We see quite a vast array of quality and purpose with legal web sites in South Africa. What should you expect from your firm's site? Does this medium bring in business, or is the upkeep of the site more hassle than it's worth?
People have very different expectations of what a web site should do for their business.
At the moment why do you think your web site exists?
It is what everyone expects of a reputable legal firm
Is our brochure in electronic format
A good landing page for "find an attorney" sites
Promote our departments actively
Use it to improve our brand
We derive business from our web site.
In years gone by it started out as being "cool" to say that you had a web site, and the only real benefit was that people thought that your firm was rather pro-active and forward thinking with regards to technology.
Then in the last 3 to 4 years we started seeing web sites as an electronic brochure, with some designs being rather funky and trendy - and we may have derived business from the web site, if the reader compared the firms from checking the web. So we probably did derive some benefit from the web site, but not a huge amount. Good interactivity and continual updating of content to ensure relevance are expected nowadays.
Coming back to web sites as they are today, let's see how we can maximise the return of effort we put into a web site.
If your site does nothing but offer the reader information about your firm, services and contact details, it still serves a purpose of being your electronic brochure. If you are short of time, hand your current brochure to a web design company and ask them to produce a web site based on your brochure. Be sure to contract carefully to achieve exactly what you want done timeously whilst you must also explicitly reserve ownership of your domain and the copyright in your web site content, structure and layout.
Your web site address can be on your business card, compliment slip, letterheads and invoices, and without printing expensive brochures, people interested in your firm will look at your web site instead. Also if any of the details change, you can amend the information on the web site, which is not so easy (or cheap) with printed brochures.
Many vendors offer web access to ongoing work which allows your customers to access their information, including conveyancing status updates, financial investment portfolios and accounts. This access is plugged into your current web site, inside a frame which makes it appear to be part of your own web site.
If there is any way in which you can cut down the number of calls your paralegals get to enquire about matter status, you should use it as this will contribute to cutting down on incoming calls. Promote the web access to customers to encourage them to use the site. By using this type of service, people end up calling you instead of you calling them with status updates - and you guessed it, when you phone them, they have a lot of questions to ask "seeing that you are on the phone".
Blog or discussion area
This is quite a contentious issue, and rather hotly debated. But I think the most active way for a legal firm to attract business via a web site, is to offer a blog area.
A weB LOG is a place where people can frequently exchange thoughts and web links.
This allows your firm and the general public to post questions and answers in an open forum which is free and easily accessible. It must be moderated by someone at your firm, which then forces every message to be screened before it appears onto the blog although this can stunt the usage and growth of the blog if moderation is not sensitively done.
No, I have not gone mad, you don't offer all of your expertise through the blog, but you do answer questions that have quick answers, and it means you have to genuinely want to help. The idea is that when you see people need more than a simple answer, you either pick up the phone, or you advise them in the blog that they need a consultation and should come to see your firm. There should be a strict procedure that is followed when people need help from the blog - these leads often fall through the cracks - handle it just like somebody who had walked in off the street. You must deal with every query promptly or else you will be written off immediately by anyone who does not receive an answer.
You must also have a specific communications policy regarding blogging to be able to manage output and deal with any abuse of the facility by staff .
Readers and contributors to your blog see you as a specialist in the legal field (people in each department in the firm respond to questions from their field), and gain confidence in the firm. They also see the firm as a compassionate and helpful institution as you do help people through the blog. People outside your town can also use your services as location does not really matter.
Web sites don't have to cost an arm and a leg. Preparation and providing the web developers with all they need in the beginning will cut your costs. You must ensure that you can update the site yourself as this will save you a fortune down the line and avoid you ending up with a cobweb site you can't be bothered to maintain. Get a few quotes, not only will you get better pricing, but you will also get additional ideas on what you can do on your site. Most important is to ask other attorneys what they did and who they used to set up their site: think about the content and make sure it is relevant for your firm.
Every firm must have a web site, it saves you money on producing expensive brochures (there is still a place for printed brochures, but most needs are addressed by a web site), it can allow your clients to access their matters on their own cutting down the incoming enquiry calls or making calls to inform them of status changes and if you use blogs, you will start to have a extra source of business. If you don't have a blog, your site will be really nothing more than an electronic brochure : don't expect it to generate much business for your firm.
It is still better than not having one and ,increasingly, a firm is judged by its web presence (or absence) whilst many potential clients rely on web search engines to find service providers, including attorneys.