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August 09, 1999 Feature Story:

Web Sites Of Massachusetts Law Firms

They Range From The 'Electronic Brochure' To The Purely Practical - And Many Do Indeed Bring In Clients
By Meghan S. Laska

Hundreds of Massachusetts law firms including most of the largest have established a presence on the World Wide Web, and the number seems to grow each day.
Although smaller firms and sole practitioners seem less inclined, thus far, to spend the time and money necessary to have a Web site, a fair number of small firms in the commonwealth are experimenting with the Internet.

And many of these small firms say that it is proving to be a decent way to attract new clients. Indeed, one Newton lawyer claims she gets five new case leads each week from her Web site.

A sampling of law firm Web sites in Massachusetts shows that they range from a simple posting of an attorney's resume to an interactive page with enough graphics, information and links to occupy a visitor for hours.

But, on average, most law firm Web sites in the commonwealth particularly the large firm sites seem to resemble glossy marketing brochures that contain information about the office, attorneys and practice areas.

Rainer & Rainer, [ web site] a personal-injury firm based in Boston, is one small law firm that has embraced the Internet with a vengeance.

Along with the typical information about the firm, Rainer & Rainer's site also contains anecdotes about expert witnesses and a short story about an "intrepid" personal-injury lawyer who pays a hospital orderly for referring cases to him.

Dawn Thomas, the firm's advertising coordinator, says that Rainer & Rainer views the Internet as the primary marketing tool for the future.

"For the new generation, the Yellow Pages are out," says Thomas. "No one is paying $1,100 a month anymore for a Yellow Pages ad because everything is now on the Internet."

The large Boston law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo never has never taken out Yellow Pages ads but Neil H. Aronson, a partner in the firm's technology practice group, nevertheless agrees about the growing importance of Web sites for law firms.

"This is the way firms will be marketing in the future, says Aronson. "The Web site has replaced the nice brochure."

'A Hub On The Web'

Springfield's Robinson, Donovan, Madden & Barry has what is, in many ways, a typical Web site for a Massachusetts law firm.

The 29-lawyer firm's main page contains a list of the attorneys, senior counsel and even retired counsel. There are also subpages for the firm's profile, services, driving directions, employment information and feedback.

While the site includes a few photographs of lawyers at work, there are minimal graphics. Bruce C. Lyon, the director of administration for Robinson, Donovan, notes that the site is very similar to the firm's brochure in terms of the photographs and content.

"We aren't trying to be a hub on the Web," Lyon says. "Some sites have links to other areas, but we didn't see that as our shtick."

Providing a lot of extra information isn't Robert H. Weber's goal either.

Weber's firm, Weber & Baum [ Web Site] in Newton, has a Web site that provides information mainly about the firm and its more specialized practice areas, although the site does use colorful graphics to illustrate each particular topic and includes one article on guardianship.

"I would like to get some more of the articles I have written on the Web site, but I have avoided making it an informational source because of the maintenance it would require," he says.

Weber explains that if you tell people they can check a site for current developments, then you are committed to updating it something he has little time to do right now.

Many Massachusetts law firms appear to share that philosophy, but some firms are a bit more aggressive than others in publishing substantive information on their Web pages.

Kerstein & Associates in Quincy, for example, provides a quarterly newsletter on its site about higher education law, an area in which the firm specializes.

Neil M. Kerstein says the firm "gear[s] the newsletter to those administrative law cases which are unavailable anyplace else and also have some references to cases in other areas."

But Kerstein doesn't spend a lot of time on graphics, sticking with a marble background and photograph of his firm.

"We want the site to be attractive, but we don't want it to be so commercial or hokey that it detracts from the message that we are a quality legal service provider," he says, noting that much of the Web site is "very similar" to his brochure.

The 'Cutting Edge'

Some Massachusetts law firms are using their Web sites to move beyond the kind of information found in a brochure or newsletter and are more "cutting edge."

Boston immigration lawyer Ralph A. Donabed, for example, invites potential clients to fill out a client-intake form on his Web site, which was designed by Boston lawyer and Web page designer K. William Kyros.

"The client actually enjoys filling out the form and his office doesn't have to spend an hour on the phone with the client because he gets the form as an e-mail once it is completed," says Kyros.

And a unique aspect of Rainer & Rainer's Web site is a section that allows other personal-injury attorneys to purchase "plaintiffs' forms."

Thomas, the firm's ad director, says that selling the forms on the Web site is merely a matter of convenience.

"A lot of people called wondering if [Robert K.] Rainer's book of forms was on disk and we thought putting it on the Internet was the easiest way to sell them," she says.

Sharyn T. Sooho of Newton is another lawyer who maintains a rather unique Web site.

Her page is part of the national "divorcenet" something she began as a monthly newsletter to clients answering basic questions about divorce.

"I had been doing divorce law for 17 years and I kept getting the same questions repeatedly from clients, so as a matter of efficiency, and to avoid having to repeat myself which is boring, I put [the answers] into writing in the form of a newsletter so people could absorb it at their leisure," she explains.

