This post covers the second installment of a four-part series on setting up a website for your law practice.  We learned in the first post how to select and register a domain name, secure a web host, and create and set up email.  This second post covers the real meat of the process:  the design and development process.

First, you need to decide whether to hire someone or do it yourself (“DIY”).  To save time and frustration, many folks will choose to hire a professional to design and develop their site.  Cost is one factor in selecting a professional, but it does not need to be unduly prohibitive.  Low-end professionals range from $500 to $2,000.  These professionals can customize a ready-made template (which you buy, although some are free) and install a content management system (“CMS”) on your web host.  Someone in this category should be able to train you to make your own updates using the content management system and may provide additional support on matters such as email, security, analytics, and search engine optimization (but within that price range, the work will be minimal).  Mid-level professionals range from $2,000 to $10,000.  These professionals will help you develop the site architecture, design and develop a custom layout, install the CMS on your web host, train you to use the CMS, and provide support and consultation on matters such as email, security, analytics, and search engine optimization.  There are professionals that top $10,000, but they are rarely needed for a solo or small firms.  These high-end professionals typically develop complex multipage sites with custom CMS systems.  FindLaw, LexisNexis, and Avvo are all-in-one solutions, as noted in Part I of this series, that fall within the mid- to high-end developer category and offer similar services.

Keep in mind that whether you hire a professional or do it yourself (“DIY”), you should use a CMS.  A CMS will provide you with the ability to add, remove, or modify website content without having any knowledge of “code.”  If you don’t use a CMS, but rather static html files, you will need to find that particular file (or files) on your web server and make the changes, typically with the assistance of a paid professional.  Further, using static html files for your site will reduce the chances of being found online through a search and you will likely end up paying another professional down the road to convert the site to use a CMS.

           
Let’s talk about DIY, since that’s what many solos attempt to do until they become too frustrated and end up hiring a professional.  In all seriousness, there are DIY programs out there that will make it easy for you.  Most web hosts now offer free site builders as part of their hosting service.  Typically, the site builder provides a few pre-made templates that can be configured by the user.  For example, Bluehost offers a service called Weebly and Go Daddy offers another website builder; both use a drag and drop interface.  These are fine options for an initial site, but because of their limitations, you are likely to grow out of the site.  Once you do, you can always hire a professional down the road and, hopefully, at that point your practice is doing well enough to absorb that cost.  There are other all-in-one options (see Part I of this series), such as Flavors, SquareSpace, and Get Your Business Online that are similar to the web host site builders and provide their own domain registration, web hosting, and DIY drag and drop design and development.

The best DIY option by far (in my opinion) is WordPress (.org, not .com).  Fortunately, our own Rachel has written extensively on using WordPress – Part I and Part II.  WordPress is the most popular open source CMS system, which means the software and many of the components that work with it are created and supported by a community of developers and can be downloaded and used for free.  What this means for you is that there is a huge community to rely upon for support, you can find consultants to assist you if necessary, and the software and its components will continue to develop and improve.  All you need to do is install WordPress on your web host (most hosts offer automatic installs), then find a good theme (and there are thousands) and customize it using WordPress.  There are a number of good online tutorials and guides on how to use WordPress.  In addition, most adult community education centers now offer courses in WordPress. 

Finding a theme can be daunting.  Try asking colleagues what themes they are using.  Even if you use the same theme, your customizations will avoid the appearance of the two sites looking alike.  Both free and paid themes can be found at the WordPress theme repository.  There are also a number of commercial developers whose themes can be viewed from their websites, including some popular developers such as WooThemes, Headway Themes, Elegant Themes, ThemeForest, Templatic, Obox Design, and ThemeFuse.  When choosing a theme, look
for those optimized for mobile use, have user-friendly interfaces, and provide quick and reliable support.

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Second, you need to organize your site and develop content.  A typical solo or small firm site should include your firm logo, a navigation bar easily accessible from every page of the site, a call to action, footer, disclaimer, and sitemap. 

· Logo – If you don’t have one, get one! Try a crowdsourcing option such as LogoMyWay or 99Designs.  Here is three-part account of one attorney’s experience using LogoMyWay:  Part I, Part II, Part III.  Another option is to hire a graphic designer or art student.

· Navigation Bar – This should include at least a tab for your Homepage (so that users may return to the Homepage from any page on the site), Biography, Practice Areas, and Contact Information.  The overwhelming consensus is that attorneys should use a professional headshot on their site.  Contact information should include your business address, phone, and email.  Beware of using a contact form on your website with a message block field where users may be tempted to enter confidential information.  If you do use a contact form, be sure to include disclaimers and consider adding a click through disclaimer that will require users to consent to your terms before submitting a message.

· Call to Action – What do you want your visitors to do when they visit your site?  You may want your phone number or email address front and center.  Use simple and short phrases such as “Call Now to Schedule a Consultation.”

· Footer – The footer should include your copyright information (i.e. “© 2012 Heidi Alexander”) and contact information so that it is accessible from every page on the website.

· Disclaimer – Your site’s legal terms.  Review your state’s rules of professional conduct on attorney advertising when developing your disclaimer.  The disclaimer can be as simple or as robust as you’d like depending upon your risk tolerance.  Some firms label the disclaimer “Terms of Use” and some also include a privacy policy that describes how the firm collects, uses/shares, and protects user information.

· Sitemap – A sitemap can appear on the site (see the lower left-hand corner of the Boston Bar Association website for an example) to provide an overview and structure of the website (http://www.bostonbar.org/sitemap).  Or, a sitemap can be generated behind the scenes via your CMS.  It is important to do this for purposes of search engine optimization (“SEO”) (the subject of part IV of this series).  A sitemap helps the search engines sort through and find pages on your site, enabling them to be indexed by the search engine and made available to the public via a search.

If you use photos on your site, ensure relevance and be wary of generic legal photos (no one wants to see yet another scale of justice or picture of the statehouse, especially if your office isn’t even located in Boston).  Further, if you do use photos or let your web developer use photos, beware of copyright issues.  Here are a couple of photo repositories that are either free (although you may need to credit the photographer) or require a nominal fee for use:  Flickr, ShutterStock, and Stock.xchng.

As for your content, make it easy to scan.  People rarely read every word on a site.  Try using small blocks of text (2-4 sentences), bullet points, and headers to highlight information.  This goes without saying, but make sure to review your entire site for typos!  Finally, keep your content fresh.  Update your bio every couple of months.  A great way to keep your content fresh is by integrating a blog (learn how to get in the blogger mindset here).  You may also consider integrating your Twitter feed.  Creating dynamic content can be accomplished in numerous ways.  For a few, listen to Jared’s podcast on Content Marketing for Lawyers.

After you complete the steps above and have your site up and running, you’ll want to implement site analytics (or statistics) to determine whether your site providing a return on your marketing investment (ROI), and if not, to help you figure out what you need to do to transform it into a profitable marketing investment.  That’s the subject for the next post (Part III) in this series.  Look out for Part III soon!Â