We are fortunate to have yet another excellent guest post here at the LOMAP Blog, this one being tied in to a recent session of our marketing group webconference on this topic, which was led by the author of this post, Jack Cushman. Jack is an associate at the litigation firm Stern Shapiro Weissberg & Garin, with a focus on appeals and appellate litigation. He is a former clerk to Justice Margot Botsford of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

We appreciate Jack’s submitting his take on the establishment of a law practice website, and hope that you find useful his robust review of that topic, appearing below.

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Having a website today is as important as having a Yellow Pages listing was 20 years ago–even if your clients don’t find you that way, it’s one of the tools they’ll use to make sure that you’re legitimate. This blog post will tell you how to get up and running with a simple website, whatever your time and money limits.

The Basic Building Blocks of Any Website

Let’s start by covering the basic building blocks of every website out there, from the simplest site up to Amazon.com. If you’re not very technically inclined, don’t worry–you might not have to know all of this. You can hire someone else to do it, or you can use a “hosted CMS”, which we’ll get into below. In any event, this is a good way to understand some of the major concepts involved in website building.

Domain Name Registration

Domain name registration is the process of buying a domain name for your website. It’s what translates a domain name like “jackcushman.com” into an IP address, like “207.58.139.229”, that a computer can use to contact a web server.

It’s good to buy a straightforward, professional domain, like “SmithLaw.com”. Prefer .com; avoid .org, .net, .biz, .info, and so on. You can also have multiple, or extra domains that point to the same site, like “ImmigrationAppeals.com” or “BostonLawyer.com”–if no one else has gotten them first.

Domain name registration is as simple as going to a registration website (a “registrar”), telling them the domain you want, and providing your credit card information. It costs about $10/year.

It’s a good idea to register your domain right away, even if you’re not quite ready to put up a website. If you don’t own your domain yet, you should go get it right now. Really. I’ll wait . . .

There are, in fact, a number of options for registering your domain name, including: NameCheap; DynaDot; and, Moniker. GoDaddy is popular, but not recommended, just because the dollar or two per year you save isn’t worth the loss of customer service.

If you want to find out whether someone has already taken your brilliantly catchy idea, or if you can’t come up with a brilliantly catchy domain name on your own, there are some good search and brainstorming sites, including: InstantDomainSearch; NameStation; and, BustAName.

Web Hosting

The second basic building block of any website is a web server to host your files.

A web server is just a computer, somewhere out on the internet, with a reliable IP address. With the right software and internet connection, the computer you’re reading this on right now could be a web server. That’s much too much hassle, though. Instead, you’ll want to rent space on a server from a web host. At the low end, that costs about $5/month.

I can’t recommend a particular web host, but there are plenty of review sites out there with recommendations, including WebHostingReviews; BestHostRating; and, WebHostingTalk, the last of which is a forum.

You’ll want a web host that supports PHP and MySQL (practically all of them do), in case you decide to install WordPress.

Once you have a web host, you’ll have a place to copy HTML files so that they’ll get displayed to anyone who visits your domain name. That brings us to the third building block . . .

Website Design

The last building block of a website is the site itself–a bunch of text files and images in formats like HTML, CSS and Javascript. The grand mystery of the internet reduces to this: someone types in your domain name; it gets translated to the IP address of your web server; and, the text files are sent back from your web server to the user, and displayed in their browser.

You can see what the HTML files look like for any website by right-clicking and choosing “View Source”. Learning how to write those files is far beyond the scope of this blog post (we’ll talk about alternatives next); but, if you wanted to learn, W3Schools would be a good place to start.

Getting Your Website Online

So now you know what a website is; but, how do you create yours?

If you can afford it, the easiest way to make your website your own is to hire someone else to do it for you. What you’ll probably want them to give you is a customized version of WordPress, which began as blogging software, but has become something much more. With WordPress as your platform, your designer can give you exactly the look you want–but also let you edit the text and add pages yourself, without having to understand the design elements. A basic site will probably cost $1-2,000 (or more, or less, depending on the experience of the designer). If you don’t know anyone who does this kind of work, there are lots of local options at Craigslist Boston. Ask to see samples of the designer’s work, and find someone whose work you like.

