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Firm websites: help or hype?

1 March 01

Author argues that the benefits of expensive, interactive websites have yet to be proven

by Stephen Welsh

Generally speaking, the principal use of the worldwide web remains that of an information database. The number of users is growing rapidly on that basis, and looks set to continue to do so for at least the short to medium term. The use of the web as a means of selling and purchasing goods is growing less quickly (at least in the UK) due to continuing consumer concern over security of online transactions. It is against that background that the value, current and potential, of websites for legal firms must be assessed.

Solicitors’  Websites

A typical firm’s website includes one or more of the following features:

  1. Information on the history of the firm.
  2. Details of the services provided by the firm.
  3. Details of key individuals within the firm (generally limited to Partners and Associates).
  4. A database of articles and commentaries on topical legal issues.
  5. A “horn-blowing” section evidencing the high-standing of the firm (or specific individuals) in any area of its practice by quoting testimonials from relevant publications.
  6. A facility for e-mail communication (although a website is not strictly necessary for this purpose).

Any site comprising a combination of items 1 to 5 is a passive one, comprising no more than an advertisement for the firm’s services accessible on-line. E-mail communication facilities offer a level of interactivity in the form of an additional means of communication, but do not by themselves change the nature of an essentially passive site.

“Passive” Sites

There is undoubtedly a valid argument to the effect that essentially passive sites have a valid marketing role in promoting or maintaining a firm’s general profile (provided they are kept up-to-date), but do they attract additional business?

It is conceivable that individuals seeking advice in respect of traditional private client areas of practice may use the web as a means of identifying and appointing a solicitor, in much the same way as they may currently use written listings such as the Yellow Pages. Commercial clients, however, tend to appoint solicitors based on a recommendation or the reputation of the firm or particular individuals within it. It must be unlikely (although admittedly not inconceivable) that any managing director would “surf the net” to identify and appoint a legal representative. It seems doubtful whether the web (or anything else) will ever replace reputation and the provision of a quality service at a reasonable price as a commercial solicitor’s key marketing tools.

“Interactive” Sites

Having said that, it is obvious from recent reports in both legal and non-legal publications that some firms do not share that view. These describe websites which allow far greater interactivity for clients or potential clients. One such site is said to permit clients (and other agents) password-protected access to files and documents on-line, including the facility to make changes to the documents accessed. Others state the ability or intention to allow online purchase of standard form legal documentation. Are these impressive (and presumably expensive) facilities actually of practical value? After all:

  • It is undeniable that many clients perceive legal documents as long-winded, technical and uninteresting. Such clients often seek to avoid reading the documentation even once, purporting to rely on their solicitors to “sort out the legalese” and summarise relevant issues in lay terms.  Would many clients have the need or desire to review documentation online?
  • Would clients actually purchase standard documentation online? In all but the simplest matters, input from a solicitor is bound to be required, negating any benefit from purchasing the unadjusted document online. For simple matters, styles of documents will be available more cheaply from other sources (for example, pre-printed wills forms have been widely available in retail outlets for a number of years).
  • It must be open to serious doubt as to whether any client would feel qualified (or, indeed, should be encouraged) to amend legal documentation, whether online or otherwise. After all, while medical textbooks used by surgeons are available in bookshops, reading them does not qualify a member of the public to perform his own appendectomy.
  • While the establishment of a dedicated site for documentation pertaining to a particular transaction could be useful for commercial advisers (as opposed to clients), would it actually offer any significant benefit in the conduct of the transaction? After all, if parties exchange amendments to documentation by e-mail, each adviser can easily maintain their own database containing a full record of the various stages of negotiation. Equally, it would seem as quick and easy to pass on relevant information by e-mail or telephone as to post notices on a dedicated website.  

Conclusion

Most legal firms perceive themselves as having evolved from the Dickensian image of a dusty profession to a modern national (or international) business, run on the same principles as are applied by the smallest independent retailer to the largest multi-national conglomerate. On that basis, an assessment requires to be made as to whether a firm’s website adds value to its business. In the final analysis, if an expensive website does not attract a level of new business at least sufficient to off-set its costs (or can be demonstrated to retain business of the required level which would otherwise have been lost), it constitutes a case of “technology for its own sake”, and benefits no-one but the suppliers of the relevant hardware and software.

While standard passive websites would, given the modest cost and resource required to establish and maintain them, appear to have justification on the basis of general profile augmentation, the higher costs and resource associated with the more ambitious interactive sites seem more difficult to justify. Things may, of course, change as technology advances further, but for now it is difficult to see what benefits the more interactive sites offer to clients. Online banking and shopping systems are becoming increasingly popular, perhaps reflecting the fact that they obviate the need for personal contact with staff as well as their general convenience. Such systems have obvious potential benefits for both the site operator and the customer. In contrast, clients will for the foreseeable future require personal contact with their solicitor who is, after all, providing them with highly specialised services rather than tins of beans. While that remains the case, interactive websites may be doomed to remain expensive curiosities.   

Stephen Welsh is a partner in the company department of Iain Smith & Co, Aberdeen