Back when legal marketing meant hanging shingles and Yellow Pages ads for potential new clients to let their “fingers do the walking,” reporters turned the pages of phone books, directories and the newsroom Rolodex to locate and contact attorneys.

But once high-speed Internet became ubiquitous in homes and offices, the analog age ended. Conventional shingles and finger walking are now passé. The Internet is now the starting point for every journalist and nearly three-quarters of Americans who seek information, goods or services, including legal services.

The Web site is today’s shingle. Few law firms are without one, even if it’s a stripped-down placeholder that at least puts attorneys’ names and contact information onto the Internet in hopes someone will find it.

Many firms have extensive and highly functional Web sites, aggressively supporting them by spending thousands of dollars monthly for online search engine advertising that brings visitors to their site.

In the analog age, potential clients and news reporters might have visited libraries to obtain information on lawyers and legal issues. But at that time, Martindale-Hubbell and other legal reference material were not deadline oriented, consumer friendly or online.

Today, the most powerful research tools in U.S. history are Internet search engines that consumers and businesses use to find lawyers. Reporters use it for the same reason. Among search engines, Google, Yahoo, Bing and Ask provide nearly 99 percent of all Web search results.

CASE SITES

The pervasion of Internet search has opened the door to a valuable new marketing opportunity for law firms: the litigation or case-specific Web site. Unlike a law firm’s legacy Web site or its blog, case-specific Web sites can allow smaller firms to catapult their reputations and compete against larger practices.

Litigation Web sites should not be confused with conventional Web sites. They must stand apart from firms’ legacy sites with unique domain names and IP addresses.

Before graphical browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer, the Internet already demonstrated its amazing ability to communicate text information quickly to millions of people. Best-practice, case-specific sites should embrace the text concept and not be glitzy or highly animated. Splashy colors, clever design elements or professionally produced Flash movies should be limited to the firm’s regular Web site.

When should a litigation Web site be developed? When it’s clear that a client or legal issue will raise substantial interest from the public or the press. A special site is appropriate for cases that have the potential to expand a firm’s recognition beyond its local borders; or when the matter is a case of first impression that will generate interest from attorneys and law students looking for a one-stop destination.

Both the firm and the client must want to publicize the case and make its underlying public information widely available. It’s one thing for a reply brief to be available from PACER or the clerk’s office, but another thing when anyone in the world can read it in a mouse click.

Case-specific Web sites must avoid overt law firm marketing. It is appropriate to identify the attorneys of record along with their bios, but don’t include a form for potential clients to fill out. All-out marketing should remain on the firm’s legacy site.

A plaintiff’s case yet to be filed presents the best opportunity for developing a litigation Web site because the firm can control the filing date. It can electronically file the complaint after midnight; edit the domain record so the site is found globally; and, later in the morning, issue a professionally prepared news release that sends reporters and the public to the new Web site.

Defense firms have a different challenge. When the prosecutor or the plaintiff controls the timing, the Web site for the defense must stand ready for immediate launch once the first shoe is dropped. Filed documents not posted at launch need to be added as soon as possible.

For a litigation Web site to serve as a true reference, all filed documents should be uploaded, linked and available as soon as possible. When the law firm issues a news release that announces a new filing or acknowledges the other side’s civil or criminal charges, it should reference the litigation Web site so the media can easily and fairly report on the case.

The “news annuity” value of case-specific Web sites can be substantial for small to midsize firms that may have major cases once every few years. When those cases are memorialized in case-specific Web sites, the firm’s expertise can be indexed by the major search engines and found for decades to come by potential clients as well as reporters looking for legal experts.

NEWS MARKETING

The inexorable splintering of news delivery in its various Internet forms has made litigation Web sites important vehicles for disseminating case-specific news that previously might have gone nowhere.

Editors in print, broadcast and online media control the flood gates of news and information their publications present. Analog media editors have to be stingy with newsprint or air time because it costs to fill “news holes.” But even with online news, even with its unlimited news hole, editors still control what gets posted.

This is why litigation-specific Web sites can triumph. No editor or powerful advertiser can keep Joe Citizen or Joe Potential Client from reading about the case and its attorneys when the information appears on a case-specific Web site that’s been indexed by a search engine. Not only do they circumvent news editors by delivering unrestricted case information to users, these sites can become veritable “news annuities” to be read for years to come. For example, let’s look at a case-specific site for a qui tam whistleblower and a habeus corpus petitioner.

Qui Tam: What law firm wouldn’t like 20,000 additional Web site visitors in a year? The three firms that secured a major settlement in a novel federal False Claims Act, qui tam whistleblower case in 2008, have received that much recognition with their case-specific Web site, which went live after the U.S. Department of Justice announced the settlement. Web copy was straightforward and — as a reference site — it didn’t encourage potential clients to contact the attorneys.

Habeas Corpus: A Florida couple selling kilos of cocaine was murdered in 1983 in New Jersey. Five years later, a businessman with interests in the Garden State was indicted as an accessory. Prosecutors alleged that the businessman, who knew the buyers and the sellers, helped to arrange the murders — the businessman has always maintained his innocence. At trial the businessman was acquitted of conspiracy and convicted of being an accessory, but the judge issued a judgment not withstanding the verdict, or JNOV. The state appealed. The conviction was reinstated and the businessman was sentenced to two “30-to-life” terms.

A former Assistant U.S. Attorney in the District of New Jersey, whose Manhattan-based private practice concentrates on qui tam whistleblower representation, recognized this case as a classic example of one with insufficient evidence to sustain the verdict. After years of state and federal appeals, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the matter. On April 16, 2009, moments after the circuit’s oral arguments concluded, the Release-Paul-Now site went live. It featured all documents filed up to that date, video interviews in the prison with the businessman, and material from his life up to the time he was incarcerated. The site was updated with each new filing — including the circuit court’s oral arguments. The 3rd Circuit ordered a rare habeas, and on June 16 released the businessman from custody, after he spent 20 years behind bars.

In the past five months more than 3,200 users have visited the Web site to learn about the case, the defendant and the defense attorney from thousands of pages of transcripts and other documents.

CONCLUSION

A litigation Web site’s media and marketing value to a law firm is multi-dimensional. It can advocate for the client, market the law firm far beyond its local footprint to potential new clients or co-counsel, elevate the reputations of attorneys of record, and position the firm’s attorneys as experts to be called on by the media.

Richard Lavinthal is CEO of PRforLAW, a unique legal media relations consultancy handling major cases for civil and criminal cases in small to midsize law firms, including litigation-specific Web sites. A former statehouse wire service and AM daily newspaper reporter, Lavinthal also writes OpEd for major metropolitan newspapers.