Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2002

Beyond the ‘Wow’ Factor
Firms find user-friendly websites can draw new business and satisfy existing clients
By Melody Finnemore

For a small law firm like Forcum & Speck in Bend, a website isn’t exactly the most pressing priority.

Dick Forcum, who began practicing in 1964, has no shortage of clients, so he doesn’t need a website to attract new customers. He is well-known in the community and doesn’t need the Internet to tell people who he is. And, to get to the heart of the matter, Forcum is not the biggest fan of computer technology in general, according to his legal assistant, Patti Nairns.

'The only computer experience he’s had was a nasty virus a few months ago that wiped out a lot of our files,' she said. 'His experience so far has been pretty negative.'

Nonetheless, Forcum & Speck did establish a website about six months ago (www.forcumspeck.com) that provides the firm’s address and phone number, a brief description of its history and the services it offers, short biographies of its staff and e-mail addresses where they can be reached.

'Everything is on the Internet and everybody looks for things that way. I know I do,' Nairns said. 'Websites are the way people do their research and gather their information these days.'

Forcum & Speck’s website is intended to provide basic information about the firm for people who have an interest. There are no plans to add new features to the site or to join the foot race of keeping up with the latest trends and technologies.

'Really that’s all we wanted it to be,' Nairns said. 'We don’t want to spend a lot of money or time on it, and it accomplishes what we need.'

Forcum & Speck is one of the ever-growing number of Oregon firms and lawyers turning to the World Wide Web. Just six years ago, nary a website was to be found in the pages of the OSB directory. Today, more than 570 firms, offices and companies list their websites in the member directory. An informal survey by the Bulletin uncovers two trends: The websites are succeeding in drawing new business, in firms large and small. And client usability has risen to top of priority list in website design.

Hornecker Cowling Hassen & Heysell, a small firm in Medford, is one of the firms that hopes to attract new clients by going online. However, just getting the site up and running was a problem. Legal assistant Henrietta Miller ended up building the firm’s site herself two years ago after a previous attempt in 1998 stalled.

'I pretty much trained myself on the HTML language. I had done a few small projects, so to take this on was quite a challenge,' Miller said. 'There were so many other law firms putting their business online that we wanted to make sure people knew about us.'

The site (www.roguelaw.com) receives an average of 20 hits a week. It features basic contact information for the firm and a map that provides directions to its offices, along with attorney biographies and specialties, a profile of the firm’s history and services, and a listing of job opportunities.

'We’re working on expanding our site to include other features, especially in the adoption area. We are working to make it more interactive so that people can refer to it and we can let clients know what all is involved in the adoption process,' Miller said. 'It gives them enough to help them decide whether or not they need to contact an attorney for more information.'

Miller said the firm’s future plans for the site revolve around providing more information for clients. For example, she would like to add more information about issues related to land use to complement a listing of the firm’s services in that area. But for a small firm, just maintaining the site and adding basic new features will be a challenge.

'I just plan on keeping up with it,' Miller said. 'If I see other firms doing things and making changes, I want to be able to keep up with that.'

At the other end of the spectrum is Miller Nash, one of Portland’s largest firms, which repeatedly receives national recognition as a leader in Internet marketing technology within the legal sector. Among its many features, the website (www.millernash.com) lists upcoming events and seminars, provides news releases about prominent legal issues and offers access to articles and publications written by its attorneys that are linked to the firm’s 32 practice areas. A media resources center guides members of the media to lawyers who can comment on various areas of the law. Also, visitors can enter a chat dialogue to talk directly with members of the firm’s client services department.

One of Miller Nash’s primary goals when it launched its website was to attract new clients, and it has been successful in meeting that need. Its main objective, however, was to change people’s perceptions about the firm.

'We did a survey and found that many people thought of us as this stuffy, stodgy, conservative firm, and we wanted to improve our image to being tech-savvy and modern, which we are,' said Aaron Kirk Douglas, Miller Nash’s director of client services.

As the site has evolved, the focus has shifted from attracting new customers to better serving existing clients. One feature of the website allows clients, using a password, to update their account information and review documents online with their attorneys.

'With the expense of file storage these days, it’s much more cost effective and secure to put this information on the server so that attorneys and their clients can review these documents together,' Douglas said.

Another feature allows members of the firm to generate electronic proposals for new business.