Now, the site has grown into a national network of lawyers that provides vast amounts of information on the topic of divorce.

Sooho's page includes a child support guidelines worksheet as well as bulletin boards and a chatroom.

Not surprisingly, graphics on the more interactive sites tend to be more sophisticated, mixing color photographs and illustrations with interesting fonts.

And these sites also tend to be larger, providing more opportunities for readers to "click" their mouse to get to subpages and related sites.

All of the large Boston law firms also have sizeable Web sites, but these sites tend to be much more conservative.

Hale and Dorr, for example, has considerable information on its site about the firm, its attorneys, its practice areas and its publications.

Nancy Kostakos, a publications specialist in Hale and Dorr's marketing department, says the site strives to be a hub for information about clients' industries.

"I try hard to turn this into a 'news magazine' and place where I can report the latest developments in our client's markets and [the firm's] accomplishments," she says.

At another big Boston firm, Mintz, Levin, the focus is also on providing a high volume of information about its practice areas.

Evidence of this is its Internet-law newsletter, which goes out to about 10,000 people, according to Aronson.

"Anything that we are publishing and writing articles about, you will see ... on our site. It's a quick way for someone to pick up information about us," he says.

However, Aronson notes that, while all of the attorneys' names are listed on the Mintz, Levin site, some firms withhold such information out of a fear of head-hunters.

"You'll find that of all the Boston firm sites, ours has the most information and links to other sites. It can be used somewhat as a research site where other firms don't do this much at this point," he says, adding that only Hale and Dorr seems to provide as much content.

Attracting Clients

Although Massachusetts law firm Web sites vary in terms of appearance, content and sophistication, the number one goal for developing and maintaining Web pages seems to be attracting new clients.

In fact, most attorneys agree that the Internet represents a cost-effective form of marketing that will only increase in importance over time.

"A lot of people want information sent to them and a small firm doesn't necessarily have the money to spend on preparing folders of information. So, instead, they can have a 'living brochure' on the Web without spending a lot of money," explains Kyros, who estimates that the cost to maintain a site is anywhere from $30 to $100 a month for small and medium-size firms.

Firms report a range of success in using the Web to drum up business.

Kyros, whose law practice is entirely Internet-based, derives 90 percent of his cases through e-mail generated from his Web site.

While Kyros admits he may be an "extreme" example, he maintains that almost all of his Web-design clients have received at least one case from their sites, as well as leads.

"[One client] tells me he gets three cases a month directly from his page," Kyros says. "I don't think most people necessarily generate that future."

The most common e-mail inquiries directed to law firms are about divorce, estate planning, drunk driving and personal-injury law, Kyros notes.

Kerstein, a true believer in the effectiveness of the Internet as a marketing tool, agrees that the potential to bring in business is "very great."

"It takes a fair amount of time before your efforts bear fruit, but I can say that on a day-to-day basis, its importance is growing and interest is growing," he says.

That is why Kerstein says he provides more content on his Web site than the typical introductory paragraph and attorney bios.

"I'm finding that it is very important to have some example of your work or a newsletter," he says. "If you can present yourself in a positive way, it all adds up to the client picking you over the thousands of other attorneys providing the same service."

Kerstein adds that, when people find a Web page that is visually attractive and provides information that they find stimulating, they are more likely to spend more time at that site.

Sooho agrees.

"People stay on our site for two-and-a-half hours a day," she says. "When you provide content and give an opportunity to get into chatrooms and bulletin boards, people love it."

Sooho says she gets around five potential clients a week from her site.

Thomas, of Rainer & Rainer, also stresses the importance of providing interesting content on the Internet as a marketing tool.

"This is a way to reach out to places such as the Berkshires or Lowell. People see us on the Web and will make the trip to Boston because they have a feeling of what they are getting before they walk in the door," she says.

Establishing A 'Presence'

While attracting new clients is an important goal for many Massachusetts firms, the larger firms tend to focus more on establishing an Internet presence and creating a tool for communication with clients.

"Larger firms probably have less of a need to generate new clients from their sites so the focus is to keep up relations with existing ones," explains Kyros.

Kostakos says that Hale and Dorr's main reason for maintaining a site is communication.

"The Web site is a place where we put in-depth information about our practices and the things attorneys are involved in," says Kostakos.

Aronson explains that having a site was more of a "validation" issue for Mintz, Levin.

"If you are claiming to be significant in Internet law, then you should have a decent Internet site," he says.

Yet other firms maintain Web sites because they believe it is a lawyer's duty to provide information about their area of practice.

"We are in a service industry and there shouldn't be a mystery as to who we are and what we do," says Sooho. "Otherwise, it is elitist and counterproductive because you aren't available to the public and other lawyers."

But regardless of why lawyers design and maintain a Web site, the majority agree that the Internet is the wave of the future for marketing.

"The whole world is becoming very information-oriented and lawyers need to be right there with their client base we can't be behind," says Kostakos.


Reprinted with permission of Lawyers Weekly Inc.

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