The following article was posted on Family Law Lawyer Tech & Practice
Harding & Associates has had a law firm website since the 1990’s. Initially it was designed, constructed, and maintained in house (that means by me). With time the importance of the website became obvious, and it became vital to the firm’s marketing plan. That importance helped us to realize that the self-help days were gone. We had to turn to a professional site designer.
My first steps in identifying a design firm were simple. I typed “law firm website design” into Google. Pages and pages of listings spewed forth. I then diligently clicked on the listings and viewed the portfolios of the different vendors. I saw sites and features that I definitely liked. I saw sites and features that I definitely disliked. Eventually I settled on a southern California design firm with a substantial portfolio of eye catching law firm sites.
Contact was made with the vendor. Attention was directed to our existing site. I asked for a new web site. A contract was signed, and a few weeks later our new site was live. There was very little input from us, other than specifying that we wanted our logo utilized, and we wanted a color scheme consistent with our logo and branding plan. Our contract with the design firm included web-hosting and a certain quantity of updates each month. These changes would essentially include new content on our News page, and updates to personal bio pages.
The design product that we got was great. The colors were vibrant, the layout was clean, and the site was filled with all of the content that we had written for our previous site. We had a great site that attracted viewers. The positive reviews flowed in! The search engines were finding us. The site was doing what it was supposed to do.
I never grew unhappy with that first professionally designed site. What I did learn is that there is much more to effective web site marketing than just looks. First I learned that content is king. Legal consumers really do turn to the internet for their legal education, and the more information we could give potential clients the better. A website must be able to grow with ever more, fresh, content. Second, I learned that appearances always count. Most self-designed sites are obviously homemade, and their deficiencies become obvious to the web savvy audience. They look cheap, and that hurts your marketing efforts. Third, I learned that change is good. Clean, modern layout and design reflect on the reputation and credibility of the firm. Corporations, universities, professional sports teams all redesign their logos, letterhead, and uniforms for create new buzz. Just like everything else in business, web site designs have a shelf life, and sites do grow stale (as do designers). Fourth, I learned that the ability to perform my own updates to the site, and to make little tweaks and improvements, is imperative.
As I mentioned, by the contract I had signed, the design company that built the site was also hosting the site and had all of the control over it. Not only was I paying a lot of money for the hosting service, but I was also paying a lot of money for little updates and changes to the site. If I wanted to add a new page, the cost could run into hundreds of dollars. The site had been designed with the vendor’s proprietary software, so even if I could get into the site I would not have been able to change it.
After a few years with our first professionally designed website, I came to appreciate that I wanted more, while paying less. I wanted more control over the site. I did not want to be at the mercy of the design firm. I did not want the significant cost of having to pay the design firm every time I wanted to make a change. With the passage of time that site also began to grow stale. With all of the additional content that we had added, the site began to look cluttered and sloppy. I realized that the News page didn’t really do anything for us. I also realized that the offsite blogs I was publishing were not working in concert with our website. It was time for something new.
I did my homework, and began to learn of the different website publishing platforms. There were plenty to pick from: Dreamweaver, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress. With some the software was impressive, but I would still be tied to the developer. What I wanted was a site that a professional firm would design, but that I could then get into to tweak as I wanted. WordPress kept hitting my radar. CNN, Reuters, Sony, UPS, Volkswagen, EBay all have web sites driven by WordPress. If WordPress could get the job done for them, it could take care of Hardinglaw.com!
Next I went back to Google and started identifying design firms. Again, plenty to choose from. I created a short list of a half dozen, all whom emphasized law firm web site design. A round of telephone interviews began. I quickly sensed a pattern.
One, the law firm specialists all cooked from the same recipe: law firm resume, heavy on the colleges and law schools attended, boring on the color and style. That does not work for a family law firm website. Of course the consumers want to learn about the lawyers. But those descriptions can be delivered in narrative style. Most family law firms have ten lawyers or less. The same type of lawyer roll call listing that appears on the websites for the thousand lawyer firms does not work. Pictures and the lawyer’s family law experience are what sell on a family law website.