'We don’t stress out about making 500 copies in color and binding them so we can get them in the mail that day. The client can look at it when he or she wants to, it’s more convenient for everyone and we don’t kill any trees,' he said.

According to the American Bar Association, 75 percent of all law firms — and 95 percent of large law firms — have a website. Many firms opted to go heavy on the graphics and create flashy features when first establishing their sites in the mid-’90s, according to national marketing and web consultant Larry Bodine.

'During this period law firms collectively poured millions of dollars into their websites,' Bodine said in a recent online article at The Law Marketing Portal (www.lfmi.com). 'Some of the money was well-invested on behind-the-scenes databases or on opt-in e-mail newsletters to which visitors could subscribe. But much of the money was jettisoned on high-tech bells and whistles that junked up the web experience.

'What got lost was usability. Today, every law firm should analyze their sites by usability standards,' Bodine said.

The trend now is to keep things simple. Bodine advises law firms to eliminate complicated graphics that slow users down and focus instead on clear communication, making it easy for users to find the information they are looking for and other means of providing convenient 'website usability.'

Kim Fiske, director of planning and marketing for Portland’s Stoel Rives, said that is exactly what the firm found out for itself after launching its site (www.stoel.com). The first incarnation of the firm’s website in 1995 was very graphic intensive and didn’t provide much information, nor was it updated all that often.

'It was really just a classic online brochure that featured information about the firm, our attorneys and other basic information,' she said.

When Stoel Rives revised the site in 1999, it not only wanted to update its look and content, but also take advantage of search engines. In addition, Stoel Rives conducted extensive research on how people look for the firm and whom it should target with its website content.

'More than 50 percent of our hits are recruiting in nature, either from law students or laterals, people who work at other firms and want to work here,' Fiske said. 'We also decided people are on the web for information. They aren’t there for fancy graphics — we’re way past the ‘wow factor.’ We want to provide information.'

The site, recently recognized by The Internet Lawyer as one of the top 50 legal websites in the nation, offers the firm’s contact information, attorney biographies and other basic information. Other features include articles, newsletters, press releases and other online resources. Visitors can find a Stoel Rives lawyer in any of the cities in which the firm has offices and read about the services the firm provides.

Along with its primary website, a series of branch sites grew out of the research findings. The large number of hits from people seeking to work at Stoel Rives led the firm to create join.stoel.com. Stoel Rives also launched estoel.com, an e-commerce site dedicated to its online customers.

'I have yet to hear that our main site has brought in clients, but I hear over and over that our estoel site brings in new business,' Fiske said. He also noted that clients involved in intellectual property issues are less concerned about whether their attorney is local, which has opened the door to new clients across the country.

Stoel Rives plans to use its technology to conduct online client surveys and by the end of the year create a mechanism so clients can talk to an 'ombudsman' online.

'For us, having a website is absolutely important in providing information,' Fiske said. 'We are not going to conduct business over the web; we’re just not. That’s not the kind of law we do. We really just want to provide value-added customer service. When people go on a site they don’t want a lot of marketing fluff. They want clear, clean information.'

In the five years since Portland’s Black Helterline established its site (www.bhlaw.com), it has grown into the firm’s primary marketing tool, according to Ron Adams, partner in charge of technology.

'Everyone thought at the time it was a good way to attract clients because a web search would provide our contact information, our attorneys’ names and their specialties and other information,' he said. 'It’s pretty much eliminated the need for brochures.'

Since establishing its site, Black Helterline has expanded it to include information on upcoming seminars and other legal events, along with registration forms for those events. Black Helterline plans to use its website to provide links to its clients. Additional improvements will include providing more interactive features that make things more convenient for clients.

'One of our plans for the future involves providing a secure site where we can deposit documents our clients can access rather than transferring documents by e-mail,' Adams said, noting clients don’t always have access to their e-mail while traveling, but they generally are able to access Black Helterline’s website no matter where they are.

'It also addresses a security issue. You never really know who is reading e-mail, so it isn’t desirable to transfer documents that way,' he said.

While national website consultants praise the evolution of sites that improve usability for clients and other visitors, they caution that these user-friendly features could bring additional liability to law firms. Concerns about client confidentiality, privacy policies, disclaimers and checks against conflicts of interest are just a few of the ethical issues that accompany the latest wave of website trends and technologies.

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area free-lance writer.

© 2002 Melody Finnemore

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