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Ten years ago, lawyers didn’t think too much about the Internet. But time flies in cyberspace. Nary a big firm would be caught dead these days without a Web site, yet Internet experts say many firms lag behind their techno-savvy clients. Stale information, boring sites and designs that make no sense to clients are just a few of the factors that could make some law firm sites boneyards of the Internet. And that could cost firms business. Like it or not, the Internet builds brand recognition. But for every firm — large or small — that is doing it wrong, there’s another that is lighting up the Internet. They’re paying attention to all of the details, right down to the typeface and palette (or color scheme). Some of the better sites are using catch phrases that build brand recognition and telegraph clout. “Challenging the Laws of Convention,” tagged with a trademark symbol, pops up on the site of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, deemed one of the original law firm Web site pioneers back in 1994. “Value Added, Values Driven,” is Venable’s mantra on its site, which is deemed Heller’s only original competitor on the Web by Peter W. Martin, professor at Cornell Law School and an early observer of the legal profession’s emergence on the Internet. “It’s another venue where you can come across as impressive, having useful expertise, or come across as inept and not up to date,” Martin noted. “When you see something that’s from Heller Ehrman, you know its from Heller Ehrman,” said Barry S. Levin, the firm’s chairman. “We went up on the Web early on because we believed it was going to be one of the ways that clients and recruits accessed information about our law firm.” One hurdle on the road to Web success: “lawyer brain.” Left unchecked, passion for the written word (in quantity, on paper) combined with philosophical attachment to precedent can foil efforts to launch effective, innovative Web sites, experts say. Some firms are clearing the hurdle. Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks exiled stuffiness when redoing its site a couple of years ago. The goal: to destroy the image of IP lawyers as “serious geeks,” said Sara Crocker, director of client services at the 40-lawyer Boston firm, which has had an intellectual property practice since its founding some 77 years ago. No nerds here. Click on “Professionals,” and find out that the crew includes a former rock band roadie. Loads of white space and animated cartoon characters helped win the firm recognition in the October 2003 issue of Law Office Computing, praised as “simple, elegant and humorous.” Crocker said the design targets hip, technologically with-it clients and recruits. The overhaul boosted repeat visitors by 148 percent. Law firm marketing consultant Larry Bodine points to three Web mistakes by unwary firms. “First of all, they just talk about themselves,” said Bodine, noting a “welcome” from the managing partner is a dead giveaway, as is a firm history. “If you are in a legal jam and you need help, you don’t care if they were founded 100 years ago or yesterday,” said Bodine, based in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Stale information makes a site resemble “a billboard that’s been left out in the weather,” Bodine added. Also, don’t track the firm’s organizational structure, Bodine said. Listing practice groups makes sense to attorneys, but clients consider themselves members of industries, not legal specialties, he noted. Solo and small firms enjoy good news in the digital age: They can look huge. Mammoth firms may shell out six figures to launch or overhaul sites, but others can score a decent site for around $2,000. Strategic marketing and design can make a solo practitioner look like an army. In 1994, the Internet was Gregory Siskind’s ticket to going solo in Nashville, Tenn., as an immigration lawyer. Ensconced in the middle of the country with few clients on his roster, he said, “I didn’t have much to work with.” But Siskind did have an Internet start-up next door looking for a Web site guinea pig. He parlayed his site into a self-publishing vehicle to lure clients and establish his authority, and launched a newsletter. The subscriber list swelled to 40,000 subscribers in 150 countries, and the firm grew into Siskind Susser, a 17-lawyer immigration boutique now based in Memphis, Tenn. “Our firm is basically synonymous with our Web site,” Siskind said, noting that the site, www.visalaw.com, still generates half of the firm’s business. Such Web sites offer solos and small firms market clout, according to Andrew Z. Adkins III, director of the Legal Technology Institute at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Getting onto the Web need not cast a firm into debt. “We do stuff as low as $1,800 to $2,000,” said Adkins, whose institute offers legal technology and marketing work for a fee. Among the largest firms, the tab can run $150,000 to $250,000 to launch or overhaul a site, said Kent M. Zimmermann of Chicago’s Hubbard One, a technology services company for the law business. Some firms invest that much on an ongoing basis, he said. WHAT’S HOT? What’s hot now is the use of “extranets,” in effect private minisites that clients can access to communicate with the firm or see key documents. “It’s a way of raising the bar on client service,” Zimmermann said. Levin said that Heller Ehrman has extranet sites tailored to the needs of various clients, whether that is reviewing bills online or case management. Then there is Denver-based Powers Phillips, which sent shock waves through some circles with its Web site at www.ppbfh.com. Hint: “bfh” stands for Bitches From Hell Reporter, a newsletter that evolved into the site. Online visitors to Powers Phillips can click on “sleazeball attorneys” and “hokey stuff.” Clients love it, reported Mary M. Phillips, a Stanford graduate, bond attorney and a founding partner at the firm. On a more restrained note, clients are also the focus of Jones Day’s site, which took the 2003 large-firm prize by Law Office Computing. “It’s a very nonintrusive way of doing advertising,” said Mary Makarchuk, the firm’s Cleveland-based “eCommunications” manager. “We do look at our branding for the entire site.” Declaring “At Jones Day We Speak Your Language,” the home page advertises that the site is available in seven languages.

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