BASIC WEB SITES FOR LAWYERS

-- Web Page Design for Attorneys

I. Introduction

An article published this summer (1996) noted that there were slightly over 500 web sites for lawyers. A check of a popular on-line index in late October of 1996 reflected that over 11,000 firms had gone to the time and effort to drill down and manually list their sites with that index. As those numbers reflect, there is an explosion of professionals going on-line with the Internet to publish World Wide Web (WWW) pages.

This article explores four reasons for having a web page, five levels of Internet access and support to consider, basic concepts in site design, and three types of tools to consider if you want to "do it yourself."

[Side Box: The technology and vocabulary of web pages **]

II. Four Reasons for a Web Page

1. To Serve as an On-line Firm Brochure.

2. To Provide Specific Focused "Local Area" Advertising.

3. To Provide Large Area Practice Advertising.

4. As an Alternate Route for Providing Client Services.

A. The On-line Firm Brochure.

The most common type of web site for a professional is the "on-line" firm brochure. It is the electronic equivalent of a Martindale-Hubbell or Blue Book listing and serves the same purpose on the Internet as a telephone listing serves in your local business pages.

This type of web site is low maintenance and will normally have a very low volume of access. Unless someone is using a computer to look for a lawyer in your area of practice or in your geographic area, they will not have any contact with your site.

If you decide to have such a site, it should be created as an incident to any other normal "listings" you participate in (such as the Blue Book or Martindale-Hubbell) and should plan on revising and updating it about once a year.

An excellent example of this type of site was found at http://texlawyer.com.  (Note that on some browsers this site was perfect, on others it had weaknesses -- which makes it a good illustration for several points).  I've included a link on the hope that the site will be available again.

The sample sites was elegant, simple and contained.  It had the traditional "home page" look and feel for a professional. A site of this type can be created by a consultant for under $750.00 and can be posted to the WWW for about twenty dollars a month.  In 1996 if you want your own domain name (a special address), the cost went up by about $100.00 to start and by about $50.00 a month thereafter.  Now, a site with your own domain name can be had for less than $25.00 a month total cost. Contact the Texas State Bar for information about pre-approval of your Web Site as an "advertisement." cf [ Inexpensive Web Hosting Services for more details on costs, etc.**]

B. Focused "Local Area" Advertising.

There are some specific types of clients who respond to a web site as an advertising presence. Generally, these clients live in large, urban college towns and are computer literate. This group is the same group that responds to a divorce mediation practice (where an attorney mediates a divorce for a couple, rather than filing a divorce for one of the parties, for an hourly fee that usually totals two to five thousand dollars for an uncontested divorce).

Such Web Pages are functionally firm brochures aimed at consumers rather than at other attorneys (the "Martindale-Hubbell" style listing) or at businesses (the "firm portfolio" style brochure shared with banks or insurance companies).

This sort of site requires more "consumer information" and is really a "firm pamphlet" style site. It consists of a Home Page, a brief introduction to the specific service the firm offers to a consumer, links to two or three essays with more information on those services, and links to typical resume style information tailored to the audience.

Such a site will be relatively low in volume (at least at first), but will be more focused than the traditional firm brochure and will provide more information -- enough to educate the consumer as to why they should hire you as their attorney to help them with a problem they hope to be able to solve themselves by going on line to look for more information.

You should count on revising the information or updating it twice a year if appropriate.  See the Sample Site, below.

C. Large Area Practice Advertising

There is one specific site that sparked much of the interest in on-line Web Pages all by itself. Over forty thousand people a month browse this attorney's site. A large area practice site of this type reaches out beyond the community the lawyer or firm lives in and offers services to those in neighboring cities, neighboring countries or beyond.

These sites look like information sites, but are the true advertising of the WWW. Such a site is directly oriented at "consumers" and are appropriate for three kinds of firms.

The usual essence of all three of these types of sites is providing up to date, current information, most of it aimed at people (including attorneys) who might "do it themselves" and who are looking for more information. It is possible to provide such a site without a focus on information if your consumers are sophisticated (e.g. those who send out appellate briefs for "co-writing"). Simplicity is important if you are concerned about not pricing yourself out of the range of potential clients. The types of partnerships or law firms that would use this form of site are:

1. Firms whose practice is not bound or limited by geography. Immigration is an excellent example. An immigration lawyer can practice anywhere and need not ever see the majority of his or her clients. Further, foreign college students with computer access are the largest group of literate potential clients able to pay attorneys fees. It is no surprise that the site I mentioned above is a web page for an immigration attorney (now a large immigration law firm).

