Rocket Matter’s Lisa Pansini shared a nice infographic with 10 surprising stats on law firm websites. The first being that nearly 40% of all small law firms don’t have websites.

More consumers of legal services start their search for attorneys using online resources. But, many law firms still don’t have a website…

On the face of it, this seems surprising and a business opportunity for companies providing website development work to lawyers. It was certainly the point made over and over by the higher ups in the short time I served as a VP of Business Development for LexisNexis Martindale.

Look at the opportunity. Over three quarters of the lawyers in this country are in solo and small firms and 40% of them do not yet have a website. All we have to do is get in touch with these lawyers and explain why a website is so important.

I never saw the logic. Some of the best lawyers I knew were solos or in small law firms. These lawyers had all the work they wanted. Their work came by word of mouth and relationships.

They worked hard to over deliver. They were active in their communities through serving on boards and the like. They served in bar positions to build referrals and impress on the public their stature in the legal community.

The last thing these lawyers would want is the telephone to ring so they had to heavily screen potential clients. Imagine a website sales person coming to their office and telling them why the need to buy a website. It would be as silly as buying a yellow page ad.

I clerked for Attorney John Dutton in Auburn California, a small town in the foothills outside Sacramento, while in law school.

Dutton began his career at McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen in San Francisco. It wasn’t for him. After stints serving as a Santa Clara Municipal Court Judge and deputy district attorney in Yuba County, Dutton opened his office in Auburn.

Speaking with the California Bar Journal’s Kristina Horton Flaherty a few years ago, Dutton explained what he liked about being a general-practice sole practitioner:

The challenge, the new things that you continue learning and the variety of experiences you have both in cases and with people — it’s a headache sometimes, but it’s something I enjoy.

Dutton wouldn’t need a website anymore than he would need a hole in his head. I always thought of Dutton when Martindale saw the opportunity of selling solos websites.

I still do when I hear what a surprise it is that many small law firms don’t have websites. Did anyone pause to realize that many of these lawyers did not need a website nor want a website?

Don’t always look at solos and lawyers in small law firms as luddites or curmudgeons because they don’t have a website.

Sure, most lawyers will have websites, and when they do they ought to be well done by firms like Pansini’s. But many other lawyers will be step ahead – getting their work via relationships and word of mouth.

Some presence on the Internet would be nice for these lawyers, but a website with calls to action and a phone number on every page would not be the prudent choice.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Paul Adonis Hunter

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Irish academic, journalist, and author, John Naughton (@jjn1) wrote yesterday that we ought to forget about the website, the page and the visit. The dominant metaphor for the future of the internet is the time-based stream.

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror and we march backwards into the future.” Amen, says Naughton. (Amen, I say as to most law firms)

So although the web has changed out of all recognition in two decades, our underlying metaphor for it probably hasn’t changed that much. And this has the downside that we’re effectively blind to what is actually happening, which is that we are moving from a world of sites and visits to one that is increasingly dominated by streams. The guy who articulates this best is a Yale computer scientist named David Gelernter.

The title of his latest essay on the subject – “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” – conveys the basic idea. “The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream,” he writes. “This lifestream — a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream — arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the ‘flatland known as the desktop’ (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a representation of time.

Look at the big movers in the net today. Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. None are based on websites – corporate or personal. Even LinkedIn is focusing on publishing and sharing initiatives for this year, not pages or sites.

Look at some of the real leaders on the net. Leaders who have strong word of mouth reputations and who have built relationships leading to business – Dave Winer, Charline Li, Guy Kawasaki, Amy Jo Martin, Robert Scoble, Brian Solis, Fred Wilson, Jeremiah Owyang, and Steve Rubel.

None of them used websites to grow their reputation and business. Each of them networked through the net using ‘lifestreams,’ including blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds.

In the fall of 2003, having sold a previous business, I was at cross roads. Go back to practicing law or help lawyers network through the Internet, something I had a gift to do? But how to build a national word of mouth reputation as an authority? How to meet the people across the country?

