Set your sites on the Web

Graham Smith and Jane Gunter suggest that firms have a clear aim before launching into cyberspace. Web sites for law firms are now becoming the norm rather than the exception. In a recent edition of The Lawyer, it was predicted that every law firm would have its own site within 12 months.

Whether or not that is the case, law firms which are considering taking this step should take the time to consider carefully what they are trying to achieve before they take the plunge.

A Web site should be built with clients, not competitors, in mind. "Me too" is not enough. Is the site intended to attract new clients, provide a new way of communicating with existing clients, or is it a recruitment tool? Until a firm is clear about its objectives it will be difficult to design a site which will meet them in a cost-effective manner.

Having taken the decision to set up a site, its design should be approached like any other marketing activity. You need to be clear about who you are trying to reach and why the activity is going to be of interest and/or relevance to the audience.

You also need to be clear about what action or outcome you expect to result from your investment. How will you measure its success? Will you measure attributable revenue against cost, or will you regard it as a general marketing overhead of the business?

In one respect building a Web site is unlike almost any other marketing activity. The site requires constant attention to keep it up to date.

The challenge of an interactive medium such as the Web is to keep it alive and fresh so that your audience keeps coming back for more.

Turn your back and within a remarkably short time it becomes stale and uninteresting.

Another challenge of a Web site is that it offers the chance to convey a clear impression of your firm to the outside world – to emphasise exactly what you want, unconstrained by the dimensions of the printed page or the advertising hoarding.

The site can be uniquely tailored to the image you wish to convey – a facility that is at once exciting and terrifying.

Exciting because of the opportunity it presents and terrifying because the scope of the medium removes any excuse for not presenting exactly what you want to say about your firm, be it in two lines or 200.

London firm Bird & Bird set out to create a site with a strong theme and good content to encourage repeat visits.

It chose the theme "Bird & Bird's office on the Web" – a virtual addition to its existing offices.

Once the metaphor of the office floating in cyberspace was adopted, the content fell into rooms: the news room, the library, the seminar room and the post room.

The firm conceived the layout of the "office on the Web" and wrote the content before approaching a designer.

It was then able to present the designer with a clear concept and largely finished text. The designer's brief was to plan the visual look of the site, design the graphics, code the text and build and host the site.

Since its launch, Bird & Bird's site has had some facelifts, but the original theme has proved resilient.

Whichever route you take for your Web site, look at the few dos and don'ts in the table (right). Happy surfing.

Dos and Don'ts

DO:

be clear about what the site is intended to achieve before you start;

think carefully about the shelf life of your material and the resource implications this has for keeping it up-to-date;

update your site regularly with fresh material; and

consider how the interactivity of the Web can be used to differentiate your site and encourage visitors to stay and browse.

DON"T:

be persuaded to use the latest in Web design technology – your target audience may not have access to the same technology and your investment will be wasted;

include large graphic images which only serve to slow down access to the site;

just recreate your firm's brochure online; and

underestimate how much work may be involved in keeping your site up to date.