First he struts across the screen. Then he stretches, stares and lets out a long yawn. Winston the bulldog, the mascot of Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, is right at home at the top of Womble Carlyle’s Web site, alongside his immaculate red doghouse.

But don’t let Winston send the wrong message. Womble Carlyle takes its Web site very seriously. With 50 blogging attorneys, an Internet marketing manager and a Web site face-lift expected to go live by mid-September, Womble Carlyle sees its Web efforts as central to its vast marketing push.

“We regard [the Web site] as the most important communications tool that we have,” says the firm’s Internet marketing manager, Aden Dauchess. “We really approach it not from a law firm perspective, but from a business perspective.”

Womble is not the only firm in recent years to recognize the central importance of its Web site, though it is certainly ahead of the curve. While Womble and others are accessorizing their sites with podcasts, blogs, videos and RSS feeds, many other firms remain entrenched in the world of Web 1.0.

“Considering the size of some of the firms in the top, say, 250, there are still law firms of substantial size that have relatively poor Web site offerings, surprisingly poor Web sites,” says Stephen Roussan, president of Web development firm ICVM, which has worked with Kirkland & Ellis, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, among others, to redesign their sites. “If you compared the top 250 law firm Web sites against another 250 corporate or financial services firms of similar size, [you would find] that as a whole, the law firm group would lag behind in terms of the depth and quality of their Web sites.”

“Most law firm sites are like law firm brochures — they’re all about the law firm, they’re not very client-sensitive,” says Charles “Biff” Maddock, a partner at legal consulting firm Altman Weil — a new kid on the block in Web development, having worked on 10 to 15 firm Web sites, including one for Thompson & Knight. “In most cases, they’re pretty boring. And they really don’t give you a reason to come back over and over again.”

In the last two years or so, though, Web development and marketing professionals say law firms have gotten increasingly serious about the Web. Slowly, the gap in quality between Am Law 200 Web sites and those of Fortune 500 companies has narrowed, as more and more firms put in the investment and manpower to make their Web sites more than just regurgitations of what can be found in print.

“From the standpoint of branding, marketing and sophistication of marketing materials, the law firm sector has always been a little behind other professional services, other kinds of corporate entities,” says Roussan. “[In the past couple years] I think there’s been a substantial shift in the attorney mindset when it comes to Web sites and marketing in general.”

This requires firms to commit considerable time and money. “The days of the $50,000 Web site are pretty much gone,” says Jeff Yerkey, a founding partner at Charette Communication Design, which has designed sites for Shearman & Sterling, as well as K&L Gates, and is currently designing and conceiving sites for four other major law firms. Yerkey says a Web site can cost anywhere from $80,000 to $1 million, depending on the size and needs of a firm. Roussan put the range at a more modest $10,000 to $200,000. As for the time commitment, Web developers say they generally work on a project for six to 12 months, though it depends on the complexity of the project.

New York-based Herrick Feinstein, which has 180 attorneys, launched a new Web site July 28, developed by ICVM — almost six years after its original site went up, and nearly one-and-a-half years since planning for the relaunch began. The site’s calling card is its interactivity — in that everything is linked to everything else.

“A Web site can be a very effective recruiting and marketing tool, but ours was really a dinosaur that had very little interactivity. It was basically an online brochure and deal list,” says Herrick’s director of marketing Geoff Goldberg, who arrived at the firm in 2006 and embarked on a mission to makeover the Web site soon after. “Before, our Web site did little but prove that we actually exist; now it is a very interactive and powerful information tool.”

STANDING OUT ON THE WEB

So what makes a good Web site? Developers and marketers have a number of ideas. For Roussan, a Web site is all about distinguishing a firm from the pack. “The single most important exercise is to have an introspective discussion about what your firm is about and what makes your firm different from other firms, and really present that as part of your brand.” Roussan says that sites on the Web so often look the same, because firms go with the trendy designs, and don’t focus on the core identity of the firm. “You’ve got to get at what the essence of the firm is about.”

“What is it that law firms can do to be bookmarked?” asks Maddock. “That’s really one of the big questions. Because [then] your traffic is a lot of repeat business, and your repeat business is purchases.” Maddock says that blogs and videos are just some ways firms can do this. Maddock thinks they can also make their sites a little entertaining. “They’re so conversant with their subject, they’re so comfortable with it, they could have little fun with it. … You don’t see law firms having fun with their Web sites.”

Yerkey says the key is for firms to expand their Web presences above and beyond their home sites, be it through Facebook or microblogging tools like Twitter. As Yerkey heard at a recent Web conference, “The era of the walled garden is coming to an end.” It is no longer just about having clients or recruits head to a firm’s Web site, says Yerksy, now law firms have to bring content to them.

RANKING THE WEB SITES OF THE AM LAW 100

When I started as an intern here in June, I knew nothing of the personalities, cases or scandals that have shaped the reputations of the firms in The Am Law 200. All I knew were the firm’s Web sites, and that is where I formed my first judgments.

Along the way, I was entertained, underwhelmed, made dizzy and kept waiting. While some sites sent a clear message of what the firm was about, others left me a bit confounded. After consulting with others in the newsroom, here is an unscientific, subjective, highly debatable listing of The Am Law 100′s best and worst Web sites, based on appearance, content and special features. If nothing less, it proves that there is not a positive correlation between Web site design and revenue per partner.

THE TOP WEB SITES IN THE AM LAW 100

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice: Winston the bulldog sucks you in, but there’s a tremendous amount of content to follow. Check out the results of the firm’s Web site update (expected to go live by mid-September).

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher: A newsroom favorite — clean, crisp and concise. (Maybe we like it because it looks like a newspaper?)

White & Case: A frequent favorite of the Web developers I spoke to for this article.

Honorable Mention: Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner and Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

THE WORST WEB SITES OF THE AM LAW 100

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz: Reminiscent of a seventh-grade history project.

Davis Polk & Wardell: Not much better than Wachtell’s. Simply a brochure placed online.

Cravath, Swaine & Moore: As one Web reporter described it, this site is Spartan. Associates don’t even get bios, and the attorneys that do have meager descriptions.

Pepper Hamilton: White space can sometimes be a good thing, but not when it makes up a third of your home page. Is something still loading?

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom: Skadden apparently thinks the Cold War is ongoing — and they’re on the side of the Soviets.

Dishonorable Mention: Sullivan & Cromwell and Kaye Scholer.