Lawyers And The New Web. Embrace It Or Be Left Behind

As I sat down to write this post it dawned on me that this is a very large topic, so large in fact that this will probably be the first of many posts related to it.  For now I just had some thoughts that I wanted to get down before I forgot them. 

As the title suggests, I have a strong belief that Lawyers (and other professionals) need to get more active, and ultimately more social on the web.  I’m going to do my best to summarize my thoughts in this post and any other posts that follow. So enough preamble…let’s get started.

Note: Before you read any further, please note that I do work for a number of law firms and I am a bit biased on getting more law firms to take the web seriously. 

The Social Web movement is too big and too powerful to be ignored, even by Lawyers.

Let’s face it, Lawyers are a pretty powerful group.  I say this because I work with quite a few of them, as clients of Demac Media, on a regular basis.  They are one of the oldest professional groups around, and have the associations and brotherhood / sisterhood to back it up.  Even with all this, and much more, they still can’t avoid what’s happening on the web related to social change. 

In my experience, the public is beginning to make decisions based on what online friends are suggesting.  Heck, in the e-commerce world one just needs to look at some of the % sales increases + decreases found in this article.  I can only imagine what kind of influence actual friends have on each others decision making.  The web is an enabler for this sort of “follow” mentality.  Think of 5 year olds playing soccer.  When the ball goes to one corner, the hive of kids goes with it.  The new social nature of the web is the same way.  Topics go trendy (or viral) and the hive follows.

It’s not at all surprising that things have gone the way they have on the internet.  Growing up my grandparents (and then parents) owned a retail furniture store in Sudbury, Ontario.  Of the many lessons learned in those years I still remember my grandfather telling me one thing about customer service.  It goes something like this, “Every unhappy customer will tell 100 people about how unhappy they are, and every happy customer will tell 10".  This always stuck with me as something very powerful.  This lesson can be applied to any business, not just retail, and it can most definitely be applied to the new social web.

Now think of how this applies to your business.  As a law practice / firm your website will be a serious point of review for your visitors (a.ka. – potential clients).  People will read the content on your website and make first impression notes about who you are, what you do, how reputable you come across etc…  Whether these notes are actually an accurate representation of your practice doesn’t matter, it’s the impression of the user that counts.  That one user is important because they have the power to tell potentially hundreds of people about you and your practice.

In my dealings with clients (and potential clients) it seems that the younger generation of lawyers is beginning to realize that each year, larger numbers of people not only turn to the internet, but also to the new social web as a valuable tool in making decisions.

If you want to run a successful practice you have to start thinking about the new generation coming up and what their natural behaviors are.  The web is an integral part of those behaviors so having a strong online presence is absolutely key.  This obviously goes for all businesses, but I’m talking directly to Lawyers right now.

You can have a law blog, and you can allow comments.

This seems to be a popular sticking point for lawyers, at least in my experience.  There are quite a number of law blogs out there who allow comments, but going just by the conversations I have with lawyers public commenting is a little strange for them.  This may have something to do with the content of the site and being careful about not handing out legal advice.  I’m not going to pretend to know the law, but I will take a crack at why comments are good.

Aside from being a great way to get feedback on what you are posting about, comments allow your users / clients / potential clients a way to feel like they are conversing with you.  Nobody likes being dictated to.  Just think back to your time in school and how boring the classes were that didn’t involve students in the discussion. 

Allow your users to comment and it will make you a better blogger.  Allow your users to comment and it will help you and/or your practice build an open and honest relationship with it’s community.

Search Engine Optimization.  You want the search juice!

This point is huge!  Having a great looking website that talks about your firm is just one aspect of embracing the internet as the new communications powerhouse.  I’ve mentioned a few times about blogging or getting active in other online conversations.  Having the consistent stream of content that a blog produces will slowly build you a lot of search engine “juice”. 

This means that Google, Yahoo, MS and the various blog-only search engines will be indexing all the keyword rich content you are putting on your site. Search Engine Optimization is not some mystical art form, it’s just science.  There are many proven methods for ensuring your law firm / medical practice website ranks highly in the search engines.  Having fresh, practice focused content on your site is merely one of them.

If you want to take one simple point away, make it this one.  People don’t connect with your law firm by going to your website.  They connect by using Google.  Google is your home page and you should treat it like one!

I’m going to be sharing more Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tips related to law blogs / websites / and medical practice sites in the near future as this is another very large topic.

Be Open, but protect yourself

Being open, honest, and transparent (call it what you want) will have a tremendous impact on how your website users, clients, and colleagues view you / your practice.  By putting yourself out there (on the web that is) and not being afraid to share your knowledge, experience and opinions, you are showing the public that you not only want to be involved, but that you are open to the collaboration that comes from the social web.

I mention “protect yourself” based solely on the experience I have working with law firms.  Lawyers have to be careful about being crystal clear on the boundaries between a client relationship and merely offering free information.  This is where a strong privacy policy and terms of use agreements come into play.  If you are going to be blogging or sharing knowledge in any form, as a lawyer (and you don’t need me to tell you this) you are going to want some decent policies on your site.

Finally…

I hope you’ve found some value in what this post speaks about.  I’ve bee working in web development for over 12 years and it’s my passion.  I’m not asking you to be passionate about the web, I’m asking you to embrace, and ultimately respect it as a valuable medium for communication with your clients.

I wrote this post based on my experience working with Lawyers, Dentists, Doctors and Medical Professionals in the Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville and Toronto areas.  Hopefully my experience working within my geographic bounds will be helpful to others.