A website for sore eyes (first published in Managing for Success)

If you're looking to relaunch your firm's website, or develop a site for a new firm, you need to know the common pitfalls to avoid, to give you the best chance of success. Sue Bramall and Peter Wright offer some real-life cautionary tales.

HACKER_by_Clive_Goddard_for_Berners_Web_Small.jpgRecently, I met a barrister who was handling a case where a website project had gone badly wrong, losing significant sales for the customer who had commissioned it. After comparing war stories, we concluded that a lot more websites go awry than one might realise, and that it might be worth sharing some of the horror stories to highlight potential pitfalls and help others to avoid them.

In a profession where only a minority of law firms have a dedicated or experienced marketing manager, the role of project managing a new website often falls to the marketing partner or practice manager. Having never had to commission a website before, they may not be entirely sure what work is involved, how to write an effective brief, or how to compare proposals from web agencies. It is easy to see how problems might arise.

Given that a law firm website might account for as much as 50 per cent of new business enquiries these days – equivalent to having another office – it can play a critical role in a firm’s business growth.

I have been involved with a lot of law firm websites over the years, have seen several common mistakes, and have rescued more than a few sites from potential disaster. In no particular order, here is a selection of real-life tales from the trenches. The last three were kindly provided by Peter Wright of DigitalLawUK, who advises law firms on legal issues relating to their websites.

‘It’s just an online brochure’

A good website is the equivalent of a physical office. You may have heard the expression ‘clicks and mortar’ in reference to the balance of business coming through online (clicks) and traditional office-based (mortar) activities. If you, or your web agency, approach the new website thinking that it is ‘just a brochure’ then it is likely that this is all it will ever be. It will also be an unnecessarily expensive brochure. If you were building a new office, you would plan it carefully, define your objectives in terms of accommodating business growth, and set expectations for your return on investment. A new website should be planned in the same way.

‘We didn't draw up a brief’

Without a clear brief to work to, it is difficult for a web agency to provide an accurate plan and quotation. A failure to really think through what you need and draw up a detailed specification may mean that your site does not meet your needs at launch. If the specification keeps evolving as you keep having ideas, then costs might run away from you. Invest time at the outset to review competitor websites and produce an inventory of the essential features and any bells and whistles you would like your website to have.

‘My nephew can do it’

This may seem a good idea until your nephew needs to concentrate on his dissertation, gets a new love interest or decides to go on a gap year, and your website project drops off his priority list.

Also, remember that you need someone who has two skillsets which are found rarely together outside web agencies: graphic design to ensure that it looks good and software coding to guarantee that it works well. Does your nephew (or friend, or friend of a friend) really have both?

‘The designer seems to be getting the coding done overseas'

If you commission someone who is a designer but without the necessary coding skills, they may claim to be able to build your website, but may outsource the coding work without your knowledge. There is nothing wrong with getting the coding done overseas if you have done your due diligence, but make sure you know who to call when the website is live and you have a problem that needs resolving quickly.

‘We didn't think to take references’

It's easy to send a link to a website and claim you have built it. One web agency made the mistake of sending me a link to a website of a firm whose managing director I happened to know – he revealed that the agency had nothing to do with his website. Take references to check whether the agency has delivered to specification, deadline and budget, whether the client finds the content management system easy to use, and what the after-sales support is like.

‘We didn't check the terms and conditions’

This is a true and rather salutary lesson: one firm found itself signed up to an uncapped commitment to pay an hourly rate in a contract that did not guarantee the delivery of a functioning website.

‘We only looked at the initial costs’

Comparing website pricing can be like comparing apples and pears. You need to make sure that you clearly understand the initial costs for design and build, and then any ongoing costs for hosting (housing, serving, and maintaining files for your site) and making updates. Calculate the costs over at least three years. You may find that costs will be much higher than the headline figures indicate.