Other good examples of practices suited to this type of site are Patent and Trademark Registration, Whistleblower Claim Filing, NAFTA, etc.

2. Firms where out of geography contact or travel is normal. Consider firms that provide expert witnesses, opinion letters, SEC letters and filings, workers compensation representation and appellate briefing services. For a sample of an attorney who ghost writes criminal appellate briefs for other attorneys, check out the very simple and direct web pages at: http://members.aol.com/Ethesis/pages/ta. For a supersite at the other end of the spectrum check out the on-line journal and link to the sample sites after reading the materials at: http://www.collegehill.com/ilp-news (the Internet Legal Practice Newsletter).

3. Legal Services Plans. These are kitchen sink information sites. If the consumer needs more help, at the end there is always the chance to go to an LSP attorney (I have not seen it yet, but this is a natural for Hyatt Legal Services, or a "Nolo Legal Services Directory").

All of these sites usually need monthly updates (so that people with concerns in the area of practice will check in every month for more information) and collections of information. This site concept is modelled on the firm newsletter or a firm's public library outreach.

C. Client Services

If your firm makes billing information available electronically to clients or provides bulletin boards and e-mail connections for specific clients and practice groups, you are using what could be a web site to provide client services.

While the front end may be a "firm brochure," behind the firewall and the pass words the firm is using the internet -- as an expansion of its LAN, WAN and dial-up service, to partially replace the post office and the telephone company in providing client services.

These sites are administrated on a daily basis and are far beyond the scope of this article. See a Lotus Notes programmer for more information.

III. Five Levels of Internet Access

There are five levels of Internet Access/Integration for those who have decided to use the World Wide Web. They are:

1. Incidental

2. ISP

3. Hosting Service (variable)

4. Host

5. Full Integration

A. Incidental Services

Every major proprietary service also offers some "incidental" space for a web page. The space is generally between one and ten megabytes in size. America On Line (AOL), CompuServe (CS and WOW) and Prodigy (P*) all provide small amounts of "personal web space."  Since 47 percent of the attorneys who are on-line are on AOL, 34 percent on Compuserve and 10 percent on Prodigy (Texas Bar Journal Volume 60, Number 1, January 1997 page 51) at least 91% of the attorneys currently on-line already have space available for a web page.

For home use, these services can not be beaten. You pay for their "value added" services, but many people find the services valuable. In addition, many clients use one of these services for their business use, and being on the same service as a client can provide a benefit.  Further, because the basic format for HTML files is so compact (much smaller than a Word for Windows or WordPerfect file), these services can host a substantial "firm brochure" style page.

The disadvantages of using such a site are very few -- if you are doing only a "firm brochure" style listing and if you are already using the service for other functions (e.g. your State Bar Association network is hosted by CS or you use AOL to exchange e-mail with clients or you participate on a specialty group on P*) there is no reason not to take advantage of the space.  For an excellent example of such a site, see Mediation in Virginia, an AOL site.

If you do substantial research or spend substantial time on the Internet outside of the service, there are options that may cost less and provide more.

(Note, less than a year ago, "incidental" site services had substantial disadvantages that no longer exist).

B. ISP Service

An ISP is an Internet Service Provider. "Every" town in Texas has at least two local ones and there are a number of national ones. Generally an ISP offers faster access, more space, and is aimed directly at the Internet rather than proprietary service (which means there is a lot more unorganized garbage available to you). Most ISPs also can offer "mirror sites."

If you already use the Internet, have e-mail needs, or need more space, an ISP is the cost effective method.

[Side Box: National ISPs**]

C. Hosting Service

A hosting service takes care of all or part of every issue for you -- taking over the problems and efforts of site design and management and a reasonable cost. AOL and some other ISPs have specific programs aimed at providing hosting, and many specialty shops offer hosting service.

If your web page is basically a static firm brochure, the appropriate place to go is somewhere between an incidental account and a low level hosting service (perhaps a design bureau).

If you intend to build into a national or regional practice with substantial volume, a hosting service is an excellent place to begin. Rates are generally scaled to the degree of service and access provided to you.

In addition, if your firm has substantial internet use, a hosting service can provide package deals and provide you with custom software. Major companies use hosting services. To visit a design bureau that works with hosting services, try http://www.usweb.com/ink  Compare it with the services offered by College Hill at http://www.collegehill.com which is a design bureau that focuses on Attorneys.

