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Reaping Business From Web Sites
Is Time-Consuming, but Possible

National Law Journal - December 8, 1997

IF YOU BUILD IT, they will come--the mantra for baseball stadiums--was not considered true of law firm Web sites. If a firm put up a Web site, good clients might or might not come. But slowly, and to the surprise of some experienced legal marketers, the situation is changing. Sophisticated business queries and some substantial matters are starting to walk in off the Web.

"I think we've been pleasantly surprised," says Stephen D. Barrett, director of practice development at Los Angeles' Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker L.L.P.

The firm had low expectations for its "easy, no-brainer," no-frills site, at www.phjw.com, erected in late 1995. The price was as low as the expectations, less than $10,000. "We basically viewed it as a replacement for our brochure," says Mr. Barrett, adding that the brochure required an investment of $150,000 and never was directly responsible for bringing in any clients.

But nine months after the site appeared on the Web, two clients whose initial encounter with the firm had been its Web site brought in "high five figures" worth of business, says Mr. Barrett.

The clients were sophisticated: One was a California company seeking a license from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the second was a Connecticut software company that selected the firm in a competitive situation. "They said the fact that we had a Web site was the tie- breaker," says Mr. Barrett, who says the other firms had no Internet presence.

The content-rich site now averages 30,000 hits a month; the firm assumes it receives roughly 10,000 monthly visitors. "We never sent out 10,000 brochures," notes Mr. Barrett. The firm is now upgrading its site. "If anyone is skeptical, we've got the numbers to prove" the investment is worthwhile, says Mr. Barrett.

While some specialized practices, such as immigration law, lend themselves easily to the Internet, many lawyers doubted that in-house counsel would surf the Web for bet- the-company litigation or highbrow corporate work.

If a firm gives up on its Web site within a year, the doubters will be proved right: Web marketing takes time. "It is a long-term investment....It's taken us two years, solid, of consistent work," says Parry Aftab, who adds that her firm,Aftab & Savitt--with a Web site at www.aftab.com--now gets and keeps one case a week off the Web. Ms. Aftab has referred away more than $400,000 worth of business, she says, mostly plaintiffs' employment suits, since her firm does defense work.

The Web site of the eight-lawyer firm, which operates from offices in New York and New Jersey, caters to international clients by listing the countries from which its 20,000 monthly visitors come. Unlike written materials, a Web site can disclose the location, or domain, from which visitors come and track what information is most often read. "People hit anything employment-related," says Ms. Aftab. "The cyber-stuff is popular, and of course the 'fun stuff'"--movie, restaurant and theater reviews, mostly written by name partner Nancy Savitt.

The Lycos search engine, at www.lycos.com, recently named the site among the Web's finest.

Marketing on the Web requires not only knowing your audience, says Ms. Aftab, but knowing what you do best. "Market the niche; market how you're different," she advises. "You can't just say, 'We're a great firm and handle everything under the sun.' People can't tell Macy's from Gimbel's."

The first client the firm reaped purely from the Web was a lawyer in Hawaii, recalls Ms. Aftab. He was involved in a securities arbitration, seeking local counsel in New York. "We received an e-mail off the site....We signed the retainer agreement by e-mail, and most of the case was done by e-mail," she says.

Boston's Hale and Dorr L.L.P., at www.haledorr.com, receives 20,000 hits a week on its site, which brought in "a couple of small litigations involving high-tech clients," says John R. Colbert, the firm's executive director.

The firm's newsletters and attorney-written articles are particularly popular, says Mr. Colbert, though these materials are also accessed by other attorneys at competing firms. "I wouldn't view that as a positive development," he says. "But most people that come in to talk with us have looked at the site."

This makes it useful for recruiting attorneys and staff, says Mr. Colbert. "It's like an intelligence test. If someone has not accessed the site, you think they're not interested in the job."

Don't Call Us

For a variety of reasons, many people contacting the firm are not potential clients. Ms. Aftab divides them into "the meritorious and the nutcakes." People with meritorious matters the firm cannot handle are referred to a local bar association for an attorney or, after screening, to a colleague at another firm. Other contacts must be firmly rebuffed. "We say, we appreciate hearing from you, but we're too busy or not interested. It's a nice response that is meant to be polite," says Mr. Colbert. "It becomes a statement of the firm if you don't respond."

Many firms are still conquering the basics; it's a new world out there. "You can't just throw up a Web site," says Darren W. Port, senior account manager at the law firm marketing division of a Web design business. "You have to combine it with other marketing efforts" in traditional media, he says. "Don't give up quickly; it takes time for people to find out who you are." In other words: if you build it and market it, they will come.

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This article is reprinted with permission from the December 8, 1997 edition of The National Law Journal. © 1997 NLP IP Company.


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