If you can’t afford to hire a designer right now, WordPress is still a good option–if you have some computer skills. You’ll have to register your own domain name and find your own web host, and then follow the instructions at WordPress.org to install and customize the site yourself; but, WordPress offers thousands of pre-packaged themes submitted by users, so you’ll be able to find something that looks great, without doing a lot of extra work.

The last option is great if you don’t have a lot of money or a lot of time to learn technical skills right now: a hosted content management system (CMS). A hosted CMS is a website that lets you make a website, at your own domain name, without needing to learn web design. This option gives you less control over your site than WordPress does; but, it’s the easiest option available. Instead of renting space on a web host and uploading files,
you’ll just create an account at a website, use a graphical tool to design your site, and instantly see it up and running. (Some hosts also provide the first step, offering to register a domain for you. Don’t do it! Register your domain yourself, so you can change providers later if you need to.)

A good, low-cost, hosted CMS is Yola–it’s free to start, and costs $30/year once you set it up to use a custom domain name and to not show ads. If you can afford a little more, SquareSpace will give you more control over the look and feel of your site, but costs $14/month.

Important Ancillary Considerations

Handling Email

Whether you use your own web host or a hosted CMS, you’ll need to be able to send email from you@yourdomain.com. (Sending email from you@gmail.com is just not professional.) Rather than running your own email system, I recommend using Google Apps for Business. Google Apps is a service that Google offers to businesses in order to let them use Gmail-style software to handle their internal email. (The “standard” version is free; versions with more features, of course, cost extra). By following Google’s instructions to set the “MX record” at your domain registrar, you can send and receive email at your domain using the familiar GMail web interface, or any desktop client.

How Should Your Website Look?

However you’re making your website, you’ll need to have some idea about how you want it to look. The best way to start is by searching out your competitors, and seeing what you like or dislike about their choices. What kinds of colors do they use? What kinds of images? What kinds of fonts?

If you’re hiring a web designer, that’s all you need to know. If you’re designing your website yourself, there are a few simple rules that will help make it look good:

for Fonts: Keep it simple; pick one font, or one for headers and another for text.
for Colors: Keep it simple; pick one main color, and maybe a contrasting color. Most text should be black on a white background.
for Alignment: Be aware of how elements of the page align, and keep things aligned unless there’s a reason not to do so.
for Spacing: Give your design room to breathe; don’t cram in more if less will do.
for Contrast: Use font, alignment, color, and spacing to emphasize your key points.

You can certainly break any of the above rules; but, if you’re not sure what you’re doing, they’re a great place to start.

What Should Go On Your Website?

Your website is like your resume. Put in the time to get it right.

Here are some steps to decide what should go on it:

What do your competitors do? Make a list of other sites advertising the same services. What do they put on their front page? What kind of pictures do they use? Do they use the first or third person? What kind of information do they include? How can you contact them? Do you trust them after reading their site?
What do you want from your visitors? Think about what you want your site visitors to do–call you or email you? Sign up for your blog? Recommend you to friends? Everything on your site should be designed to serve some goal that you have previously established.
What do your visitors want from you? Think about the “stories” of people visiting your site:

“I’m thinking of getting a divorce and I’m not sure what happens next.”
“Someone referred me to you and I want to check you out before I contact you.”
“I’m starting a business and I need to get incorporated without spending a lot of money.”

You will often have only a matter of seconds before visitors decide to give up and go somewhere else. Does your website help your visitors find what they’re looking for as quickly as possible?

Then Do It Again

Like your resume, your website is never done. Revisit it regularly to decide whether it still reflects who you are and your accomplishments. Does it compare well to your competitors’ websites? Does it resonate with your actual visitors, and convince them to do what you’re hoping they’ll do?

Remember: This Is Marketing

The steps above are “Marketing 101”. Any time you think about marketing, think about how it applies to your website; any time you work on your website, think about how it applies to your other marketing plans. Also, remember that your website is governed by the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 7, pertaining to advertising, as well as the rules of any other jurisdiction(s) where you’re licensed to practice.

Making a website (especially if you’re just getting started) is a big job; but, it’s also a key part of establishing yourself in the field.

Good luck!