A website and SEO certainly wouldn’t do it. A blog and accompanying social media did. I’m no superman, by any means, but LexBlog is now blessed with serving over 8,000 lawyers around the world.

When folks in your law firm say we need to update our website before any other Internet initiatives, you ought to scream, ‘Bunk.’ When folks say let’s use blogs and social media as part of our website, tell them ‘You’re all wet.’

Get your lawyers out on Internet time-based streams if you want them to build relationships and grow their reputation. Websites, though needed in simple form, ought to be your rear view mirror when it comes to key initiatives.

Don’t march backwards into the future.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Helmut Schwarzer.

A talented marketing professional with a Midwest law firm dropped me an email this last week wanting to set up a time to talk about, among other things, increasing traffic from the firm’s blogs to the firm’s website.

Other than blatantly linking back to the firm’s website (with anchor text describing what a practice group or lawyer does), she also wants to discuss other ways to increase the search performance of the firm’s website through the use of their blogs.

We’ll talk this week. I hope she’s not disappointed when I ask why the firm would ever want to drive traffic from a lawyer’s blog to the firm’s website. Or why the search performance of the firm’s website would be a motivator for blogs.

I can think of 99 other ways to measure the success of a blog other than generating traffic to a website or a blog’s generating higher page rankings on Google. In fact, driving traffic to the website may be counter productive.

Websites and blogs are two entirely different creatures. One is a business development tool, while one is an advertisement. One is an engagement, networking, and relationship building tool, while the other is where you talk about yourself. One is used to generate more business by word of mouth, while one is used to generate business from an informercial ala a brochure.

Law firm administrators looking at the time a lawyer takes blogging want to measure the return on the investment. “Why are we having lawyers blog? Why are we paying LexBlog an annual subscription for their services?” With a blog being on the Internet, they can’t get their minds beyond anything the firm does on the Internet being other than to generate traffic to the firm’s website.

In the case of many law firms which have spent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on websites, let alone the expenditure in human resources, I can understand the frustration in not getting work from their website. But driving traffic from blogs to the website is not the answer to client development success on the Internet.

Look at a recent report sponsored by marketing solutions provider Alterian making clear that consumers do not trust advertising and companies talking about themselves.

  • 95% of respondents indicated that they did not trust advertising.
  • Less than a tenth (8%) trust what companies say about themselves.
  • More than half (58%) agreed with the statement “companies are only interested in selling products and services to me, not necessarily the product or service that is right for me.”
  • Only 17% of respondents believe companies take what they say seriously.

Contrast that with the 33% of those actively engaged in the use of social media who believe that ‘companies are genuinely interested them.’

Alterian CEO, David Eldridge, is spot in his comments.

It is no longer adequate to adopt a strategy of mass broadcast and one-way conversations. Brands should be trying to understand communities rather than focusing on siloed communication channels……Traditional marketing is dead. To know and communicate to individuals, to a specific individual, should be the strategic and tactical goal of all brands and organizations.

Driving traffic to a law firm website is driving traffic to a message your clients and prospective clients don’t trust. If your blog is engaging your clients, prospective clients, and their influencers (bloggers, reporters, association leaders, publishers), you ought to be leveraging the networking and relationship building potential of your blog.

Your law firm, if it’s like most firms, has always generated its work from word of mouth via networking, engaging people, and relationships. Your website is not about engagement and relationships. Why would you play to your weakness when it comes to business development?

A successful rainmaker for your firm who generates work by participation on local civic boards is not going to get the third degree on why her activity isn’t generating more traffic to the firm’s website. She’s not going to be told to tell corporate executives, civic leaders, and reporters she’s building relationships with to ‘click through’ to the firm’s website. She’s not going to feel threatened to generate website traffic or else her rainmaking activity will need to cease.

Please don’t check your common sense at the door when it comes to networking and business development on the Internet. Sure, you’re all consumed in your website because that’s all you know when it comes to the Internet and where you’ve spent so much time and money. But be open to the fact that your lawyers are blogging to build relationships and generate work the old fashioned way. A way that your clients and prospective clients trust.

