In the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise plodded its way to victory through grit, determination, and hard work. The hare, fast and flashy to begin with, lost because it underestimated its opponent and was prone to taking prolonged breaks after forging a few yards ahead.
For law firms venturing out onto the World Wide Web, the fable holds no moral. In cyberspace, both the hare and the tortoise would be roadkill. To succeed in the world of URLs, search engines, hits, page views, hyperlinks, and impatient surfers, you can’t afford to be slow but neither can you afford to rest. In cyberspace, time moves faster than in any other medium, and with each visit, users demand more speed and more content. For a profession that’s already playing catch-up with many basic marketing concepts, dealing with the speed that governs Web sites is a nightmare.
Slowly, Canadian law firms are waking up and recognizing that Web sites are more than Internet addresses or cyberspace calling cards. They are promotional opportunities, recruitment strategies, marketing resources, and powerful business development tools that build strong client relationships, as well as being 24/7 gateways into the firm.
But getting there requires a paradigm shift in how most law firms approach the medium. The lost opportunities are real. Even something as basic as the need for speed on Web sites is lost on most firms. They just don’t get it. According to Robert Peace, President of Web site design at MediaFuel Corporation, the Canadian profession’s effort in utilizing the Internet to market services has been “grossly underwhelming.”
The learning process begins with a realistic understanding of a legal Web site’s raison d’Ãªtre. When law firms jumped on the Web site bandwagon in the mid-1990s, the question they asked, if indeed they asked at all, was “What will the Web site do for us?” “Many senior partners said we were wasting our time with the Web site, that we would never get any work that way,” recalls Nancy Martin, former Marketing Director at Calgary’s Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP (BD&P) and now with Alberta’s Parlee McLaws.
Law firms equated having a Web address with a listing in the Yellow Pages-a necessary exercise but, for the major law firms with prestigious clientele, definitely not the way they would get new clients. That approach to Website-based business development impeded them from realizing the new technology’s potential. What they should have been asking, to paraphrase a former American president, is not what their Web site would do for them, but what they could do with their Web site.
Early Web sites were “bastard children of sorts,” quips Martin, reflecting neither a firm’s visual identity nor its business development strategy. They were built “just so there would be something there,” says Lise Monette, National Marketing Director at McCarthy TÃ©trault. Such was the case with McCarthys’ first-generation site launched in 1995. Almost every other law firm followed the same strategy, or lack thereof, with their first online venture.
Once a site was launched, it frequently became a “cyber orphan”-unpromoted, unupdated, and unloved. Much of the early and ongoing mismanagement of the Web’s potential can be attributed to the inability of lawyers to see the Web site as more than an online brochure and their failure to recognize that new technologies could indeed foster and promote that most traditional model of legal business development: personal client-lawyer relationships.
A Web site is not a print medium, nor is it a brochure. But most first-generation Web sites were approached as just that. “Unlike a printed document, electronic media is a living, breathing organism,” says James Bliwas, a marketing consultant with Catalyst Consulting. “It must be fed to thrive.” It also exists in real-time-it starts aging the moment it is posted. “Firms don’t give a lot of thought to upkeep and maintenance,” says Robert Peace, at MediaFuel. “They hire a company like us to build an elaborate site, but they never ask themselves how they’re going to change content. Whatever they give us to put up will be blatantly out of date in two, three weeks. Who’s going to be writing new articles, updating the sections?”
It is not site design but site content that can be a powerful tool for building and strengthening existing relationships, creating another point of contact between the firm and its clients. But the Web site does not fulfill this function automatically: clients have to be introduced to the medium, feel involved in it, and get something worthwhile out of it.
Toronto’s Aird & Berlis is currently completely revamping its existing “brochureware” Web site to more specifically target clients. “We direct the majority of our marketing efforts at existing clients,” says Debbie Stojanovic, the firm’s Manager of Marketing and Client Development. “Our Web site should reflect that, it should be part of that strategy.” For Aird & Berlis, making client publications and legal resources available online is not enough. The goal is to be interactive. One of the features of the new site will be a questionnaire that clients fill out online, giving the firm feedback on its performance in specific transactions.
McCarthy TÃ©trault’s current, third-generation Web site, launched in December 2000, is also informed by this client-driven approach to Web marketing. “Our 1997 site had a regional look and organization,” says Lise Monette. The key visual and organizational elements were links to offices, and most contents were structured by the office. “But our user statistics indicated that no one was going to the official pages. Users were interested in specific practice areas.”
The 1997 McCarthy TÃ©trault site was internally oriented. The 2000 site is externally oriented and targeted at a specific audience, among which existing clients are a dominant population segment. Its design was based on past user statistics and present client interviews.
