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A Better Firm Website: 5 Best Practices for your Practice Areas

Part II in a continuing series on improving your firm’s website
Part I: 7 Tips to Improve Your Bio Page
Part II: 5 Best Practices for your Practice Areas
Part III: Video is a Game Changer
Part IV: 4 Reasons You Should Blog
Part V: 3 Videos You Need to Have
Part VI: 4 Reasons to Ignore SEO
Part VII: 4 Steps to Know (and Track) Your Audience

So you’ve decided that you want to improve your firm’s website, and you started by fixing the most visited section of your site, the attorney bios. You’ve found a way to optimize the pages such that the important information to your clients is accessible and in the best possible real estate. You’ve phrased your skills in ways that demonstrate your ability to help your client. Most importantly, you’ve begun the transformation of your site so that it contains what your potential clients want, rather than what you want.

Now it’s time to make sure that your site contains the best information for your potential clients concerning what it is your firm does. Most firms list this information under some iteration of “Practice Areas.” Yet, you’re unsure of what the best practices for your practice areas section should be. It’s essential that your prospective clients know what you do, or more importantly, what you can do for them. So what are the best ways to communicate this information?

Here are my 5 Best Practices for your Practice Areas section:

1) Be Clear

Yes, my #1 Best Practices Tip is clarity. I realize that I’m probably just channeling some English teacher you had back in high school, one that you wish you could forget. However, its placement on this list is not a mistake, nor is it random. Clarity is critically important in winning over customers through advertising. It’s also something that we lawyers tend to suck at.

What are the best ways to make sure you’re site is being crystal clear? First and foremost, avoid using legal terms of art to describe your practice areas. One particular term that my own firm is guilty of using is “Insurance Defense.” While it may be effective when talking to some of the insurance companies we deal with, even many insurance industry representatives are confused by the term. Why? Because it’s not precise!

One of my favorite exercises to demonstrate this is to tell someone who is not a practicing attorney that I’m an “insurance defense litigator.” Most people just keep looking at me, assuming that there’s more to it. Regardless, even to those who are familiar with the term, it requires more explanation: “I practice primarily in the areas of medical malpractice defense and motor vehicle negligence.” Why not just say that? I’m going to have to say it anyway, so why begin with “Insurance Defense”? It reminds me of the great line from Aaron Sorkin’s film Charlie Wilson’s War: “Why is congress saying one thing and doing nothing?” “Tradition, mostly.”

We get so caught up in how our own profession titles various aspects of itself that we tend to forget that most people don’t think of it that way. Remember, this is ADVERTISING. If your target audience doesn’t know what you mean, how in the WORLD can you expect them to buy what you’re selling?

2) Wherever possible, avoid long lists

Long lists are boring. Particularly when they don’t have pictures. Remember, anyone looking at your page is likely doing so with a somewhat reduced attention span. Anyone forced to look at a list that contains more than six or seven items is likely to scan over some (or all) of it, likely missing at least one entry.

So break up your long lists! Sub-categories and secondary pages can be a great asset in this particular area. Does your firm have both transactional and litigation departments? Find a way to list them separately, so that your potential client can go directly to the particular area they’re looking for without having to endure a list of practice areas they don’t need! Always think of it like a menu in a restaurant. They usually use category headings so that you know that you’re looking at an appetizer or an entree. If you’re just looking for a dessert, you flip to the appropriate section and review ONLY those items that most apply to you. If you would expect that from a restaurant, shouldn’t your prospective clients be able to expect that from your website?

3) Solve problems, don’t just list skills!

Just as with your firm bio, you MUST remember that your firm website is not for you, but for your potential clients! As I mentioned in the previous article, too many attorneys use their bio pages as a medium to list all the things they have achieved in the past and all the technical legal skills they have developed, without thinking about how those specific skills would be helpful to the non-lawyer reviewing the page. The same is true for practice areas.

Similar to the admonition to focus on clarity, you should discuss your firm’s practice areas in terms of how your firm best serves your clients. For example, “Business & Commercial Law” could become “Vendor disputes” or “Business & Enterprise Creation” depending on your firm’s practice areas. Like it or not, the group of lawyers that has the biggest head start when it comes to knowing how to effectively reach their clients are personal injury lawyers. They knew what they were doing when they changed their advertising from “Personal Injury” to “Medical Mistake and Wrongful Death.” Their potential clients know right away that they are personal injury lawyers who handle medical malpractice cases, but neither of those legal “terms of art” can be found in the ad.

Make sure your website guides potential clients through your practice areas in terms of how those practice areas are useful to the client, and you’ll be amazed how much longer potential clients remain on your site, and how many turn into actual clients.

(For an EXCELLENT example of this principle at work, I again site to the Lawyerist’s Best Website of 2013, Burnet Duckworth & Palmer. Check out how their practice areas are phrased by what they do, NOT just by type of law.)

4) Update Frequently

Hey, practicing attorneys are busy people, and rarely have time to pick through their advertising to make sure it’s completely accurate. However, accuracy is key, and all information must be up-to-date, lest a prospective client come all the way to your office for a meeting, only to learn that the attorney they had been researching is no longer with your firm.

Whenever your firm’s personnel changes, make sure that you review the site and remove any information that is no longer accurate. Did your firm just lose your lone real estate attorney? Better not advertise that service on the site! Aside from potential ethics inquiries, you’ll avoid upsetting potential clients who may feel misled.

You should also schedule a thorough review of your website every four to six months regardless of changes to your firm, so as to make sure that your information is always up-to-date, reflecting the most current information about your firm.

5) Mind Your Ethics!

Lastly, ethics. As I have said a number of times already, a website is an advertisement. Every state has very strict rules (most of them based on the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct) regarding the form and content of advertising.

Regarding your firm’s practice areas, make sure that you do not misrepresent the work your firm does! While you may be willing to handle work in particular areas, make sure that you are not misrepresenting what experience your attorneys have in that particular area. In most states, you are DEFINITELY going to want to avoid the word “specialize” or “specialty” unless you have certification from the state bar to use such language.

(The same is true for your LinkedIn page, which is one reason that I was really puzzled by how surprised people were by the recent New York ethics decision holding that firms could not use the word “specialize” on their LinkedIn page. If you can’t use it on your website, stands to reason that you can’t use it on your firm’s LinkedIn page.)

If you follow these tips, you will have a sleek, effective listing of your firm’s practice areas that guides and informs your potential clients. By gearing your firm’s practice areas page to the needs of your clients, you’re more likely to keep them engaged with you website, and you will dramatically increase your chance of turning a potential client into an actual client.