Driving traffic to your law firm website shouldn’t be the motivation for a blog nor a measure of a blog’s success – anymore than the success of lawyer’s offline networking should be measured by the traffic they drive to the firm’s website.

Measure the success of your firm’s blog by the success your lawyers are having in building relationships with the target audience you strategically identified when you began blogging.

If your lawyers are not developing the desired relationships examine their approach to blogging and your strategy. Don’t fall back on driving traffic to your website.

The Snark at the Fulton County Daily Report, an Atlanta legal newspaper, is having a tongue in cheek contest about the best large law firm websites. It’s a parody of the real contests on the best law firm websites.

A parody here, but it seems strange that law firm marketing professionals even discuss which law firm websites are better for marketing and business development.

I was speaking with a law firm Chief Marketing Officer this week about what his group was working on. He talked of adding new business development professionals, working with lawyers on what they need to keep in mind in their business development efforts, and particular efforts underway to build relationships with people in certain industry segments.

At the end of our talk, he mentioned they were also doing an upgrade to their website. I asked if he expected the website to generate any business for the firm. He responded “Of course not, but the site’s important for providing info on the lawyers, practice groups, the firm, the industries it represents, the type of work it does, and full contact info for all professionals in the firm.”

Though legal marketing professionals talk of the importance of law firm websites for business development, I’ve never had a managing partner, executive committee member, or CMO (the people charged with making sure the firm is doing well business wise) talk of the importance of a law firm website in developing business. More than one managing partner has told me they don’t believe any business has been developed from their website.

The reason? Law firm websites are great. They are what they are. They provide helpful background info on the firm and its lawyers, much like a brochure would. Enough said.

I don’t buy the “Our website goes far beyond brochure-ware. It does so much more with its updates, articles, blogs built into the site (as opposed to blogs independent of the website), news center, and forums.” I also don’t buy cool design and branding makes our website work for business development.

Your clients, prospective clients, referral sources, and the influencers of those three (bloggers, reporters, association leaders, publishers, conference coordinators etc) are not coming to your website for great legal info, insight, and commentary. It’s not how they consume legal information and commentary and you’ll not break their habits no matter how hard you try.

Law firm leaders know that business is developed from relationships. Relationships established by engaging your target audience. Engagement that takes place by listening to conversations your target audience is participating in or listening to. Engagement by taking part in those conversations by offering value to the conversation, as opposed to shouting content at people.

This sort of networking to nurture existing business relationships as well as to establish and grow new relationships is what law firm business development is all about. Always has been.

As practicing lawyers we engaged our target audience, built relationships, and built a word of mouth reputation as a good lawyer or good law firm through this sort of networking long before law firm websites. Ask any of us who practiced for a decade or two before websites – it’s true.

Steve Rubel, SVP at Edelman Digital, might as well have been talking to law firms in his blog post about the end of destination websites.

For the last 15 years marketers lived like kings online. We built ornate palaces in homage to ourselves in the form of web sites and micro sites. Each acts as a destination that embodies our meticulous choice of aesthetics, content and activities.

We still put a lot of time, effort and money into erecting these palaces, much as Louis XIV did in planning Versailles. And, for the most part we have been rewarded handsomely for our efforts. For years consumers flocked to our sites, reveled in all we had to say, played with our toys and, sometimes, were motivated enough as a result to buy our stuff.

As Rubel rightfully points out, the destination web is drawing to a close.

People (rightfully) have reasoned that they too can be creators, not just consumers. Content choices became infinite and peers are trumping pros……In March the average American visited a mere 111 domains and 2,500 web pages, according to Nielsen Online. What’s worse, our attention across these pages is highly fragmented. The average time spent per page is a mere 56 seconds. Portals and search engines dominate, capturing approximately 12 of the 75 hours spent online in March. However, people-powered sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube are not far behind, snagging nearly 4.5 hours of our monthly attention.