This change in orientation is significantly different from the philosophy of most first-generation sites, many of which are still up, that were designed to serve the law firm and not its visitors. “The first thing a law firm asks itself when it is launching or designing a Web site is ‘What do we want to tell the world?'” says Bliss. “It’s the wrong question. What they should be asking is ‘What does the world want to hear?'” Or, more productively still, what do our clients want and need to hear?
The Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt Web site, one of the first Canadian legal sites when it was launched in 1994, is informed by ongoing market research and evaluation of client needs, says Judy Stein-Korte, Oslers’ Director of Client Development. The site’s current incarnation is a 1,500-page third-generation effort, with generation four, which will include a password-protected client Extranet, already under development. New content is added to the site daily to keep its visitors-2,341 unique users a week on average-coming back.
The upkeep of the Osler site is in the hands of a full-time webmaster, a junior marketing assistant, and a contractor who helps out with HTML coding and database upkeep. Each of the other members of the firm’s eight-person marketing department is also involved with providing content for the site, as are many of the firm’s lawyers. “It’s quite extraordinary the resources we commit to it,” says Stein-Korte. “But the Web is absolutely an extension of the Osler brand.”
On the new site of Torys, a user is hard-put to find a page that doesn’t somehow relate back to a client. Clients are profiled very heavily throughout the site, and the site was designed and promoted with the intention of getting buy-in from firm clients, says Patty Grimes, the firm’s Director of Client Services. Torys announced the launch of its new site to clients by sending them a mousepad that invited them to visit the site, and it references the site in all of its other client communications.
The firm is also finding a lot of prospective clients among its 9,700 monthly visitors. “We get a lot of queries through the Web site,” says Grimes, “a lot more than we expected. We didn’t think we would get new clients through the site. And I guess we still don’t. But a prospective client will always look at our Web site. We’ve found people are using it extensively as a resource to get more information about our firm or specific lawyers.”
Astonishingly, many lawyers do not grasp the connection between client relations and Web sites, even though those very same clients are building and using sophisticated Web sites. There is also a major knowledge and generation gap between the decision-makers at law firms and their technology service providers. “The challenge for designers and multimedia service providers working in the legal community is demographics,” says Robert Peace. “Senior partners are just that, senior, and you have a 20 to 25 percent chance of them being more than word processing literate.
“New lawyers have very different approaches to technology,” says Peace. And he’s predicting great changes as a result: “There will be a revolution in the legal community based on changing firm demographics. Especially as clients demand it.”
First, the good news. Each of the largest Canadian law firms has now boldly entered the 21st century. Each of the major players now has a Web site, a vast improvement over five and even two years ago. Most firms launched their first-generation sites in 1997, and some sizable firms were still scrambling in 1999.
The bad news is that although they have it, many law firms still aren’t too sure what to do with it. The site is up there, but is anyone visiting it? And if they are, are they getting anything out of it?
This Lexpert survey looks at the sites of Canada’s 25 largest law firms and evaluates them on content, ease of use, and currency.
Caveat. A Web site is as effective as its most challenged target user, and in this case, it was the writer. While a great deal of time and effort was expended in double and triple-checking the survey information and ensuring that it was correct, it is possible that sites do contain information that I could not find. But if I couldn’t find it, will browsing clients, prospects, and students?
The Web sites were surveyed throughout the month of February 2001, and each was revisited on March 3/4, 2001 to check for the most current updates. It should be noted that some of the surveyed firms are still reeling from post-merger blues. The Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP sites are still very much interim projects, with newly integrated sites that reflect the mergers slated for launch later this year. Set out below and in the following charts are the survey results regarding law firm sites as client development and recruitment tools.
Start With The Basics. A site map allows visitors, at one glance, to take in the contents of the site and decide exactly where to go. Experienced users frequently head to the site map first, to minimize the amount of time they waste navigating through dead ends.
No Web sites evaluated here had full site maps. Most maps covered only two levels. Thus, it is possible to go to the site map of a 1,000-plus page site, and think that the publications section was completely empty, or that it consisted of only one page.
Regardless of this potential shortcoming, most third-generation Web sites now have site maps. An exception is Stikeman Elliott. The firm reputedly dropped a small fortune on its current Web site and it has a page “About this site” devoted to highlighting the leading-edge nature of the technology with which the site was built. But no site map of the main site. Bummer.
For many people, the Internet is becoming the new telephone book. Need an address or telephone number? Look it up on the firm’s Web site. So, how many clicks of the mouse does it take to get this address, telephone number, e-mail, and, preferably, the name of a managing partner or a designated contact person?
