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Law firm website design: legal website lies and bad counsel: the dumbest advice you've been given about your law firm's website


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If there’s one thing the Internet is known for, it's free advice. It’s really the perfect medium for it, actually; with just a few clicks you can get advice on planting a garden, building a boat, or finding a new relationship, sometimes all on the same website. But for anyone who has researched advice (or opinion, which is truly what advice is) on the web knows, there is a lot of very, very bad advice out there. I have yet to see anyone publish a definitive list of the worst possible advice you can give for the design and maintenance of law firm websites, so consider this a groundbreaking Pulitzer-prize short-list essay on the very worst recommendations I have even seen or read about legal websites. Most of these, frighteningly enough, are given by so-called "experts." This is by no means a complete list, but certainly some of the most egregious I have encountered. Here goes.

Bad advice #1: Don't put a blog on your firm's main website; instead, create a new domain
This is probably the worst piece of advice I've ever heard. Not only does it potentially cause your firm's main web property to lose out on potential traffic for valuable content that YOU are writing, it also creates the impression among law firms that placing practice-specific legal advice and content into separate web properties is a good thing - it is anything but!

If your law firm has an attorney who wants to blog about gardening or guitar playing, fine; let them do it on a separate domain. But if they are writing serious articles about their practice, that content should serve to bring value to your firm’s primary domain name AND attention to the attorney who is spending the time to write these pieces. A separate domain name for practice-specific or attorney-specific content delivers little value to the firm’s primary website; in essence it’s like an attorney hanging his/her own shingle, even if the business that the attorney brings in is possibly shared with other partners.  It will only serve to bring attention to that attorney, but even then, the number of visitors the content on the separate domain will receive pales in comparison to what could be garnered using the strength of the firm’s domain.

Bad advice #2: Use Wordpress to update your site’s content
Easy: Wordpress is a good tool to create a simple website, but it’s only advantage over other tools begins and ends with the word “easy”. Most law firm websites, especially those that have a number of attorneys and have relationships between the attorneys, practice pages, news, events, blogs, etc., are far too complex for Wordpress.  Every attorney, for instance, practices in one or more practice area, and every practice area has one or more attorney, and maintaining these many-to-many relationships requires something more than what Wordpress can handle (without knowing PHP and CSS coding).
Security:  The script behind Wordpress is not as secure as other applications like Joomla. There have been many, many occurrences of Wordpress hacks that have occurred in the news, and most likely many more that have not.
Look and feel:  Usually you can tell when a site is Wordpress because there is a finite number of templates one can use.  If you create a custom template, then many of the plug-ins will not work properly, and using the free plug-in (in spite of their difficulty in updating them to your needs) is one of the reasons people use Wordpress after all; because much of it is free.
Slowness: because there are so many plug-ins required for its use, Wordpress sites are notoriously slow, which does not matter much if you don’t have much traffic, but isn’t the point to get traffic?
SEO: speaking of traffic, Wordpress has few included tools for SEO and makes the process of hiring an optimization expert even harder (and cost more).

In addition to all the above limitations and problems, you can’t alter the page structure (header, footer) meaning adding your own CSS scripts or JavaScript is impossible.

Bad advice #3: Use an SEO company that promises unbelievable (and realistically unattainable) results.
While most firms are pretty good at avoiding scams or get rich quick schemes, there are some very reputable SEO companies out there, some very large legal-based marketing firms I will not name, that take money for SEO and then do more harm than good – or sometimes they do nothing at all. Bottom line here is if you are promised something that seems too good to be true, it isn’t.  Good SEO takes time (usually many months) and effort (at least a dozen or more hours per month) and since the optimization rules keep changing, the effort requires the attention of a company that knows what the latest “rules” are. If you hire someone based on false and dishonest and amazing promises, you’ll not only lose your money you might receive an unexpected bonus: a Google penalty, which will bring much more harm to your law firm than the loss of a few thousand dollars.

Bad advice #4: Take your own portrait photos to save money
This is certainly not the worst advice ever, but I’m putting it fourth because it’s a common one that many firms are told and far too many still fall for. With high-quality cameras coming at lower price tags these days, there is a growing inclination – one you should resist – to have someone in your office that is not a professional photographer take your lawyer portraits.  You might be proud of the results, that they are not terrible, but “not terrible” shouldn’t be the standard of excellence you’re shooting for. If you already have a terrible website it might not hurt all that much more to have sub-standard portraits as well, but if you’re trying to portray your firm as a professional organization, spend the money on a pro photographer (and make sure you find someone with experience!).

Bad advice #5: Use free or cheap hosting
Ouch. This one really hurts. Although yes, you can find very, very cheap hosting, and sometimes it may be acceptable for a small infrequently-visited website, there is a business expression that was practically written for this one alone: you get what you pay for. While frequent down-time, unexplained temporary outages, slow response time, and little to no customization are not always going to be experienced with low-cost hosting providers, there is a good chance of one or all of these problems affecting your website.  The 99.9999% uptime and reliability of high-end hosting providers is well worth the extra expense, especially when you consider what you could possibly lose during even one short outage or period of slow response time. If you are using a cheap host and your site is painfully slow, the problem is probably not your Internet connection - it’s your hosting company. Test other small sites, even some big ones, to see how long a typical webpage takes to load compared to yours. The difference of a second or two can often determine if your firm gains or loses a potential client. There is another expression for this tendency: penny wise and pound foolish.