When lawyers form a new firm, one of their first, most important projects is usually designing their website. This makes sense because the website is often the first thing that a prospective client or referral source will see. Its importance cannot be overstated.
The process of designing a website (or printed marketing material) is considerably different for a new enterprise than it is for an established one. For an established firm, the process involves trying to portray to the outside world the essence of what the firm is and emphasize what distinguishes it from its competition.
For a new firm, however, the process is very different because you must first conceptualize what you want to be before you decide how you want to present yourself to the outside world. In this way, the website of a new firm is more aspirational than it is descriptive. For example, when a new firm proclaims that it handles practice areas A, B, and C, it often means that it intends to handle those practice areas.
This dynamic plays itself out in virtually everything a new business does. When it chooses a logo, or color scheme, or even its name, it engages in a process of self-conceptualization, imagining what it wants to be. I think that’s one reason why new businesses spend so much time, and so enjoy, focusing on relatively simple things like deciding on a logo. It’s fun to imagine your potential….
So, when a new firm is considering how to present itself to the outside world, it necessarily focuses more on the perception than reality because its reality does not yet exist. Initially, a website may not precisely reflect reality, but it’s close enough to pretend. Over time, however, the tension between perception and reality may become more acute.
For example, a firm that is just forming may aspire to be a full-service shop with a broad range of clients and practice areas. As it designs its website, it naturally enough emphasizes this desired breadth of scope. But after several years, it may in fact tend to specialize in a narrower range of practice areas and the early imaginings may become obsolete. As the firm matures, it faces the choice of whether its outward presentation should continue to reflect its aspiration it once had to be a full-service firm, or whether it should strive to more accurately reflect its reality as serving a niche market.
A more extreme example of potential conflict between perception and reality is when a website shows a number of attorneys whose association with the firm is loose at best. This serves the obvious purpose of conveying to prospective clients and referral sources that the business is thriving, and has sufficient quantity and quality of experienced attorneys to handle the prospective matter. Some websites display associates who are not being paid a salary and who are not actively working on any matters.
I suppose there isn’t much practical downside to doing this. But at some point, you should question whether you are misdirecting your efforts if you are worrying too much about how you are perceived and not enough about the reality of your business model. Rather than worrying about finding additional imaginary associates to add to a web roster, you might focus instead on finding additional work for the associates you have.
Websites often showcase representative matters or clients that the attorneys have handled. When a new firm is founded by former Biglaw attorneys, you can bet that the list of representative matters or clients were those serviced by the former Biglaw firm. I think this is perfectly legitimate when starting out because you naturally want to highlight that your attorneys are experienced even if the firm is nascent.
But at some point in its growth, a firm needs to focus on what it has accomplished in its own right. Working on a matter without having ultimate responsibility for its outcome is far different than handling a matter entirely on your own. Clients would be wise to insist on a distinction, and find out which matters listed on a website were handled by the firm itself, and which were handled by prior shops with which individual attorneys were associated.
Even if you are committed to having a traditional brick and mortar presence, you have a lot of options in terms of how much you should devote to molding perceptions. For example, you can choose office space that is well beyond your needs simply so you can convey an upscale perception. Or you might decide to incur the expense of hiring a private receptionist long before you have the workload to require that.
Don’t get me wrong, appearances absolutely do matter, even to established businesses. Perception can be critical to influencing reality and so, to that extent, it can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be important that referral sources believe of your firm that it’s real, and it won’t go away. If you appear to be busy, attorneys will be more likely to refer cases because they assume other clients have been satisfied. New clients will be more likely to engage you for the same reason, plus the additional reason that they need not worry as much that you will overwork their case.
Focusing on appearances, and public perception, makes perfect sense provided that it is a means to an end of growing the business. The danger arises when that goal becomes lost and the focus on appearance does little more than satiate your ego. It certainly might make good business sense to have a nice office location, a professional receptionist, a well-designed website that showcases your expertise and success, etc. Just make sure you’re doing more than simply feeding your ego. It might make sense to wear a nice suit to attract a certain clientele. But if you’re wearing the suit just because you like the way you look in the mirror, you might have overspent.
Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at email@example.com.