You may think a “Contact Us” button will take you to contact information. As a visitor to most law firm Web sites, you would be wrong. On the McCarthys and Blakes sites, among others, “Contact Us” gives you an e-mail form to fill out and send to cyberspace, and sends you back home to hunt for the contact information through other means. Provided, that is, that you stay on the site. The Internet surfer is a fickle creature.
He is also an impatient one. The promise of the Web is an immediacy and instant gratification. What’s the point of having information at your fingertips if it takes hours, minutes, too many seconds to get at it? Most law firm sites are simple enough that they will load quite quickly with a cable modem or with a high-speed connection. To differentiate between efficient sites and their more cumbersome brethren, the loading speed of these sites was tested with a 56K modem on a regular dial-up connection.
The Lang Michener site provided the most frustrating experience, by quickly loading the (very large) text, shortly thereafter followed by the header…and…finally…after hitting “Refresh,” delivering the menus.
Can a user get to where he wants to go easily? For the most part, law firm sites now have good navigation, although the nomenclature is sometimes targeted at an internal, privileged audience rather than clients. Ogilvy Renault splits its areas of practice according to groups, teams, and fields of interest, which categories may work well within the firm, but which do little to enlighten non-initiated visitors.
Front Page Content. The front page evaluated was the first static page-flash introductions and animations were not considered. Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP makes the most effective use of its front page. The lead pages of the Torys site, with its focus on recent transactions, and the Osler site, which was updated with a new firm or legal news almost every time I visited it, are also noteworthy.
Last Update. The Web’s immediacy dictates currency. A good Web site cannot be yesterday’s news; moreover, it has to look current. A recent date, preferably today’s date, has to be front and center. The date of the apparent last update, the newest added piece of information, is given as it appeared during my last visit.
Firm News. A “What’s New” or “News and Events” section provides a chance for posting current and changing content and communicating the firm’s achievements, lawyers’ speaking engagements, client events, and other news items to a diverse audience. Do firms take advantage of this opportunity? Increasingly so. More and more firms have firm news sections. But if you have one, you had better make sure it has content. Reading that “there are no recent events,” as the otherwise great Cassels Brock site informs a visitor, does not inspire one to return for a repeat visit.
Legal News/Publications/Client Communications. Content is key and it is in the area of client publications, alerts, and recent development updates that law firms can deliver an information service to their clients. Do they? Most do, although its organization still leaves much to be desired. The survey indicates how publications are organized and if they are searchable because the content does not do much good if a visitor can’t find it.
Search Capability. As sites get larger and contain more information and, for some, as they position themselves as research resources for clients, colleagues, and students, the search function becomes more crucial. As the site map, it is a quick and efficient way for a user to get the information she wants. Can she?
Site-wide searches are still the purview of the elite. Surprisingly McCarthys still does not have one. Most large sites do have section-specific searches for publications, practice areas, or lawyers. Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP has a search button. Unfortunately, it leads nowhere.
Languages. English, the language of the Internet, is the undisputed language of legal Web sites. Firms with sizable Quebec offices were usually, but not invariably, bilingual. No firm without an office in Quebec had a French version of its site. Other languages are not utilized at all.
Links. Some authorities believe that links to external sites are of little benefit to Web sites. The labor that’s entailed in keeping the links current makes them more work than they are worth, and, moreover, they potentially take users away from your site.
They’re wrong. Links are important for legal Web sites for three reasons. First, they increase the size and importance of the site to most search engine spiders, bumping the site up in search result rankings. Second, they become a resource for the target audience and keep visitors coming back to your site (anecdotal evidence has it that the research links at osler.com are bookmarked by many a non-Oslers lawyer). Third, they make the site part of the online community-maybe, in some circles, the center. It is called the Web, remember?
The survey indicates whether a site has links and estimates its number. More is not necessarily better, but to have is definitely better than to have not.
What’s Missing? Where are the clients? Wherever you go on the Torys site you will stumble across firm transactions and links to clients. The strong client presence sets the Torys site apart-after meandering through most other law firm sites a visitor would be hard put to name a firm’s clients. Bennett Jones is among the few exceptions with interlinked client and transaction lists. McCarthy TÃ©trault provides a link to transactions from its front page, as does Patterson Palmer Hunt Murphy.
