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.