D. Hosting it Yourself

You can dedicate part of a computer of your own to a web site, connect it to the Internet, be your own host and provide your own Internet connection. Every university does that as well as many Fortune Five Hundred Companies. (Many other Fortune Five Hundred companies find it cost effective to use a Hosting Service).

Generally, this level of involvement is an expensive and complicated task best attempted after a year or more of substantial web traffic with an ISP. By being a proprietary host, a law firm is basically an ISP with a single customer. Further, some hosting services provide this level of service (where they handle any detail you decide not to) and many local ISPs will work with a firm that desires to handle some or all of its web page tasks in house.

(Two years ago there was a cost advantage in hosting your own web page and web service. Economies of scale have removed that advantage in many areas).

E. Full Scale Integration

If it suits the style of the law firm, the highest level of access/integration is when the WWW becomes another feature of the LAN/WAN network that links a firm, its clients, and itself.

Most successful iterations of this concept involve multi-site firms and collaborative client/integration projects, based on proprietary software or Lotus Notes (even InfoWorld has given in and is using Lotus Notes -- it is a product that remains a generation ahead at this point).

IV. Site Design Considerations

In designing a Web Site, a firm should consider the metaphor they are going to employ, the audience and purpose of the Site and the desired level of investment.

A. Metaphor

The largest group to use the Internet is college students who are supposed to be engaged in educational pursuits but who are entertaining themselves. In designing sites for this group, many Web Page designers think of themselves as artists who are creating the WWW equivalent of a television cartoon.

In comparison, the group most law firms are trying to connect with see the Internet as an information resource -- a large electronic library -- and see Web Pages as books.

A law firm needs to firmly decide if it is designing a firm brochure, a newsletter, a book or a cartoon. This will control the number and type of graphics used, the amount of "fun" material included (non professional web pages often include "fun" things to draw attention), animation, sound and similar matters.

Before anything else, choose your metaphor.

B. The Audience and Purpose

The purpose of the site controls the type of audience it is intended for and can help you decide on how to apply the metaphor used.

A simple "listing" site needs a Home Page that has the firm's identity (name, address, telephone numbers, etc.), service focus (five or fewer things that a potential client would employ the firm to do) and may have an index/links (connections to other pages) that provide more information (i.e. resumes for members of the firm, litigation or publication summaries in specialty areas, explanations of legal concepts).

A similar "Local Area Advertising" site may, or may not be, slightly more "energetic" in appearance, but basically needs a Home Page that has the attorney/firm's identity, the service focus (two or fewer things that a potential client would employ the firm to do) and links to the attorney's resume, fees, and material explaining just how and what the attorney does.

[Side Box: Sample Home Page**]

If your site is aimed only at large corporations with fast Internet access times and equipment, you may choose to be lavish with illustrations, backgrounds, watermarks and graphics. If you expect to have foreign students visiting your site, you may want to design your site to not strain even humble resources.

The same site can take three seconds to load over a fast optical cable connection and eighteen minutes over a slower modem. It is extremely rare for anyone to wait even a minute to visit a site.

Keep your audience, including its technical sophistication and assets, firmly in mind when looking at site design. The most visited law firm Home Page in the world is also one of the cleanest, technically simple and most basic. They know their audience.

C. Level of Investment

Internet sites run everywhere in cost from $3.00 a month to "starter sites" at $500.00 or so a year -- just to begin. Site design and implementation can cost from $0.00 (doing it yourself) to thousands of dollars for a simple page -- depending on who does the work for you and what you want done.

In addition, there is the amount of lawyer's time spent discussing concepts, approving implementation, obtaining State Bar approval, and in updating the material. Your time has value so that discount services (or free ones) may cost more (or less) than you expect once the time cost in calculated.

D. General Principles for Small Firm and Solo's Sites

For a small firm's site the following general principles should be followed:

The page should load quickly when accessed by a 14.4 modem connection. Designing a page with a particular modem speed and time in mind is known as "pipelining" (for the amount of "page" that can flow down the "pipe" or internet connection). My site is pipelined for 9600.

All pages in the site should have the same "paper" (i.e. page color and background) unless there is a specific, good reason (i.e. to identify material that is useful, but out of date or archive style material). Create a standard form and stick with it.

Each page should have a direct point it makes and a reason for being a part of the site that represents your law firm.