The Good News. If someone is looking for you, they will find you. I tested the law firm names with the MSN and Yahoo search engines, and in the vast majority of the cases, the firm’s home page was the first returned result, occasionally second, and only once worse than fourth and only once (such is the price of firm divorce) not at all. Also, unlike most of their American and even international counterparts, Canadian law firms have fairly intuitive names. McCarthy TÃ©trault is at www.mccarthy.ca and www.mccarthytetrault.ca. Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP is replacing the www.frasermilner.com domain name with www.fmc-law.com. Such is the price of mergers.
Still. You’ve come a long way, baby. Five years ago, most law firms didn’t even have a Web site. And there are 99 more years to go in the 21st century.
It started with a courier mishap. Blake, Cassels & Graydon’s Mary Jackson arrived at the University of British Columbia legal career fair. The firm’s student recruitment brochures didn’t. As Jackson apologized to the students visiting her booth, she was told not to worry.
“They all said, ‘That’s okay, we were already at your Web site and read all about the programs,'” says Jackson, a former litigation lawyer who is now Blakes’ Director of Legal Personnel. So Jackson started questioning the efficacy of spending money on a flashy print brochure that was out of date the second it came off the presses.
“The information we were putting in student brochures was always changing,” says Jackson. “We were always adjusting compensation. The makeup of the student committee was changing. And, being a multi-office firm, it was difficult to do a brochure that accurately reflected the programs and culture of each office. Working from the Web site allows us to always have updated information and it allows extensive customization for each office.”
In the year that Blakes has been brochures, its student site has changed a lot. “We initially just took our brochure and put it on the Web,” explains Jackson. “The student site was basically a series of snapshots of the brochure.” It has become much more than that, and now contains much more information than the brochure ever did, all specifically written and organized for online presentation.
Firms across Canada are recognizing that their “future success” is coming to them in the shape of a “computer savvy, sophisticated consumer,” as Nancy Stitt, Director of Student Programs at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, puts it. “When I was applying for articles 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a Web site,” says Stitt. “Now, it’s very, very rare that you come across a student who hasn’t researched your firm through your Web site.”
Oilers still produces a student recruitment brochure, but it’s getting slimmer as the Web site is getting fatter. “You can put more content on the Web site, and the students can be their own editors, finding the information that’s pertinent to them,” Stitt suggests.
At McCarthy’s, they’re also keeping a recruitment brochure. “Students like to have something to hold on to,” says Lise Monette. But it’s getting significantly pared down. And, the print piece will be reflective of the online piece, not vice versa. “What we, like most firms, have traditionally done is put a lot of time and effort into designing a print brochure for recruitment and only then thought about the Web site,” says Monette.
Most of the time, there was little real thinking: the content of the student brochure was placed online wholesale, with little if any reworking or reorganization. The most common result, still making a frequent appearance on firms’ student recruitment pages, was the so-called “toilet paper roll,” a text-heavy page that required the user to scroll and scroll and scroll, with no use of submenus or interlinking. Even more sophisticated adaptations, which carried brochure graphics over to the student site, often failed. What worked well in print didn’t necessarily translate into the electronic medium.
This time McCarthys is building a dedicated student site’s first-target launch date, June 2001-and will turn their attention to adapting its look and feel to Gutenberg’s medium once the online project is plotted out.
“For students, the Web site is the first real contact they often have with the firm,” notes Mary Jackson at Blakes. “Its function is to highlight the good things about the firm in a positive way. It reflects the firm’s image.”
In recruitment, says Stitt, repeat visitors are the norm. Students come to the site before and after career days, while working on their applications and in preparation for interviews. Repeat visitors aren’t impressed by slow-loading flash and fancy graphics-they’re there to mine content. And content has to be new, interesting, and interactive.
It’s not just students who use the Web to research potential employers. Increasingly, associates and partners roam the Web to get information about potential lateral moves. “It’s a great vehicle for starting research about a firm,” notes Judy Stein-Korte at Oilers. “It’s very private, and it’s a way of double-checking or validating information you get about the firm from other sources.”
Recognizing the importance of lateral hires to the growth and success of the firm, Blakes is currently working on a dedicated recruitment site-www.join lakes.com-that will feature customized sections for lawyer, student, and law clerk recruitment.
Blakes isn’t the only firm to bring the legal talent wars into cyberspace. Most major Canadian law firms discuss their proactive take on lateral hires in a prominent careers section, and a few, McCarthy TÃ©trault and Stikeman Elliott among them post specific legal positions online.
Are online applications and Webcast interviews just around the corner? Are law firms abandoning their traditional technology frigidity and embracing the recruitment aspect of Web technology? Maybe. But don’t hold your breath. It was a serendipitous package misdelivery that finally got a major Canadian law firm, in the year 2000, to consider whether it really needed a print recruitment brochure.