So what’s the future for law firm Internet marketing? Per Rubel:

“Earned media” through direct public engagement in the venues where our consumers spend time will become the only way to truly influence a behavior change.

Engagement? That’s interesting. Engagement is how good lawyers have traditionally grown their business.

By networking with clients, prospective clients, and their influencers (reporters, editors, conference coordinators, business associates etc.) a lawyer established their reputation as a reliable and trusted in a niche area of the law. This reputation spread by word of mouth.

Websites have never been the be all and end all of law firm Internet marketing. Good lawyers get their best work by networking through the Internet, not by building shrines to themselves in the form of websites.

This is the case for firms with 1,600 lawyers or 2 lawyers and for practice areas ranging from estate planning to personal injury. Being recognized as a reliable and trusted authority in your niche by engaging with your target audience on the Internet is what brings in the best work from the best clients.

Fortunately there’s still time for you to get started with more effective Internet marketing. As Rubel says, ‘The greatest advantages will go to the first movers who embrace this shift. It’s not too late.’

Talking to lawyers about websites, you’d think one of the prerequisites of being a lawyer is having a website.

‘I just graduated and I’m opening my solo practice, I need to get my website done.’ ‘Three other partners and I splintered off from a larger firm to set up a boutique IP firm, we need to get our website up before we can open the doors for business.’

Wonder how we all survived before the days of websites? How could a solo lawyer I clerked for during law school start his solo practice after leaving the federal bench without a website? Without even a yellow page ad? How could my mentor while I practiced law and his partners in Milwaukee get the best work in the state as trial lawyers without the semblance of an ad anywhere?

Lawyers did it the old fashioned way. They established themselves as trusted and reliable – whether in a niche area of expertise or as a lawyer in a small town rendering various sorts of legal services, like the lawyer I clerked with in law school. Their reputation as good lawyers who could be trusted spread by word of mouth.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The best lawyers, whether as recent grads or seasoned veterans, get their best clients by word of mouth. Word of mouth spread offline or online, it doesn’t matter. Though word of mouth spreads faster online.

So when going website first, as every lawyer and small firm does, ask yourself three questions.

One, what is this website going to do to further enhance my reputation as a good lawyer, perhaps in a niche I am focusing in? Two, is this website going to drive word of my reputation as a trusted and reliable authority? And three, when I launch this website will I be comfortable that I have down all I can to use the Internet to get work the way the best lawyers do – establishing a reputation and having that reputation spread by word of mouth.

If you’ve answered those questions affirmatively, you’re kidding yourself.

A website doesn’t enhance your reputation as a good lawyer any more than a three color two page spread in the yellow pages or a glossy brochure with carefully crafted text citing your accomplishments and availability. A website, like a yellow page ad or brochure, doesn’t drive your word of mouth reputation as a trusted and reliable authority. And if you’re thinking websites are the best way of getting good work online, you’re uninformed.

Fortunately for good lawyers the Internet is all about word of mouth. In 1996, long before all the law firm websites, I went on AOL and answered people’s questions. Word of a plaintiff’s trial lawyer representing injury victims and their family members listening to consumers and small business people spread by word of mouth to people using AOL.

Word spread to the offline world, through people telling others by phone, email, or in person. Word even spread to the media – sadly a lawyer trying to help people online was news. I received the work I was looking for. (I did have a website, but it’s purpose was to archive my networking with folks by storing all the questions and answers)

13 years later the Internet’s still the same. Listen to people in your target audience. Interact with them. Share your thoughts based on your knowledge of the law. Give of yourself. Add value to the conversation. It’s called networking. And it results in your reputation as a trusted and reliable lawyer spreading by word of mouth, online and offline.

A website alone won’t do it. Blogging, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking sites are much more effective methods of getting the best legal work overtime. This doesn’t mean you need to master all of these mediums. You just need to start using the Internet in an effective way to enhance your reputation and to generate word of mouth about you.

