Web Sites for wise legal eyes

British lawyers are better known for their sense of tradition than an uninhibited desire for the unknown. But an increasing number of firms are stripping off their suits to go surfing as they advertise their wares on the World Wide Web.

Masons special adviser, author and 'technoboffin' Richard Susskind says the web has revolutionised the way law firms advertise and the effectiveness of that advertising.

"Eighteen months ago, for a law firm to be on the World Wide Web was interesting in itself," says Susskind. "Now the focus is very much on the site: Does it look good? Does it contain good information?

"Gradually expectations have moved up and with regulations regarding [law firms'] advertising being pretty relaxed now, the main use of the web is for marketing purposes."

Susskind, along with other experts, also believes that in the near future, the internet will become an effective and popular delivery mechanism through which law firms will be able to consult and advise their clients, although important data security issues still need to be resolved before this can happen.

Bird & Bird was one of the first UK firms to get connected, in July 1995. It did so because it wanted to demonstrate that, as a firm specialising in advising on issues involving technology, such as intellectual property, telecoms, information technology and digital media, it was at the cutting edge of new developments itself.

"It was a logical progression for us, to use a medium our clients would be familiar with. We wanted to be one of the first [on the web] and we wanted to demonstrate our ability," says the firm's marketing manager Jane Gunther.

"We have won new business specifically through our web site and the fees generated have paid back the cost of putting the site together in the first place."

She adds: "We don't specifically try and track the number of people visiting the site because I'm not convinced they provide an accurate reflection of the value of the site."

Gunther says that after Bird & Bird made the decision to develop a site on the web, objectives were defined and the firm reviewed a series of external providers before selecting one. She describes the result as "an office on the site with a number of rooms people can visit".

Since its creation the firm's site has tripled in size and changed dramatically, including the additions of an archive and search facility.

"Every month we update the site as you have to provide content on the site. People will use the site only if it's of interest to them," says Gunther.

"The biggest thing to realise before you set it up is that getting it up and running is only half the battle, unless it is acting purely as a promotional brochure when it can sit there happily and not be updated."

City firm Freshfields took a little longer to erect its billboard on the information superhighway, opening its site in February this year. However, the delay was deliberate, according to marketing manager Georgina Stewart.

"We weren't one of the first but in true Freshfields style we wanted to take time to develop the site properly and come up with the best possible," she says.

After more than a year of research the site – which contains profiles and photos of all the firm's 168 partners, news and press releases, as well as information on its areas of practice, specialisations and vacancies – was developed and is now maintained and updated daily without the use of consultants.

"We have sufficient expertise in-house. We update everything on a daily basis because we think it is important to be as up-to-date as we can," explains Stewart.

"If you are an international law firm you need to have a web site. You must be able to communicate with your clients and potential clients in the most effective way."

And Stewart says the Freshfields site has nowhere near fulfilled its potential: "We've got lots of ideas yet."

Eleven steps to an Effective web site

Define clear objectives for the site and work out how to measure and monitor its success; make sure it can develop with time.

Keep information limited to 200 to 300 words per screen/ page.

Make sure you have the resources to answer mail individually and include an automated response mechanism which lets people know their mail has got through to your firm. An extension of this is to set up automated mailing lists so users can receive notice of updates and be targeted with specific information.

Ensure you have an in-house understanding of design and technical issues for your site and resources so the site is kept up to date.

Make sure your site is accessible: get it listed on all the major search engines and directories. Send its address to relevant news organisations and mailing lists and include the address on all practice publications, including letterhead and business cards.

Make sure it can be read by the simplest browser software and the most basic hardware platform – law firms record a higher than average number of accesses from less than state-of-the-art systems.

Ensure readership statistics can be gathered for each page to enable development.

Set up restricted access for any high-value information being carried on the site.

Information given in foreign languages should be prepared by native speakers.

Do not include applications which require plug-ins. They have a limited takeup and can be expensive.

Include a disclaimer.