I wrote this article for the ABA’s GPSolo magazine, and it was published in the January/February 2021 issue. I’m republishing it with permission from the ABA.
If your law firm has a website, chances are you think about it primarily as a way to get clients. Getting clients is necessary, of course, but it’s also worth considering what your website could do for your clients after they hire you.
A website can be so much more than a marketing tool. We all use websites to interact with companies, from shops and restaurants to contractors and accountants. We shop, communicate, order food, make payments, send and receive documents, download records, and more.
So, when your current clients visit your firm’s website, they probably expect to find something for them to do—possibly a client portal where they can communicate with you, see information about their legal matter, download documents, etc. This is probably even more true now, when most of our social and commercial interactions have moved online due to the pandemic.
This is all to say that your website can and probably should be more than just a marketing tool. Make it an integral part of the way you serve clients.
Fortunately, adding a client portal to your website is fairly simple with free and open-source tools or by using the features of popular cloud-based practice management software.
If You Don’t Have a Website Yet
If you don’t currently have a website, you can skip the rest of this article—for now. Focus on getting a website. Because if you don’t have a website, you don’t have an address in a world where the majority of personal interaction happens online. It’s kind of comparable to not having a physical address, except that you can get by without a physical address as long as you have a good website.
This was true before the pandemic, of course, but it is especially true now. While many referrals still happen by word of mouth online, potential clients are almost certain to Google your name after they get a referral (if the referral didn’t consist of a link in the first place). If they don’t find your website, chances are they will contact someone else.
It is not technically difficult to set up a basic website, but you should probably budget around $1,500 to $3,000 for a basic, professionally built website. There is a lot more to a successful website than throwing up a page of text.
(If you aren’t sure how to get a website, search the web for “how to get a law firm website” to find ample resources for getting started.)
Law Firm Websites: Beyond Billboards
In a presentation she gave at the Clio Cloud Conference in 2017, well before COVID-19 upended all our lives and businesses, Nicole Abboud explained that your clients expect to be able to engage with you 24/7, and the primary tool you have to do that is your website:
You need to roll out the red carpet for your clients. You need to make sure that you are available 24/7—either actually available … or have some aspect of your brand that’s available to them. So, hav[e] an online client portal where they can log in and get some information about their documents, information about their case, where they can just do it them- selves ….
Abboud was not saying that you need to answer your phone for clients 24/7/365. She was saying that your firm’s online presence needs to be more than a mere billboard. It needs to be a destination—especially for your existing clients. Your website should be part of the service you offer to your clients. Now that your physical office, if you still have one, is unlikely to be open to your clients, it is even more important for you to give them a place to go on your website.
If your law firm does have a website, you have probably heard about search engine optimization (SEO) and inbound or content marketing. Maybe you pay for ads or use a lead-generation service. You may even track conversion rates and the return on investment (ROI) of your marketing budget.
All that effort is geared primarily toward getting a potential client to contact you. If you can still imagine the internet as an information superhighway, your website is basically a billboard trying to grab someone’s attention and convince them to take the next exit to visit your office.
Or maybe you just have a website because at some point you became persuaded that you needed one. You may not be putting much effort into it, so it isn’t doing much for you, your potential clients, or your existing clients.
In any case, it makes perfect sense to use your website for marketing, and I don’t mean to suggest there is anything wrong with that. It’s just that getting clients and serving clients are different things, and your website could be doing both.
Consider the websites you might interact with on a typical day:
- How many of those websites are billboards—built only to get you to pick up the phone and call or fill out a contact form?
- How many are built to deliver the product or service you came for?
- Which websites feel more valuable?
I’ll bet that, in most cases, the websites you visit are built to deliver the product or service you came for, or at least to facilitate delivery. For example, the websites of most financial advisors, bookkeepers, and accountants include a client portal where you can view reports, upload financial documents, and download prepared tax documents. If you visit the website of a shop or restaurant, you will probably find a menu, and you can place an order online. In some cases, you’ll even be able to come back and track the delivery status. Nearly all shops’ websites sell and ship products through the website itself, whether or not there is a brick-and-mortar location. Contractors may share estimates, blueprints, and invoices, as well as communications. The library offers numerous services, from research to reservations. And so on.
There are still websites that don’t offer anything like this. How do you feel when you land on one? I can only speak for myself, but I feel frustrated when a website contains only a phone number or contact form because I can’t go any further than that. Any eagerness I might have had to work with that company is tamped down by having to wait for a response to my inquiry. I may still do it, and I may have an excellent experience, but any time I make my own word-of-mouth referral it will be accompanied by a disclaimer that the company is worthwhile despite their unhelpful website.
