Tech Audit

Worst of the Web?

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There are two reasons lawyers can’t do good Web sites. One is they delegate the job to others. The other is they do the Web site themselves.

It is a classic problem. Web professionals don’t have the law practice knowledge to create great content for lawyers. And lawyers don’t have the computer skills to build sites themselves.

This does not mean a law office should not have a site; for the most part any Web site is better than none. But most lawyer sites are static, brochure sites. They identify the firm, its location and its lawyers. There is a listing of practice areas and attorney biographies. A few slick graphics complete the site, which hardly changes except when a lawyer leaves or joins the firm.

Content has always been king on the Internet, and one would think the legal profession is a natural for the Web. Our profession is loaded with content: reported cases, all kinds of procedural rules, ethical rules, the hot issues of the day, human problems of all sorts that are society’s most important issues, every aspect of conflict resolution, and the very essence of ordered liberty.

This is not to mention the psychological aspects of dealing with clients, judges, witnesses and other professionals. Even with all our ethical restrictions, there is no limit to the substantive content lawyers could put on the Net.

The Web’s visual orientation gives eyes to information. But like a newborn baby flooded with images, lawyers haven’t learned how to master digital reality. Graphics are tough. There are copyright and design issues, and lawyers generally are not artists. Even if all you want to do is use digital photos, editing for size, quality and content is an art unto itself.

But forget the visual. Words something lawyers ought to know something about may be the toughest aspect of the Web.

Let’s say you want to post your state’s rules of civil procedure. The words themselves are in the public domain. But here are your immediate problems: Do you post one giant PDF (portable document format) file or small PDFs? Or do you post in hypertext markup language? If HTML, do you have one very long screen or break up the rules into sections? Table of contents? Index? Hyperlinks?

Now for the kicker: How to handle rule changes? And if you solve all that, are you going to have editorial content? If so, what are you going to do to keep it fresh? The farther down this list you get, the more value you are likely to provide.

Power From Within

Good lawyer Web sites are likely to become more common when more lawyers understand the power of an intranet (an internal, private Web site that is a repository for firm knowledge, and that selectively permits access to confidential information). Once you have a feel for that, the trick is to leverage knowledge publicly, eliminating what is confidential and emphasizing what is useful to potential clients.

While large firms may have more Web resources and a bigger electronic budget, small firms can make up for that with creativity and nimble movement.

Content is still king, and everything does not have to be accomplished at once. In fact, a Web site is never complete. It becomes instantly stale unless it changes dynamically, like a database that is constantly updated as part of a core process.

Bricks-and-mortar retailers say their windows are the eyes to their store, and your Web site is the world’s window into your firm. In a world that does not require bricks and mortar, ideas and words become even more important. That should not scare lawyers. Recognize that your Web site is never done. Then make it great.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected]

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