What's in a law firm website?

I spend a lot of my time, one way and another, trawling through law firm websites and Linked-In, informing myself – for various reasons – about what particular partners and departments, and ultimately firms, do and are capable of doing.

Some of this is competitor analysis for my clients, some for general market research and some for potential clients of the firms concerned.

The results are often rather disappointing, sometimes highly unsatisfactory and sometimes frustrating. Those law firms and partners which have invested significant time in trying to communicate meaningfully what it is they do, in order that, oh, I don’t know – revolutionary idea – someone might actually want to instruct them, are in the minority.

Law firms have a strange relationship with their websites, I feel, much more on the “necessary evil” end of the scale than the “marvellous opportunity”.

I often wonder how the planning process has been managed, and whether the conjoined questions “why are we doing this and for whom?” remain at the centre of thinking.

There are various errors of judgement, in my humble opinion, ranging from the niggling to the egregious, missing opportunities to inform, promote, reassure and direct interest both inside and outside the firm.

I have heard various excuses about websites from law firms, most of which bite the dust quite quickly on examination. One of my favourites is: “We don’t put associate profiles on because we don’t want them to be headhunted”. Or recognised for their talent. Or identified in any way to possible clients. Maybe you should institute a curfew and make them live in the basement too.

I also rather like: “We don’t put client names on the website because it makes it too easy for our competitors to identify who we act for”. Or other potential clients, for that matter. Or indeed anyone trying to assess whether you are actually any good at what you do.

My favourite one on the clients is: “We don’t put client names on our website because we don’t have permission (= we haven’t asked them)/our clients don’t want us to (= we haven’t asked them)/we don’t think it’s appropriate (= we haven’t asked them)”.

Yes, you are required to get client permission before you use their names but NEWSFLASH some of your competitors make blanket permission a simple tick-box when the client first instructs them…Take a look: some of your competitors have their clients’ names all over their website. If they can do it, chances are you can too.

PLUS, and I guess I could have lit those capitals for FURTHER EFFECT, much of your involvement with clients is public-domain anyway! If you are involved in litigation or much plc work, it is all, technically, public-domain information. And is it more likely that people will use you in future or be reassured of their choice in your firm because they see your name associated with something, or not? You decide.

Alas the “we don’t use client names because…” nonsense – and it is, aside from, ooh, say divorce or some employment stuff, nonsense – hails from the halcyon days of “if they know the market then they will know me”.

This kind of complacent thinking is unfortunately alive and well in certain corners of the profession, and is entirely self-defeating. To drop a little anecdote in to spice that point up a bit, I once did some training for a leading planning firm where one of the associates complained to me that they had lost out on a juicy piece of work because their corporate department “didn’t know we did planning…”. What? Best kept secret, oh yes, even in your own firm. Nice.

I would instantly abandon such trenchant criticism were it not for the fact that so many partners in so many firms are failing to perform to the required standard. I have written in great detail about “drizzlemakers” – partners who, while not of rainmaking standard, generate just enough moisture to wet the ground and cling to survival in their firms as a result.I have met many such individuals during my career, and the hearty embrace of self-promotion is not one of their common characteristics. Such lawyers are far more likely to fall into the ‘light-under-a-bushel’ or ‘if they know the market they’ll find me’ category which eschews all overt routes to potential new revenue as if they were invitations to contract some form of new tropical disease.

It is a dog-eat-dog world out there, and there are ever more opportunities to engage in the kind of personal marketing which links potential client with eager lawyer, and I for one am fed up with trawling through Stone Age websites with bloodless 100-word profiles which tell me nothing whatever about the lawyer behind the supposed reputation.

You don’t even have to rely on your own firm’s website. Linked-In provides an inexpensive method of gently advertising your presence to potential clients, other lawyers who might refer work or recruiters who might be looking for suitable candidates for a new position. The modern age is all about connectivity, so it just feels wrong when I look up a partner on Linked-In and find a bland, generic profile cut and pasted from the firm’s own website and a pitiful number of connections.

Beyond the dearth of information on firms’ websites, it has to be said that while some law firm sites can’t seem to do enough for you in terms of finding expertise, others seem to be designed to be deliberately obstructive. As a for instance, a partner search brings up several possibilities and you click into one profile but then, when you try to return to your search to look at the other partners, you find a blank search forcing you to do the search all over again. Another royal pain is the lack of a free-search capability – forcing you to search by how the law firm organises itself and not how you might want to search. Adding to the pain is the lack of partner search capability but instead a simple alphabetical list of lawyers, rather like the brass plaque on the door I presume, which means you have to go through each profile in turn to find what you need and make sure you don’t miss anyone. I would be surprised if any potential clients would bother. A particularly arcane – and antediluvian – version of the ‘plain list’ nonsense has the partners in seniority order, so we are even deprived of alphabetical assistance. What earthly use this is besides massaging the ego of the senior partners is beyond me.

I’ll finish on a positive note. There are law firms out there which have taken time and effort attempting to make it as easy as possible for clients (and people like me) to assemble decent team information, and find out a bit more about their available resource. So in no particular order, here are just a few highlights, which by no means encompass my full selection of good law firm sites (in case I’ve missed anyone out!):

Wragge & Co – the firm deserves a special mention, I think, for the excellence of its partner profiles. Not only are there full cvs, links to press releases and articles, but the ‘Experience’ section is set out as a very reader-friendly and informative Q&A.

Sidley Austin has one of the most flexible attorney-search functions, allowing you to tick multiple boxes for job title and office, for instance, which is a very handy way of seeing at a glance what resources the firm has in any combination across its extensive international network.

Baker & McKenzie, Reed Smith, Dechert – one lovely feature in partner profiles on these sites is that when you run the cursor over the partner name in a search, a short bio drops down automatically, disappearing when you move the cursor. This allows you to quickly browse a partner search. Reed Smith also deserves special mention for its exhaustive list of specialisms to search against, something not uncommon in US firms. Mayer Brown’s crisp site also has a very user-friendly partner search function, as does Winston & Strawn’s elegant, modern web presence. Dechert’s is also one of the cleanest, most attractive sites I have come across.  Kudos also to Davis Polk for simplicity and elegance of design, an attractive, easily-navigable website with plenty of relevant information.  Leigh Day & Co also has a great, clean site with an easy, informative search function, and Wedlake Bell’s gorgeous (dare I say ‘sexy’?) modern site is a pleasure to use.

Osborne Clarke’s site, meanwhile, has useful micro-profiles under cheery pics of the partners which come up on the neat, utilitarian search function. Eversheds’ search function is also incredibly quick and very user-friendly, and DLA Piper’s is lightning-fast.

Olswang’s website is a streamlined information-delivery engine, making elegant use of tabs to allow team information and much else to be easily grouped under practice headings.

Taylor Wessing – I like the feature on this site, again not unique, which sorts a People search into the number of partners, senior associates and associates ahead of the individual profiles. This allows an ‘at a glance’ assessment of team-strength, which is painfully difficult to assemble on most other law firm sites.

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