On the flip side, if I land on a website that lets me quickly do or get what I came for, I’m thrilled. I get to check something off my to-do list and move on.
During this pandemic, companies that don’t already offer products or services online are figuring it out or going out of business. It’s time for lawyers to catch up. You may not be able to deliver a full client experience through your website, but you can definitely improve your clients’ experience. After all, your website is your law firm’s address online. If your website is only for marketing, with nothing for clients, it’s like inviting them to an empty office.
So, let’s talk about what your website could be doing for clients.
Three Things Your Website Could Do for Current Clients
There are three fairly basic things every law firm website could be doing for clients that are also fairly straightforward to implement.
1. Communication. I think every law firm needs a client communication portal. It doesn’t have to be your primary means of client communication, but if your client communication portal is easy enough to use, it might as well be.
Why use a client portal rather than email?
- How often have you had to re-send an email because your client can’t find an email you know you sent?
- It is difficult to collect all your email in one place so that everyone working on a file is on the same page, or for archival purposes when you are closing a file.
- If your client shares a computer or device with someone else (such as a child or a divorcing spouse), then that person also has access to their email.
- If your client checks their personal email on a computer owned by someone else (such as their employer), then that person also has access to their email.
- The security of email in transit has improved in recent years, but it remains a weak point. Sending an email is closer to mailing a postcard than a letter in a sealed envelope. (This is an imperfect analogy, of course, but I think it is a fair characterization.)
Most text messaging options share the disadvantages of email, plus text messaging is clunky for longer messages, and you’ll need a third-party solution for business texting if you prefer not to use your cell phone number or if multiple people at your firm need to access the messages.
Using your website as a client communication portal can solve (or at least reduce) all of these problems.
2. Information. Your website could offer a dashboard for your client’s case. Giving your clients a place to go where they can see what is happening with their case might have the added benefit of heading off status update requests from clients.
- Most legal matters come in stages. You could indicate to the client which stage their case is in and explain what to expect during that stage.
- Or you could go further and create a knowledge base for each stage. Or definitions of common legal terms that clients aren’t likely to know.
- You could give the client a central place to find documents related to their case.
- You could create a budget tracker to help clients keep track of their bills. You could even share your time sheets and expenses so your clients can antici- pate their upcoming bills.
One way to approach this would be to keep track of the questions you get from clients, then add that information to your client portal and let them know they can get the answer themselves instead of waiting for you to return their calls or e-mails.
3. Tools. Most lawyers use tools that clients might also find useful. One example: calculators. Calculators can be as simple as a Google Sheet embedded on your website, or they can involve developing your own, more elegant calculators:
- If you handle divorce, why not put a version of your child custody calculator online for your clients?
- For contingent-fee litigation, make settlement negotiations easier by giving clients a calculator that tells them their share of a settlement offer. If you include your time and expenses in your client portal, you could even pull that information into the calculator automatically.
- Many business issues involve formulas you could build into a calculator to offer your clients.
You might also be able to build document assembly into your website so that you can offer your clients the convenience of getting some legal documents done on their own.
So, how would you go about adding some or all of these things to your website in a secure client portal?
There are at least three options currently available for lawyers. The free, open-source WordPress plugin I developed, Client Power Tools, is one. You can also find client portals in some law practice management software. For example, MyCase launched with a client portal as a core feature. Clio Manage offers Clio Connect and its coming-soon Clio for Clients app.
Here are some law practice management software options that include a client portal of some kind:
- Client Power Tools
- Clio Manage
- Firm Central
- Rocket Matter
- Zola Suite
Source: Lawyerist.com (practice management software with a client portal and a rating of three stars or better).
You can also find client portals—or at least some way to include clients—in most project management software, such as Basecamp, Teamwork, and Trello. At least some of them would work well enough as a law firm client portal. Not all client portals have all the features I mentioned, but most will facilitate communication and document sharing at least.
If you are already using law practice management or project management software that includes a client portal, it is probably easiest to start by testing it out to see if it will meet your needs. Usually, all you need to do is invite your clients to your portal, but you will probably want to put a link on your website, too.
If your existing software doesn’t meet your needs and your website is based on WordPress (it probably is because 40 percent of the internet runs on WordPress), consider giving Client Power Tools a try.
Upgrade Your Website
Your website can be more than just a billboard on the information superhighway. Adding a client portal is a small thing you can do to improve your client service and give your clients a place to go when they can’t visit your office. This is especially valuable while the pandemic is keeping most of us from meeting in person, but your clients will still thank you if and when life goes back to normal.
(I did make a few small changes to the article from the way it was published in GPSolo, but nothing that would change the meaning. I also removed the disclosure, since if you are reading it here you already know about Client Power Tools.)