Is Your Law Firm’s Website Accessible?

Does your law firm have a website? Do you want its content to be available to as many people as possible? Do you want all your site visitors (including potential clients) to read about your cases, contact you through an on-line form, or learn about the attorneys in your practice? If your answer is “yes” your website needs to be accessible.

Accessibility, when it comes to digital content, refers to development and design that allows disabled people to consume and interact with websites, mobile applications, and other digital technology. What does this mean? Among other things,

  • An accessible website is one on which all videos are captioned so deaf people aren’t left out.
  • Many people cannot use a mouse, so an accessible website is one that can be navigated by the keyboard only.
  • Blind people, and the 1 in 12 men who are color blind, either cannot see color at all, or cannot distinguish between certain colors. Accessibility principles remind developers not to use color as the only means of conveying information.
  • Accessible websites don’t have the blinking and flashing content that annoys everyone, because for people with certain cognitive disabilities or epilepsy those annoying features render sites unusable.

In short, accessibility embraces coding practices that result in a site that welcomes all visitors.

An accessible website does not affect the look and feel of site content (although a non-disabled person visiting an accessible website may breathe a sigh of relief at how usable the site is). Accessibility—a close cousin of usability—is done on the back end, supported by policies, training, and testing. An accessible website is developed and designed in accordance with international standards known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG 2.0 Level AA. And an accessible site is shared prior to launch or upgrade with disabled people to ensure usability.

For the past 20 years my clients, co-counsel and I have worked with some of the country’s largest organizations to make their websites and other digital properties accessible. Approached in the alternative dispute resolution process known as Structured Negotiation, and without any lawsuits, entities as diverse as Bank of America, Weight Watchers, Anthem, Inc., and Major League Baseball have said yes to making content, features and functions of their digital properties accessible. It is past time for the legal profession to do the same. Let’s make every law firm website available to the public we serve. Let’s not forget that the public includes people who can’t see a computer screen, hear video content, or use a mouse.

Here are five things every law firm needs to know about digital accessibility. Please note, this article is not intended as legal advice. Its limited scope cannot possibly cover all the legal, technical, design, social, business, or civil rights aspects of digital accessibility. But hopefully readers will take away a commitment to dig deeper into what you can do to make law firm digital content, features, and functionality available to everyone.

Disabled people use computers and mobile devices—and they may be your potential clients.

Sighted people often express surprise when I talk about blind people (my clients, friends and colleagues) using computers and mobile devices. “How do they do that?” Software and hardware, known as assistive technology, can read text aloud, provide navigation shortcuts, enlarge text, or produce braille output. The most common type of software for blind people, called a screen reader, accesses back end code to read aloud screen content and speak navigation cues, such as links and headings. Screen readers allow blind users to skim pages, screens, documents, and tables with designated keystrokes. And blind people can use iOS flat screen devices with a series of swipes, taps and double taps while listening to audio output.

Accessibility is not just about blind people. People with a wide range of disabilities—and aging baby boomers—need accessible websites and use assistive technology. If you are curious about why and how, a great place to start is People with Disabilities on the Web, in-depth content on the website of WebAIM: a nonprofit organization based at Utah State University. And accessibility improves usability for all users. As a new series of short video explains, “accessibility is essential for some, useful for all.”

When law firm site owners, designers and developers ignore accessibility standards, potential clients are left by the wayside. Disabled colleagues are at a disadvantage. Want an inclusive law firm? Make digital accessibility one of your benchmarks.

There are lots of reasons to make your law firm website accessible; the law is one of them.

Welcoming visitors to your law office website is not the only reason to embrace accessibility. Accessibility also contributes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the holy grail of website marketers. Do you want people to find your firm early in a Google search? Accessibility can help. Lots has been written about this, including this article on SEO and accessibility.

And if a law firm needs another reason to include accessibility in its website plans, the Americans with Disabilities Act offers it. 25 years after passage of the ADA, all lawyers know that law offices are covered by the sweeping civil rights statute. Law firms must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, and architectural aspects of a firm’s offices must adhere to ADA building and design standards. The U.S. Department of Justice and a growing number of courts have also concluded that the ADA reaches websites and other digital properties.

DOJ settlements and court filings have agreed with advocates that WCAG 2.0 AA is the appropriate standard for ensuring accessibility of websites and mobile applications. Many state anti-discrimination laws and federal and state procurement statutes also apply to websites. If a law firm is looking for legal reasons for accessibility, they are not hard to find.

Does your firm use a vendor to build or maintain your site? Write accessibility into the contract.

Many law firms use third party vendors to build and/or maintain their digital properties. When choosing a vendor, look for one who understands accessibility. If they have not heard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium that promulgates those guidelines, keep looking.

Build accessibility requirements into every website-related contract. And not just a general statement that the delivered product will comply with legal requirements. Spell out the accessibility standard you require. WCAG 2.0 AA is the most widely accepted (and the one preferred by the U.S. Department of Justice). Make usability testing by disabled people a part of the contract. Many nonprofit organizations offer this service, as do private accessibility consultancies. I’ve listed some of them in the resource section of my website.

Post an Accessibility Information Page: Avoid legal claims and attract clients.

An Accessibility Information Page (AIP) is content on a website or mobile application about an organization’s accessibility efforts. For a law firm, it can start with a simple statement that the firm is committed to making its content usable by everyone, including disabled people. For larger organizations, details of accessibility enhancements, the adopted accessibility standard, or even Frequently Asked Questions about using the site can be included. My clients, co-counsel and I worked with Major League Baseball Advanced Media in Structured Negotiation (no lawsuit needed) to enhance the accessibility of the sports giant’s digital properties. The MLB Accessibility Page is an outcome of that endeavor.

The most important components of an accessibility information page are a phone number and email address (or accessible web form) that people can use to provide feedback about site usability. I started keeping track of AIPs in 2013 and the list is growing. Find links to accessibility information pages here.

Trained as masters of “what if,” some lawyers advise clients not to post AIPs for fear they will attract criticism (or even lawsuits) for work left undone. That has not been my experience. An easily findable AIP (preferably in the site footer on every page) coupled with a rapid and effective response to feedback, does not invite lawsuits. I think it helps organizations avoid them. I recommend that every law firm have one.

Make accessibility stick in your firm.

Just as a law firm can build an accessible website, a law firm (and any site owner) can break accessibility. New video content is posted without captions. Third party content is purchased without checking for accessibility. Personnel changes drain expertise. A so-called “upgrade” is really a downgrade of accessibility features.

Appropriate business processes are integral to a successful accessibility initiative. Staff must be trained and policies implemented. Most importantly, make someone responsible for web accessibility, just as someone is responsible for digital security, privacy, and ethics. From the largest international firms to a one-person law firm like mine, the legal profession can make accessibility a priority. I hope it does.

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