A site for sore eyes

As businesses and individuals embrace the new economy, law firms are realising that they must promote themselves online. Mark Brandon looks at the best, the worst and the ugliest legal sites.

The internet is great, isn't it? Log on, have a surf, buy some old records that you loved in the 1980s and thought you would never find and then wish you hadn't when they arrive, check your email, buy a book, download a rude picture sent to you by one of your mates and check out which law firms have the best websites.

Law firm websites may not be at the cutting edge of the information superhighway, but in this day and age they are as necessary to firms as tall buildings and scantily clad women were to King Kong.

So here to take your mind off our long, rainy summer and give you something to read on the train, is a review of some of the top law firm websites.

As our subject is the silicon economy, our ratings are based on a West Coast scale – coffee. Every website underwent a 10 minute examination, focusing on trying to find some information on setting up an internet company and what the firm's relevant experience might be.

Ashurst Morris Crisp – www.ashursts.com

Nice, white and spartan to begin with, enlivened by a rather modern, tree-style navigation bar at the top. Beyond that, there is a lot of froth, with some marketing stuff about the Ashursts approach, and curiously introverted partner profiles – do we care which Cambridge college someone went to? I would quite like to know what work they have done and who they act for. There are a few quotes from The Legal 500, but no client list and I could find no indication of relevant experience. There were a few publications available as portable document formats (pdfs), with more to download.

Rating: Instant cappuccino. Looks nice, and has just about enough kick to make it worthwhile drinking, but only ever the drink of choice when you find yourself in a motorway service station.

Bird & Bird – www.twobirds.com

One of the first extensive law firm websites – it now looks very outdated (although apparently a new site is under development). It has no pictures for the partner profiles and no details on clients or actual work done (more generic blah blah). I searched for "set up an e-commerce site" and it read: "Sorry, you must only use alphanumeric characters in your search criteria." Oh dear, it must mean the hyphen! Well, I guess nobody spells e-commerce with a hyphen, now do they? "Websites" got four matches, pointing me to an IT bulletin in the archive, which seemed to have nothing to do with the net at all. Yuck. Spend 10 minutes on here? You must be joking.

Rating: your gran's old flask coffee. It might have been alright on the day it was made, but now that it has been in the car for six years, frankly even the dog won't drink it.

Denton Wilde Sapte – www.dentonwildesapte.com.

Earth – it's a blue and brown ball covered in wisps of fluffy cloud. And it's stuck, symbolically I'm assuming, slap-bang in the middle of the front page of the Denton Wilde website, with little lines protruding to indicate navigational routes. Hmmm. I searched for "set up an e-commerce site" which got me nothing and nor did "websites". In despair, I went to the "What We Do" section, which brought up a list of practice areas. No internet there. At a push, I guessed it is information technology. Went there. Another lot of old blah about generalities, how the firm is a leader, etc, etc, but no clients and no deals. I decided to go to "What's New", in the hope of enlivenment (would a prospective client bother?). I then searched the press release archive by group (IT, in this case) and found four things.

Rating: your auntie's filter coffee. You smile politely as she hands you the cup, knowing that she probably thinks it's the height of sophistication, while you realise that it is the next thing to Castrol GTX. You drink it anyway, masking the gag reflex with a burst of hearty laughter.

Field Fisher Waterhouse – www.ffwlaw.com

Not bad looking but the search engine is not immediately visible (because there isn't one, I ultimately discovered), which is a bit of a downer. A bit of hunting around gets me to e-commerce – only two of the relevant documents are viewable online, the rest in pdf format. The partner profiles are the usual thing – look nice but full of generalities. "Our Expertise" revealed little except volume and it took me some real digging to get to the link to ecommerceincubator.net, the firm's start-up service, which does have some client information. But then I could not seem to get back to the main Field Fisher site. Spooky.

Rating: freeze-dried coffee. Those weird little lumps. Doesn't really look as if it ever grew on a bush half way up a mountain, does it? I've heard they make it in Area 52 from bits of old alien, and sand from the lost city of Atlantis.

