The Legal Industry Make sure your legal website contains this list of essentials, avoids easy-to-make mistakes and is visible in the right places.

By Elizabeth Wilson

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When consumers check out a legal firm's website, they're looking for information on your firm's practice areas, the attorneys and your firm's history. What they're not looking for is canned advice or cookie-cutter solutions to legal problems, as everybody's legal issues are different.

The Essentials
A legal website should offer easy-to-access information in its menus or navigation buttons. These should be designed consistently throughout the site. The website should be clean and professional-looking without being too boring in design. If this doesn't sound like your site, or it hasn't been updated for a couple years, consider hiring a web design professional who can update your site using "CSS" (cascading style sheets) instead of "tables," which will help with your site's search engine optimization (SEO) later on.

Make sure your primary message can be seen on each page. It should be clear to your potential customers that you want to hear their story and each page should offer a way to facilitate communication.

Include up-to-date information on each of your firm's partners and associates, including contact information, background and experience, and professional and community affiliations such as any law journals they're a part of or specialty certifications they possess.

Update your site consistently and frequently so visitors don't begin to think of your site as stagnant. To avoid a restrictive content management system, ask your web developer what alternatives exist.

Have a marketing plan in place with goals and associated important dates and tactics defined. Part of a good web marketing plan is making sure you have access to web traffic statistics so you know what's working and what's not. What's driving traffic to your site?

Conversion forms capture information from potential customers and should be tied to a back-end database for future marketing purposes. Make sure they're e-mailed to an employee who follows up on these leads.

Hiring an SEO professional is as important as hiring a web designer. Optimizing keywords, in addition to your company's name, while it takes time to appear in search rankings for popular terms, eventually pays off in spades.

A PDF-downloadable brochure will be a popular item for visitors to your site. Capture their information on an online conversion form before they download, e-mail or print out your brochure. The PDF brochure allows prospects to think they've accomplished a goal without having to commit to your firm. What would have been a ghost visit is now someone you can follow up with.

Make sure you have a professionally designed e-mail template you can edit in-house. With a 56/1 ROI, e-mail marketing must be in the mix, but you must also impress, inform and invoke action through e-mails.

Mistakes to Avoid
Most legal websites that are not successful in converting customers make the following mistakes:

Lack of a compelling message. A potential client wants to know what sets your firm apart. Tell your story in a way that invokes the visitor to want to tell his story to you--and preferably seek your legal guidance.

Poor website design. Avoid using cheap template design; you may think you're saving money, but remember that your website is the first glimpse of your firm for a potential client. It needs to reflect your firm's professionalism.

"We see too many legal service companies who put more effort and investment into designing their offices than in designing their website," says Scott Margenau, branding specialist at Image Works Studio, a web design firm that offers design, consultation and web marketing services. "The fact is you've got to impress a client with your website before they'll ever step foot in your office."

E-mail buttons that link to an Outlook window. This runs the risk of causing a headache for the visitor who doesn't use Outlook e-mail. Instead, use interactive forms that can automatically submit to your firm's e-mail box as well as to your database, allowing you to not only capture information for future marketing but also provide ease-of-use for your visitors.

Overuse of Flash. Don't distract your visitor with overblown animated graphics. If you do use Flash, do so sparingly, tastefully and only when you need to enhance your site's core message.

Overuse of keywords to boost search engine rankings. This tactic not only doesn't work, it makes your site appear "spammy." Instead, it's better to write about your services and the benefits your company offers, with keywords few and far between.

Confusing menus. Consider the main areas of interest and build your menu keeping this in mind. Use sub menu drop-downs to include detail pages under each main topic.

Places to Be
Social media: It's hot right now and the legal industry isn't an exception--leverage social media to your firm's benefit through staples like Twitter, Facebook and local online forums relevant to your firm's practice areas. Be sure to add interesting information and genuinely contribute to any message boards you're participating in so you're not perceived as simply trying to sell your firm or obtain new clients. Social media allows your content, profiles and links to be shared across dozens of popular platforms.

Be where your potential clients are, online and off. If your firm specializes in prenuptials, advertise on popular wedding sites and blogs. If you specialize in business law, make sure you've got a presence on websites that provide business startup resources.

Clients' inboxes: With Marketing Sherpa's 2008 Benchmark Report ranking e-mail marketing No.1 in importance, make sure your web professional builds an opt-in list from prospects by including e-mail sign-up forms on your blog, website, landing pages, whitepapers, etc. A majority of potential clients become clients after a process, so make sure you stay front-of-mind during that process with compelling and helpful content.

For a legal firm, pay-per-click advertising is a worthwhile investment. Google, Yahoo!, MSN and local yellow pages are top spots that allow interested prospects to find you. Best of all, you only pay if they click on your link.

Make sure you're in all relevant directories for your area of expertise. Thousands are out there and all build your online presence via a relevant inbound link.

Researched and written by Elizabeth Wilson. Information provided by: ImageWorks Studio, a leading provider of online branding and marketing services.

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