the opportunity to market to potential clients and expand your practice. With proper guidance, developing a Web site is not an overwhelming task and is, instead, your key to staying abreast of your peers.