To borrow a line from Sharon Nichols, I judge you when you have a poor website.

Like it or not, we live in a superficial world where your website is judged on a daily basis — and not just by me. Friends, colleagues, potential employees and most importantly potentially paying clients are all looking at you — watching, judging.

Of course, there’s the old adage that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but do you know why that’s an old adage? Because we all judge books by their cover, and by “book” I mean “your law firm.” But fear not, you of the static, monochromatic firm website that still lists now-departed associates. Your salvation lies in the hands of your beloved managing editor, David Lat — at least partially….

Lat was chosen as one of the esteemed panel of judges that will help LexisNexis decide which small firm will get $50,000 worth of virtual marketing swag (they’ve also enlisted Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle fame). Dubbed the “LexisNexis® Ultimate Law Firm Marketing Makeover,” the contest is billed as:

an opportunity for small law firms [defined as 21 lawyers or fewer] across the United States to expand and enhance their online presence for greater visibility and drive more prospects to their firm.

Despite the name (I find the “makeover” part a bit too HGTV), you have to hand it to the folks at LexisNexis. This contest follows their recent launch of a new, flat-fee research platform created specifically for the solo practitioner (which I reviewed here). It seems they’re finally making a concerted effort to woo the small firm lawyer.

In addition to asking for your small firm’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube sites (you have these right? what am I thinking, of course you do), the contest asks applicants (that’s you) to demonstrate an “understanding of the importance of online marketing to the entrant’s law firm.” If you can’t answer that, I suggest calling a meeting with your Chief of Marketing right away.

Wait, this is small law, so you’re probably also the Chief of Marketing. Well, maybe I can help you get started.

As I touched on in this post, there are some of you out there who will dismiss the idea of a sophisticated web presence because it’s not the Pied Piper of new clients. I urge you not to be so shortsighted. Your website is so much more than a client-catcher. It’s an integral part of your image as a lawyer and of your brand as a business.

Think about where you go nowadays to find information on your colleagues, opposing counsel, or even a potential client. You go to their website, many times before engaging them in person. You can bet that people are doing the same to you, making your website ground zero for establishing your brand in their minds. These are all potential employers, employees, referrals, and clients, and they’re all judging you and forming opinions about your abilities as a lawyer, whether you like it or not.

Consider this: a 2006 study concluded that you have about one twentieth of one second to make a good impression on visitors to your site (read: clients…potentially paying clients). Within that millisecond, that visitor forms a lasting opinion of your site and, by association your firm’s brand, that has untold residual effects on your business.

What’s worse for you of the generic website is the so-called “halo effect” which basically theorizes that the perception of one trait (your website) can greatly influence your perception of an otherwise unrelated trait (your aptitude as a lawyer). Translation: if your homepage is a aesthetic train wreck, it creates a negative impression in your visitor’s head that then influences that visitor’s perception of your site’s content. Further translation: while looks aren’t everything, they sure help.

Apropos of my comments above, I was not thrilled when, prior to accepting my job at BBGA, I went to their website and discovered a static webpage with little content and drab coloring. On first sight, it actually decreased my desire to be a part of the firm. I took the job anyway because I knew several of the attorneys personally and knew they did quality work. But even with my pre-existing opinion of their brand, the anachronistic website still made me think twice.

Thankfully, shortly after I started, the firm’s management decided it was time for a new website. The logistics of the process was, at times, comical. For months there were long email chains about content, setting up pictures, and editing bios. I actually remember driving an hour up to Athens one afternoon just to take the composite that’s still on the attorney’s page, then hopping back in my car and driving the hour home — two hours for one picture.

My point is that streamlining your firm’s site may not be as simple as hiring a web designer and saying, “make me pretty.” I’m willing to bet though, that the process itself — that is sitting down and writing out an online marketing plan — will benefit your firm in immeasurable ways and have a lasting effect on your small firm practice. With $50k worth of free marketing up for grabs, now might be a good time to start.

For more about the contest, the official rules, and a large picture of Lat looking unimpressed, click here. Applications are due by 5:00 p.m. ET on December 13, 2010.

Have you seen small firm sites that are particularly bad? Particularly good? Email me with tips about the happenings in the world of small firms. I’m also on Twitter.

The Contest: LexisNexis Ultimate Law Firm Marketing Makeover [LexisNexis]

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms


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