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Web Wonder: A New Cyber Era Arrives at Philadelphiabar.org

by Daniel J. Siegel

Summer 2005, Vol. 68, No. 2

In today’s e-paced world, more and more people turn to the Internet as their default source of information. Bar associations, like most professional organizations, must keep pace with these advancements and deliver an ever-increasing array of services to their members. As a result, Bar Associations across the country are providing more of their services online. The Philadelphia Bar Association’s new state-of-the-art Web site, which debuts later this year, dramatically improves the Association’s Internet presence, and provides members and the public with the types of information and services they desire.

The current award-winning Web site, philadelphiabar.org, was a cutting-edge resource when it was unveiled more than five years ago. The new Web site, found at the same address, takes the Bar’s Web services to an impressive new level, utilizing some of the newest membership technologies available. The new philadelphiabar.org will allow each Association member to create a customizable “My Philadelphia Bar” homepage, with an array of new personalized features. Members will be able to pay their dues online with a credit card, view and edit their membership database listing, read up-to-the-minute legal, business, financial and popular news, verify their section and committee affiliations, manage list serve subscriptions, and enroll in discussion groups with other attorneys in their practice areas. The Web site also features a new, easier-to-use navigation system that allows members and visitors to find the information they need quickly, in a more user-friendly horizontal tab format.

“The Web site is one of our most important and valued membership benefits,” said Chancellor Andrew A. Chirls. “The new philadelphiabar.org is a fresh, vibrant site, featuring the latest technology. It provides our members with exciting new ways to interact with the Association and take advantage of its many services. We want the Bar Association’s homepage to be the first place our members turn every day for Bar Association news, and for local and national legal information.”

Some of philadelphiabar.org’s other new or enhanced features include:

  • Improved Member Services – In addition to updating their membership profile and viewing their section and committee memberships, members can immediately join a new section or committee. Members can also sign up and/or remove themselves from any of the Bar Association’s list serves, and reserve meeting space online.
  • Modernized Calendar – The Bar Association’s calendar of events will be presented in an easy-to-read grid format, rather than the previous cumbersome single-page format. Members can click on an event, such as a Quarterly Meeting Luncheon, view detailed information about it, register, enter a credit card number and pay–all at once–regardless of whether it is a special event or routine committee or section lunch meeting.
  • Discussion Boards – While the popular network of more than fifty practice-specific list serves remains an important focus of the Bar’s e-services to members, the new Discussion Boards will enable members to post questions for other attorneys in their areas of practice, or respond to queries posted by their colleagues.
  • Bar Association Blog – The new philadelphiabar.org will link to a new “Barblog” that will be accessible from a separate Web address. This online Bar Association “diary” will feature meeting notes and other unique content not found on the Bar Web site or in the Association’s publications.
  • Member Search – The site also features an interactive search program that allows visitors to find the names and contact information for other attorneys who are members of sections and committees to which the inquirer also belongs. Additionally, the Web site will link to the new The Legal Directory Online, a subscription-based service that offers easy online lookup of attorneys in The Legal Directory 2005, with contact information, areas of concentration, law firm profiles and more. Subscribers to this service also can update their Legal Directory profile online at any time.
The new philadelphiabar.org will provide services to members aimed at surpassing those found on other bar association Web sites, and fulfills the Bar Association’s goal of creating a personalized and interactive online presence that provides members with many reasons to visit the site daily.

Personalizing the site is quick and easy, and the benefit to members is substantial. First, members login to the site using their current Philadelphia Bar Association membership number. Individuals who do not have access to their membership number will be invited to contact the bar association to receive it. Once logged onto the personalized portion of the site, members can create their own easy-to-remember “My Philadelphia Bar” login and password. Members are then directed to a registration page that will allow them to select from a menu of news, financial and other special content services. The “My Philadelphia Bar” homepage will be automatically populated based upon the member’s own interests. For example, a member of the Business Law Section will not only see information about the section’s upcoming events and meetings, and links to the Section’s list serves and discussion boards, but also news headlines from CNN, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal and other sources, as well as a list of their favorite Internet links, such as Amazon.com.