Bear in mind that you shouldn't need to have an ongoing contract with your agency to cover their time in updating the content of the site. In the days before content management systems, this was commonplace, but a well-designed content management system should be easy to use and should allow you to make all the updates you need on a regular basis. Make sure training for whichever individuals in your firm will be making updates is included in the quotation.

If an agency tries to sell you a ‘support package’ for a monthly fee, clarify what this incorporates and whether you really need it. If there are bugs in the coding, you should not have to pay for these to be fixed.

‘They said they could not give us a fixed price’

This might reflect the lack of an adequate specification. You should be able to insist on a fixed price, with clear approval and payment stages. If your web agency will not stick to a fixed price, then it must make clear under what circumstances the budget might be exceeded, and the notification process.

‘We cannot access our domain name’

It seems to be quite common for law firms, particularly start-ups, to ask their web or marketing agency to ‘buy’ their domain name for them. This is valuable intellectual property which should be brought into the firm’s control as soon as possible after registration. It is also a good idea to keep a central log of all your domain names and renewal dates.

‘The agency has lost interest now that the site is live’

Hopefully, your website should last you several years, but from time to time, support may be needed or you may wish to add new features to the site. Before you sign a contract with an agency, check service levels for aftercare. One web agency I've come across had a ticketing system, where all work, however urgent, went to the back of a queue, which was several days’ long!

‘Our website has links to some very unsavoury websites’

If you engage an external agency to help you with search engine optimisation, make sure you know exactly what they will be doing for you. So-called ‘black hat’ techniques may do you more harm than good in the long term.

‘Let’s just copy content from other sites'

I was under the impression that all solicitors will have studied intellectual property law at some point, but it is amazing how many times we have been sent content which turns out to be other firms’ copyright. We regularly use a plagiarism checker, and have had to deal with law firms which have copied articles and artwork. More recently, we came across a non-lawyer who had cloned the content of a whole website, but had stripped out the name of our client.

Resist the temptation to copy photos from the internet. Some a free to use, but most high quality images require payment in exchange for their usage, or permission from the image rights owner. Google’s facility to search by image makes it much easier for rights owners to track down misuse.

‘An RSS feed is ideal for our content strategy’

An RSS feed may seem like a cheap and easy way to fill space for content on your website, but unless you can personalise that content for your firm, your lawyers and your location, then you are wasting your money. It will not help you impress Google, which is looking for high quality, unique content.

‘Letting applicants upload their CVs seemed like a good idea’

…until one uploaded a virus! Take care that your website does not allow anyone to upload anything to it, as this provides opportunities for a virus, or worse, a hacker to access your website, or even your server.

‘We don't have any adverts, so we don't need a cookie statement’

Even if your website has no cookies apart from Google Analytics, you need to reflect this in a clearly defined cookie policy. All cookies on websites install a file onto the device being used to browse your site, and the law demands that you are clear about what cookies are used by your website. You will also need a clear privacy policy that confirms what you do with any user data collected by cookies, as well as any personal data entered on a contact form.

‘We just copied the terms of use from another website’

Even if your website is no more than an online brochure, you need to have user terms of use in place to limit your liability; otherwise what do you do if a user reads something on your site and relies on it to their detriment? Terms will be unique to your business and your site, and should not be lifted from someone else's site.

‘Our website is perfectly secure’

Is it? Websites can be hacked easily, and if the website is hosted on the same server as your client data, you are giving an external hacker a way into your system. Make sure your website is encrypted and backed up regularly, and that no personal data is stored on the site. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service was hacked and 2,000 sets of contact records leaked when an activist broke into the site. The Advisory Service and its developer were not even aware that the website was storing these records and, as a result, a large fine was handed down by the UK Information Commissioner's Office.

Sue Bramall is managing director of Berners Marketing, providing marketing and business development support exclusively for the legal profession. Peter Wright is director of DigitalLawUK, a law firm specialising solely in data protection, privacy, cybersecurity and social media law.

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