I’m not saying do away with all websites. But there are solo lawyers who are blogging effectively without a website who are getting exactly the work they want. There are also small law firms without websites whose emphasis of practice is in one area who have blogs with all the info a website does who are using their blogs to enhance their reputations and bring in work.

Even lawyers in the larger firms such as Skadden Arps, Dechert, and Fox Rothschild understand that the firm’s website and traditional marketing isn’t enough to protect their reputation as ‘go to’ lawyers in niche areas of the law. Historically, they used speaking and writing articles to enhance their reputations. Today they using blogging and other means of Internet social networking to spread word word of their reputation as a trusted and reliable authority.

30 years ago I had great respect for the lawyer I clerked for. He was a lawyer’s lawyer. He got his work by word of mouth with only a business card he handed out to folks he met. I wanted to be like him. I think it would be the same for any law student today.

A lawyer who establishes themselves as a reliable and trusted authority through effective use of the Internet will garner the respect of the public more so than a lawyer relying on a website to enhance their reputation and have that reputation spread by word of mouth.

There is huge number of lawyers and, unfortunately, a good number of so called Internet marketing experts who believe the primary reason for lawyers to blog is to draw traffic to a law firm’s website. That’s bunk and anyone who tells who so is wrong.

Go back to pre-Internet days. That’s only 10 years for most lawyers. Did lawyers network with business associates, speak to industry groups, and write articles for trade publications for the primary reason of having people read the firm’s brochure?

Would it be okay if in-house counsel contacted you because of a word of mouth reputation you established as an authority in your niche? A reputation earned because of other thought leaders citing your blog on a regular basis.

Would it be okay if a consumer contacted you because they liked the way you answered common bankruptcy questions on your blog? Real questions and answers in story format based on phone calls from prospective clients or meetings with existing clients.

Would it be okay if a conference attendee came up to after a presentation you made to an industry group and asked to speak to you about a legal issue? A presentation you got to make because of your blogging.

You’d talk to any of those prospective clients about the legal issue they faced and how you may be able to help them. Ain’t no way you’d respond, I’d like you to look at my law firm’s website first.

I ask attendees at my presentations around the country if any of their law firms only take clients from their website. No one as answered yes.

But with all the goofy discussion going around that you do a law blog to draw traffic to a law firm website, you’d think it was the case.

The primary reason to blog for most lawyers is for client development. The best lawyers in this country, both today, and 100 years before the Internet got their clients by word of mouth. They got to be known as an authority in a niche area of the law. Word spread offline by meeting people, networking at professional and social events, doing legal work whether transactions or in court, speaking, writing, and probably nine other things I’m missing.

Blogging is more about marketing pre-Internet than post Internet. Effective blogging results in a word of mouth reputation as an authority. And by virtue of effective blogging, prospective clients are more likely to call, email, or approach you at a conference directly as opposed to going through your firm’s website.

It’s only common sense. Think of a senior lawyer who’s established herself as a lawyer’s lawyer. She got the best clients without doing a lick of what we now label marketing and client development. She got this work by word of mouth.

This senior lawyer developed this reputation without the powers of the Internet. She did it the old fashion way – networking, speaking, people witnessing them doing a dam good job in transactions or litigation, constant honing of her skills etc.

Blogging’s just like that. Today commerce is driven by the Internet. There are dam few people who don’t turn to the Internet for virtually all they do. That’s why today you develop the reputation the senior attorney has via the Internet. And that reputation is developed via blogging and the complementary and effective use of social media.

Sure lawyers who blog will have the most viewed profile at the firm’s website. Sure there will be traffic from strategic links on your blog to the law firm website and lawyer profiles. Sure the blog will achieve high search engine rankings which in turn will help your website’s search engine rankings. But those are not the primary reasons for a law blog.

Blogs are for reputation enhancement and developing a word of mouth reputation that keeps growing year after year. Use a little common sense. Don’t buy the misinformation that the primary reason for a blog is to grow traffic to the firm’s website.