Freshfields – www.freshfields.com.

Perhaps given the nature of the firm, it was too much to expect a checklist of advice on e-commerce set-up, and I was not disappointed. A search on e-commerce brought up a host of articles, which are good for in-house lawyers but sadly way too technical for the lay client (good put-off job, really). Navigation dominates (at least it is clear) and the partner profiles are full of the same old blather. With a bit of effort, it was possible to find information on clients and work done, which was a bonus.

Rating: ristretto. Too strong in legal content for the masses – for connoisseurs of the finest legal blends only.

Kemp & Co – www.comlegal.com

Nice, short and to the point. It is gorgeous-looking – proper cvs, including client names and loads of reviews. The site includes a proper e-commerce starter pack, loads of client updates and the fastest links I have ever seen.

Rating: a perfect macchiato. Short, strong and with just a whiff of froth. Ultimately very satisfying.

Masons – www.out-law.com

Looks lovely and has bags of content for the e-entrepreneur, including specific guides for different types of e-business. What's more, it has a little game to while away a bit of time – you can shoot lawyers and accountants. There are case studies available illustrating Masons' prowess for big and small clients and hot news content too.

Rating: the perfect espresso – hits the spot, which is as it should be.

Olswang – www.olswang.com

A very sophisticated portal site. It is very plush in dark purple with lots of things going on. Olswang must have spent a bit of money here, but then if it markets itself as the convergence law firm I guess it has got to have a good site. In the search, "set up an e-commerce site" got me 352 matches. But luckily the third match took me straight to a page summing up the key issues and pointing me to all the articles I should read, with hyperlinks of course, plus links and directory reviews (top marks there too). And shock horror, I could hardly believe it – clients and deals! Actual real work done is included. Loads of pdfs, articles a-go-go and partner profiles providing links to subject areas with FAQs. Can it be real? I'm still recovering.

Rating: double tall half fat latte with a dusting of nutmeg. Better than sex. Well, almost.

Osborne Clarke OWA – www.osborneclarke.com.

Did you know that you can send postcards from the Osborne Clarke site? E-business is easy to find with loads of experience quoted and a huge client list. Okay, I'm convinced. Testimonials all over the place. Garish? Well, I guess it is a bit. But it is fast and full of stuff. Disappointingly, I could not find any kind of starter packs (given the competition from other firms on this front), although you can order the newsletters or download certain documents as pdfs.

Rating: mocha with whipped cream. So maybe you taste the chocolate first and the cream's a bit much, but it does give you the hit. A bit rich for some tastes.

Simmons & Simmons – www.simmons-simmons.com

Deceptively full of content for the e-business person who does not mind searching around a bit. A search on e-commerce brings up 45 documents, including the firm's E-agle Eye newsletter, which has some useful FAQs. Although Simmons has just launched an internet start-up pack for £100 plus VAT on its sister site, elexica.com (which also happens to be an internet service provider), it is not advertised on the main site. Also, elexica is styled "by lawyers, for lawyers", which is not the best advert either (except for those among you wishing to set up an internet business, of course). When you get to it, it's good, but boy you do have to search.

Rating: don't bother with the stuff from the big urn on the counter. Persuade the woman in the strange hairnet to give you the good stuff under the counter.

Taylor Joynson Garrett – www.tjg.co.uk

Has lots of good stuff on setting up on the internet, including a legal checklist and topical articles on subjects ranging from tax and privacy issues to tips on selling holidays (when I used the search engine for "set up an e-commerce site" it found nothing, but "websites" got 34 well-ordered responses). The articles are well written, with an eye for the non-lawyers. Partner profiles are the usual dull stuff and I could find no information on clients at all, except in the press releases. A client list would be nice.

Rating: a nice cappuccino in an Italian cafe. Well-made, satisfying, quite traditional, even if they do sprinkle the cocoa in stripes across the top. But I'll stick to Seattle-style thanks.