Two, because they catered to law firms, and presumably because law firms have more money than they can ever spend, the law firm specialist design firms were way more expensive than other designers that I would eventually come across. Trust me when I say this, just because a design firm specializes in law firms does not mean it is any better than any other design firm. In fact, I began to think it could be a hindrance because what works for a thousand lawyer firm, or a two lawyer criminal defense firm, does not work for a family law firm. Getting away from law firm specialists opens the door to more creativity, and smaller price tags.
Three, the law firm design firms just did not seem all that hungry for my business. Like with my first professionally designed site, it was pretty much “thanks for calling. We will send you a contract. Sign it or forget it. We are the experts. You write the check and then stay out of our way.” The law firm design sites were also in lock-step with the idea that they would host the site, and I would pay them for maintenance and changes. That was an expense that I knew I could avoid, but the law firm designers weren’t budging. I wasn’t feeling the love. It seemed the law firm designers were just overpriced salesman, and not visionaries.
I had an epiphany! How about a design firm that doesn’t specialize in law firms? I broadened my search, and came across scores of talented designers. Another round of interviews, and pouring over portfolios. I started to appreciate that the web designer I wanted to work with should be a salesman, engineer, and artist. Looking at portfolios I also began to appreciate that web designers have their own styles and patterns. Much like certain singers have the same baseline, actors have the same delivery, painters have the same themes, web designers work with the same lines, colors, and looks.
Through diligence and a bit of luck I got in contact with Rodney Warner at Boulder, Colorado based Connective Web Design. From the first phone call it all seemed right. Rodney listened as much as he spoke. He spoke with me, not at me. He was patient, and willing to teach (what a coincidence, all the same things that my legal clients want from me!). The firm’s portfolio was light on law firms, but heavy on other great sites with impressive designs. His clients may not have been companies I had heard of, but that did not mean their sites didn’t have impact. We talked concept, we talked design, we talked process. Working with me, CWD would build the site and get it online. I would host it, and because of WordPress I could manage it and grow it.
Working with Rodney and CWD was great. The work was done in stages. We started with brainstorming. The project then evolved to outlines, and prototypes. Eventually we got to a rough site design, and then took on the heavy work of creating keywords and content, and finalizing the layout. A rhythm developed between designer and client that made the process flow. I was encouraged to ask questions, and make changes to their work. We kept some of the elements from our old site (like our logo and green color scheme), but really rebuilt from the ground up. After a couple of months, a new baby was born. The new Hardinglaw.com went live in December, 2011. It is a dramatic change from our old site. Some visitors might say that it is “simpler” than our old site. That is a misleading first impression. The lines are cleaner. The layout is better. The navigation is easier. These improvements make the site look simpler. I can assure you that the new site is much more sophisticated than its predecessor. All the content is there and more. Plus, it has the room and technology to grow. Our California Divorce Blawg is now part of Hardinglaw.com, rather than a standalone Typepad site. The navigation has new order and forethought. There is much, much, more to this new site. Because it is so well done, it seems more relaxed. A more is less type of effect. Every bit of technology from our old site is there and more, it’s just more subtle and soothing, kind of like Miles Davis rather than the high school marching band. The site is a beauty. But rather than trying to tell you about, I invite you to visit: www.hardinglaw.com.
More on Rodney and Connective Web Design. Getting away from a law-firm only design firm helped us to think beyond the stale law firm template. We gained insight into broader marketing ideas. For a family law firm that is key. We are not selling to the general counsel for a Fortune 500 company. We are selling to our friends and neighbors who fit into the class of general consumers. That is a much different audience than a huge Wall Street law firm would target. Also, by thinking beyond the law firm bubble Rodney gave us invaluable search engine optimization advice. You don’t have to think like a law firm when making good marketing. Thanks to CWD we were able to get a WordPress site that we can manage, and tweak. If we need help Rodney is available on a consulting basis, but we are not held hostage. We can make the changes we want to make when we want to make them. There is a bit of a programming learning curve, but it hasn’t been overwhelming. By getting away from the Los Angeles, Chicago, New York designer addresses we were also able to find a firm that was willing to compete for our business, and that could be more cost competitive. However, none of that came at the expense of customer service. Finally Rodney set things up so that we host the site through a web hosting vendor, and it costs us $6 per month rather than the hundreds of dollars per month that we had been paying. The service we got from Rodney and CWD far exceeded expectations! They earned my glowing endorsement.
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