Each page should be able to take you back to the one before it (if someone logs on to your site to read an essay or use a part of it, you want them to be able to find the rest of the site -- that is why you have the essay on-line!).

The site should provide anyone who visits it a way to contact you (by e-mail, telephone or otherwise -- you would be amazed at the number of sites that leave out basic "letterhead" information). It is easy to automate this so that a visitor can send you e-mail, a fax or a letter directly from your home page by clicking on a link. Traditionally, the copyright notice is used as a link to send the author e-mail.

V. Tools -- "Do it Yourself"

There are three types of tools: Basic Page Design, Advanced Page Design, and Server oriented. If you have decided to "do it yourself" these are the tools you need to consider. Assuming you decide not to have someone else do the work for you, here are the methods.

A. Basic Page Design.

There are four basic and common ways to build web pages.

(1) Hand coded HTML. This is the WWW equivalent of hand setting movable type. Eighteen months ago it was the preferred way to prepare web sites. Some professionals still prefer this method and I still hand edit some HTML.

(2) Use a "web browser" to build web pages. Almost all browsers can now also be used to write and edit pages. This is like using a typesetting program to write a letter. It can be done, but is generally a difficult and time consuming way to do the job.

(3) Use a word processor to build web pages. If you have Windows, Microsoft Internet Assistant (free) works with Microsoft Word for Windows to "word process" web pages. Using analogy, this is the Wang Word Processor way to do web pages.

Corel WordPerfect7 for Win95 supports complete and fluid HTML output. This support is built into the program and free. Appropriately enough, from an analogy standpoint, this is the WordPerfect of HTML and web pages.

(4) Use a web page authoring program. Many of these are set up to produce "cute" personal web pages -- not appropriate unless the firm's prime clients watch only Barney and Sesame Street. For a lawyer, using most of them at present is like using WordStar 7.0c in a DOS session under Windows 3.11.

Since Spring of  1997 many of these have been tuned for professional use as well.

At present, I can recommend AOLPress as an authoring tool. The current version is mature, stable and fault tolerant. Even if you had to pay for it (AOL provides it for free as a part of their marketing program), it would be competitive with other tools.

While I have all of the above tools (including both Office95 and WordPerfect7), I find it easiest to prepare basic documents in a Word Processor and then to import them in a Web Page Authoring Tool for structuring and application. The combination I recommended to my karate instructor was Corel WordPerfect7 for Win95 combined with AOLPress. You can also use Corel's Professional Suite (which includes WordPerfect 7 and Corel or Adobe's competitive commercial products that compete with GNN Press).

For a free copy of AOLPress, try http://www.aolpress.com (the software is available only as free copies, with the manual in Adobe Acrobat .pdf form).

B. Advanced Tools

Every company that provides basic Word Processor tools and page authoring software also provides advanced tool sets and software. Corel and Adobe both seem to sell enough product to swamp the market and Microsoft has products of its own. For a sample, try the HTML Bible (available in stores with a CD ROM full of software and some excellent forms).

If you need complex tools and abilities, the current best on the market is Fusion. For more information visit their web site at http://www.netobjects.com. Also look at http://www.corel.com.

[Side Box: What about Macs?**]

[Summary of PC Tools for Do-It-Yourselfers**]

C. Server Oriented Tools

From the site management side of server orientation, the hands down winner is currently Lotus Notes. From the Server side the jury is still out. Microsoft, Novel, AOL and others all provide excellent software. The current growing favorite is Linex, which is far outside of my competency. Any server oriented project requires at least consulting with an MIS professional and a serious consideration of Unix.

VI. Conclusion

The internet is exploding and so are home pages put up by lawyers. Some of these are intricate and expensive. Some are simple and basic. Literally thousands of sites are created each month and added to national lists.

Whether your firm decides to go with a basic "listing" or goes for more, understanding what is available, why you are doing it, and the audience you expect to reach can help you decide on what is right for you and the right way to reach that goal -- from do it yourself, to professional consultants to an in-house staff.

It is your future. See you there.


Appendixes

[Browsing Tour of Sites**]

[Todd Stauffer's Tour of Sites**]

[Tangible Resources (Books, etc.)**]

[Design Notes, the footer, my home page, etc.**]

[Help I can recommend]

[The Alertbox:  Current Issues in Web Usability (An On-line Journal)] (Especially good is Jakob Nielsen's Top ten mistakes of Web design).


Copyright 1998 Stephen R. Marsh

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