Adapted and excerpted from Internet Branding for Lawyers: Building the Client-Centered Website (2012) by Jeff Lantz, now available from the ABA Law Practice Management Section.
Build Your Website Yourself or Hire a Developer?
Your website is your personal 24/7 face to the world. It should be a significant part of your marketing program. Because it’s always available for the world to see and may often be the sole factor in determining whether a client calls you or someone else, your website should look as good and professional as possible—no exceptions.
Professional website development can be complex, especially in terms of writing code to interact with databases. Equally challenging is having the artistic ability to design an aesthetically pleasing layout to effectively promote a law firm’s brand. Most attorneys lack the professional skills in all of these areas.
In contrast, for perhaps $2,500 to $5,000, a solo attorney or small firm can have a professional website designer and developer build a custom website. These costs are even lower if a website template is used as a starting point.
Please just say “No” to developing your firm’s website yourself.
OK, I Understand—But I Really Want to Learn Website Development and Design
If you want to learn website development, hire a website developer and buy a book about website coding so you can have a better understanding about the website development process. If your website will be using the PHP language and a MySQL database, then you might also want to pick up books on these subjects.
Too Many Cooks Spoil the Soup—and Websites
Bad websites often result when the features of many good websites are combined.
Imagine that you’ve just finished preparing a complex motion for summary judgment for a corporate client. This motion is based not only on the law but also on your specific knowledge of how the assigned judge likes to see these types of motions presented.
Before filing the motion, you present it to the business client representative for review. Instead of reading it over and calling you to discuss any questions, the representative forwards the motion to the other eight members of her team and asks each one to provide written comments as to how the motion can be improved.
Three days later, you receive an e-mail with eight attachments of detailed comments concerning your summary judgment motion. Not only are almost all of the comments not helpful, but also most would significantly detract from the chance of the motion being granted. Further, the comments in many of the attachments are irreconcilable: The comments from one person directly conflict with the comments from another person.
This same scenario frequently happens in the case of website design. Many law firms believe that the more contributions and opinions, the better. This not only significantly slows down the design process but also makes it more difficult.
How Long Will It Take to Develop Your Website?
The time to develop a website is usually linked to the number of attorneys and firm representatives working directly on the project. Once more than six or so attorneys are heavily involved with the website development process, the chance that the project will get done in less than a year is low. If this may be the case with your firm, then consider past nonbillable projects that your firm has undertaken: This will be your best predictor of how long the website process will take.
How Much Will It Cost Us to Develop Our Firm’s Website? Hidden Costs and Lost Opportunities
The decision-making process in many firms is less than optimal from a business perspective. Partners often take thousands of dollars worth of time to make a decision about whether to make a purchase that involves only a few hundred dollars. Similarly, the cost of developing a law firm brand and website can become high, not because of anything the developer does but because a law firm’s internal project-management process.
Understanding the Cost of Lost Billings
A significant cost for the vast majority of website projects will not be how much the developer charges but how the firm chooses to manage the website project.
When firms want to know how much a website or branding project will cost, one response is, “How much do you want it to cost?” Law firms should understand that they can control a large part of the true cost for website development by choosing to manage it effectively.
As an example, for a complete website project for a 12-attorney firm, a developer might charge between $8,000 and $25,000, depending on the project requirements. If one attorney is fully involved and the other attorneys are much less involved (such as approving the design and making sure the information for their profiles and practice areas are correct), the project might require a total of 25 hours of firm time. At $250 per hour, this equates to $6,250 of firm time. From an internal cost perspective, this would be an optimal way to manage the website development project.
Suppose that instead of one partner working with the developer and authorizing all approvals, four attorneys are heavily involved in the process and the website is submitted several times to all of the firm’s attorneys. At each stage of this process, there is considerable discussion around the individual likes and dislikes of the website, as well as numerous requests for significant changes. Ultimately, four different meetings of all firm attorneys are required, with an average time of one hour spent on firm design at each meeting.
In this scenario, the internal time required might be around 120 hours. The internal cost for the firm will have increased to approximately $30,000 in lost billings (and more than the total amount paid to the developer). Developer charges will also probably have increased.
Reducing the Cost of Delay
Attorneys in general are deadline oriented. Various aspects of litigation matters require strict adherence to schedules. However, when it comes to website development, deadlines often are not set or are completely disregarded. As a result, website projects that should take only a few months can take a year or more. Delay becomes expensive for the following reasons:
• It requires additional time to refocus if the project is put on the shelf for months (adding additional time);
• it typically requires more meetings because of changes at the firm; and
• new business that might have come in through the new website is forever lost.
The longer that website development takes, the higher the internal costs will be—and the more likely it is that potential work that would have resulted from the website is lost.
How to Do It Right: Minimizing Hidden Costs and Ensuring a Smooth Development Process
We all know that there are ways to increase project efficiency. With respect to website development projects, here are some ideas to consider.
1. Identify a core team to work with the developer on the initial concepts for the brand and website design. Ideally, this team should consist of no more than three representatives from the law firm (preferably only one or two). Absent dramatic circumstances (or if the team consists only of one member), no new members should be added to this team if one member leaves the team.
2. Develop a timetable for branding, website design, and all other development aspects and stick to it—just like you would if it was a court-ordered schedule.
3. Identify exactly who will need to approve the ultimate design.
4. If all of the partners must approve the website design, then do the following:
- Have the proposed website design uploaded to a password- protected domain so that the partners can see the design on an Internet browser. Upload designs for the home page, a sample attorney profile page, and an example of a practice area page.
- Schedule a meeting to go over the proposed website design.
- Three weeks before this meeting, ask all partners to prepare and send any and all comments and desired changes to one team member.
- This team member should work with the website designer to discuss and consider the proposed comments and changes. Revised website images can then be created if necessary before the meeting.
- The revised website images should be uploaded to the password-protected domain at least one week before the meeting. Then an e-mail should be sent to all partners letting them know that all comments have been considered in the new version and that additional or remaining comments or concerns can be addressed at the partnership meeting.
- At the partnership meeting, remaining comments or issues should be discussed. The developer should also be at this meeting. The goal of the meeting will be to get partnership approval for the final design.
- Although an additional meeting might be necessary, following this approach will significantly expedite the development process and lower internal costs. It will also make for a much smoother process for all involved.