The headlines are made possible through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds, which are updated several times daily, and allow members to stay abreast of legal, financial and popular news without leaving the Association’s homepage. RSS is the most efficient way to acquire updated news from across multiple Web sites. Best of all, the information is automatically gathered for you. The RSS format, used by such diverse sites as CNET.com and the Christian Science Monitor, allows quick and easy syndication of news, headlines, and more, and permits the Association to tailor philadelphiabar.org’s contents to the interests of each member.

Newly created discussion groups, coupled with the existing list serves, allow the Web site to be more timely than daily newspapers. The Web site contains numerous other enhancements, and the differences between the old and new designs are dramatic. The new site simply looks better, with a horizontal design that fits better on today’s larger computer monitors. The text is easier to read, the colors brighter, and there is far less clutter. As a result, visitors can more easily distinguish among news, event listings, and advertisements and other promotional messages. While these changes may appear to be cosmetic, they are just one aspect of a revision that encompasses every aspect of the site. A brief tour will highlight philadelphiabar.org’s complete facelift. The Bar Association’s logo appears on every page, with the “Member Log-In” to the right. Below the logo is a series of logically named tabs that drop-down to provide quick access to other parts of the site. In addition, the left column of every page contains a “Search” box, which allows visitors to quickly locate a name or word anywhere on the site. Below the search box on the homepage is a drop-down that provides direct access to the Association’s many list serves. The right side of the homepage contains advertisements and promotional items, as well as quick access to the Philadelphia Bar Reporter Online—the Association’s weekly e-newsbrief—and other communications.

The highlight of the homepage is the large center column. This area will feature Association news, legal news highlights, and other timely information. This section of the Web site will contain breaking news, important messages from the Chancellor and other time-sensitive information. Although non-members, and Association members who choose not to register, will be unable to view personal information on philadelphiabar.org, they will still be fully informed about Association activities, and breaking legal news.

After perusing the homepage, members and visitors can click on the many tabs just below the Association’s logo, and navigate easily around the site. For example, clicking on the “Member Center” tab will bring up links to Web pages that will allow members to update their profiles, explore various member benefits, participate in list serves and join the Lawyer Referral and Information Service. Similarly, visitors can navigate to all of the Association’s specialized sections and committees from the eponymously named “Sections and Committees” tab. While some of this content will only be available to members who log-in to the site, most of it will be on display to show the public, and prospective members, the many activities in which Association members participate. As another example, philadelphiabar.org visitors who click on the “Publications and Resources” tab will see past and current issues of Association publications, including The Philadelphia Lawyer and the Philadelphia Bar Reporter monthly newspaper.

The completely revised Calendar of Events is a dramatic improvement over the prior “Association Calendar,” which merely listed events on a day-by-day basis. The new calendar looks like a calendar, and contains links to the listed events, allowing visitors to learn more about the event, register to attend and pay. A drop-down box makes it easy to search for events by date, and there is a separate search box to locate an event by typing in a keyword or two. The calendar also clearly displays which events require pre-registration.

The goal of the new philadelphiabar.org was to create a Web site that members not only would visit, but would make a regular part of their daily activities. While members who create their “My Philadelphia Bar” page will benefit most from the site, all members will discover that one result of the redesign is a Web site that features the news and information Philadelphia Bar Association members need most—displayed in an easy-to-use format.

The Bar Association unveiled its current Web site in 2000, and at the time it was a state-of-the-art product. In the ensuing years, however, the site had become somewhat dated, and a large percentage of the content was static, i.e., it did not change. Consequently, in 2003, the Association sought proposals to reinvigorate the site and transform it into a dynamic, member-friendly portal that members would use more frequently as a resource, and not simply a destination to verify the time of an upcoming meeting. The results are clear; using state-of-the-art technology (much of it “behind the scenes”), the new Web site improves upon the old site’s best features and adds customizable content that will, the Bar Association believes, give members and visitors a reason to return frequently.