Weaving trade from the Web

Linda Tsang reports on how the legal profession is utilising Internet technology to maximise its client base.

Setting up a Web site is more than just naming it lawyers.r.us@some.city.uk and then waiting for millions of visits or hits. The first question to consider is why your firm or chambers should invest resources in going onto the Internet what are the goals to be be achieved by going online, and are they achievable?

Essentially, if all that you are doing by going online is putting either your firm's or your chambers' brochure straight on to the World Wide Web, then it would be better to just send out brochures. Setting up effective technology will take time and money and unless you can “add value” to services by going online, it may be just as effective to restrict marketing and services to hard copy. Firms and chambers have to decide what they want by going online globally the site could be viewed by millions, so great time and effort should go into what a site should contain and look like. If pressed, most professions would say that it is partly “me too” for going on the Internet. With the main players following their major competitors on to the Net, they do not want to be left behind and want to be seen to be up-to-date with the latest technology.

But apart from improving corporate image, there are a number of related reasons for going online, including improving service, finding new clients, expanding the market, reducing costs and getting up to speed before it is too late.

There was a time when just getting on the Web would attract attention in the press. Now, you either have to be first in your profession, first with new technology or first with a unique service. A great deal of planning is needed before you put the welcome mat outside your home page. You will have to round up the usual suspects on the technical side, covering operating system and Web server management as well as Internet connection and internal network support. You will also have to get on board e-mail system support and HTML programming.

On the marketing side, you will have to involve marketing and PR teams, internal and external consultants, market research graphic design and copywriting. In the case of the last two, issues such as ownership of the format and content should be addressed and resolved.

Once you have the go-ahead, the next stage is to concentrate on content. Before you invest in the hardware or set up a server, collect all the content. It is hard work deciding what exactly should go on your Web site, collating it all and putting it into an acceptable format and this is a good time to do some major brainstorming about what will and will not work once it is transferred to the Web site.

For the cautious beginner, basic research can be carried out by surfing the Net, looking at what competitors and other professions are providing and deciding whether those home pages catch and keep your interest and attention. The main challenges for anyone setting up a Web site is to make sure that people can find you easily and quickly, ensure that they can interact with you easily and that you get useful feedback from those who visit your site. Once the attention of the audience (or client) has been caught, the site must keep them coming back.

Unlike other Web sites, which entice visitors with free gifts, a daily comic strip or up to the minute cricket scores, the legal profession is more constrained in what it can use both in terms of money and “entertainment” to tempt visitors to hit and keep hitting their home page.

Having decided on what is likely to engage people's attention, designing a Web site is as “simple” as creating a combination of a brochure, presentation and CD-Rom the most important factor is the intended audience. The page can be likened to a building or its reception, but no matter what corporate image you are trying to convey, there are a number of basics. The site should be kept relatively simple as though every visitor is using it for the first time. It should say who and where you are and what you do, as well as what is new with the firm or chambers.

One way to attract attention to the home page is to follow the maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words, and also use multimedia on your site. However, a picture also takes up a thousand times more data than a word, and it is unlikely that visitors to your site will wait around five minutes to download the best graphic, even if it is a work of art.

Once the surfer has visited your site, he or she has to be enticed back. One way is to provide a map or index which also outlines what the firm or chambers provides, including the different departments and lawyers (perhaps even access to the firm's virtual library), as well as recent cases in which they have been involved, a commentary on topical matters or a page of pointers to topic-specific sites on the World Wide Web.

If visitors know that the site is being updated regularly once a day would be ideal, but once a week would also be a good selling point they are more likely to visit regularly. You have to strike a balance between what you want site visitors to see, hear, read, learn and do. If your site is not easy to find or is not interesting, they will not give your site a second thought or hit.

Timing is everything, and a proper timetable should be set up for the project. Once teething troubles have been ironed out following the prototype, and alpha and beta testing has taken place, extreme care should be taken to ensure that no information is leaked ahead of time. After all, who sends out draft brochures or documents?

It is useful to ask both the technical people as well as trusted clients to visit and test the site and be truthful in their views of its usefulness, ease-of-use and whether they would actually visit it more than once just out of sheer curiosity or boredom.

Finally, make sure that all the relevant people know that it is launch day. Otherwise, it is like having the smartest flood-lit advertising board extolling your virtues in your living room.

Essential tips for setting up a web site

Make sure that security is water-tight and hacker-proof. Discuss these matters with technical experts on both the hardware and software side . Still on the technical front, keep checking all links and graphics also keep in close contact with the providers.

Keep monitoring your site that includes cutting out-dated material as well as updating pictures of your managing partner or virtual receptionist.

Keep up-to-date with all the latest technological developments and ask the Web designers if the site can be made self-updating if not, find out what is the quickest and simplest way to do this.

Keep an eye on what your competitors are doing, as well as what the other “cutting-edge” companies are doing on the Net.

Make sure a team is maintaining and updating the site. Whether internally or externally, make sure each of them knows what the other is responsible for, and actually doing.

One way of ensuring that you get useful and effective feedback and reactions to your site (and any changes or omissions) is to ask visitors to e-mail you with their comments this is easier said than done, and the carrot rather than the stick approach is the preferable option.

registering domain names

A RECENT court case effectively killed off domain name speculators in the UK when it was held that the practice of registering the names and trade marks of well-known companies as domain names and then trying to sell them on to those companies constitutes a threat of trade mark infringement and passing off.

In a recent case, a number of leading UK companies ranging from high street retailers and well-known telecommunications companies to a burger chain jointly brought proceedings after they had all been approached and offered their trade marks (which had already been registered by a third party) at a rate well in excess of the market rate.

The High Court decided that although the domain names were not active Web sites, the defendants' actions clearly amounted to a threat to infringe the trade marks of the plaintiff companies, and the defendants were ordered to assign the domain names over to the relevant companies.

There has also been concern on the latest plan to expand a number of Web addresses. A total of 88 firms including several in the UK each paid a four-figure fee to a US organisation, the Council of Registrations, to become registrars of seven new domain names which were due to be introduced early this year these were to include .shop, and .web.

There have been several attempts to create new domain names, but all have ended in arguments of the control of their registration. The US government has now intervened to supervise any new domain names, delaying their introduction. It is thought that the person appointed to oversee Internet policy last year, Ira Magaziner, will decide when the new domains will come into effect.

For the moment, the best advice is just to try to register a new name as soon as possible.