5 Laws That Can Make Or Break Your Law Firm's Website Project (And How to Deal With Them)

by JD Supra Perspectives
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Most law firms redesign their websites every 36 to 60 months. Due to changes in technology, preferences in design and communication styles, mergers and management shake-ups, and observations about what the competitor down the street is doing, many firms perceive the need—often for good reason—to frequently refresh their online presence.

...right when you work through all the bugs of a new law firm website launch, it’s time to start thinking about the next iteration.

This process can feel like running on a hamster wheel for law firm marketers tasked with managing their firms’ brands and websites. Just as political campaigns seem to begin anew following the latest election cycle, right when you work through all the bugs of a new law firm website launch, it’s time to start thinking about the next iteration.

With so much time and financial resources being devoted to law firm website design, it only makes sense that law firms devote themselves to refining the processes involved in bringing a new site to market. Things will inevitably go wrong during the process, so firms can’t dive in haphazardly without undertaking some strategic thinking at the start that can help head off problems down the road. If they don’t, a 12-month project can easily turn into and 18-month one, or worse.

The problem is that law firms, unlike some organizations, are rarely top-down, hierarchical structures with a single decision-maker who can nimbly and decisively push a project to completion. Law firms have relatively flat management structures that require consensus building and input from various quarters.

How can you plan a website redesign process that works?

To start, consider these 5 “laws” that impact how organizations typically, for better or for worse, set expectations, manage time, and establish priorities when planning and executing significant projects such as the redesign of a law firm website. Use these laws as guides to identify blind spots, anticipate problems, and craft solutions that will prevent you from getting stuck when your firm can’t decide on a color palette or has to crack the whip on its outside agency that is moving as if it’s cracking code, not writing it.

1. Hofstadter’s Law

This timeless adage, coined by Douglas Hofstadter, stands for the proposition that: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Ever undergo a home improvement project? That’s Hofstadter’s Law in action. Even when you think it’s going to take longer than expected, it takes even longer. Law firm website projects are like that, too.

Almost every website project begins (or should begin) with the establishment of a project timeline.

And almost every timeline gets blown—sometimes by a period of months. There’s plenty of blame to spread around in most cases. The agency may be dragging its feet, or a law firm can’t make decisions quickly enough. Many times the least technical aspect of a law firm website project—written content—takes the longest to complete, because attorneys responsible for the content wait until the last minute to focus on it. Often it’s a combination of all these things that results in blown deadlines.

Practical Application:

  • Like in modern government contract work, build in success premiums for your agency to complete work faster than expected, and penalties for failure to meet timelines.
  • Insist that your agency prepare a detailed timeline for the project, identifying with great specificity when they will share work product with you, and when they need you to provide feedback.
  • Streamline your decision-making processes internally; solicit feedback and attempt to create firm-wide consensus when necessary, but empower a small number of decision-makers who can keep the ball rolling as to most aspects of the project.

2. Parkinson’s Law

In an essay published in The Economist in 1955, Cyril Parkinson wrote what would come to be known as “Parkinson’s Law”: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

In other words, if you say you’ll get something done in a month, it will take a month. If you promise it in a week, it will take a week. 

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." 

On its surface, Parkinson’s Law contradicts Hofstadter’s Law, since Hofstadter’s Law would suggest that if you give something a week to complete it will take two. But keep in mind that we’re talking about laws of human and organizational nature, not laws of science. These “laws” deal with tendencies and probabilities, not absolutes. 

Accordingly, when it comes to your next website project, consider Parkinson’s Law for what it’s worth: It’s a reminder that if you allocate a long period of time to complete a project, the project is almost certain to take a long time. Don’t expect any upside surprises on the timeline. Conversely, if you set an aggressive timetable, your team—both internally and externally—will find a way to move faster. 

Steve Jobs was famous for pushing his team to move at lightning speed to launch new products. The United States rapidly mobilized industrial production to prepare for World War II. Law firms move mountains to secure TROs and complete transactions for clients. As an industry, we can move faster when it comes to designing and building law firm websites.

Practical Application:

  • Set micro goals. Evaluate the full scope of the website project and divide it into smaller parts. Create a quality checklist for each goal to stay on track.
  • Set realistic but aggressive deadlines. Deadlines encourage quality because they force you to focus on more of what matters and less of what doesn’t. By focusing on what’s most important, you're left with less to review and tweak to death, and fewer bugs to fix. This gives you a chance to polish what's there and make sure it's optimized.
  • Don’t settle for low expectations. Just because you’ve heard that it’s “industry standard” for websites to take 12 to 18 months to complete, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve significantly faster performance. Just because a faster timeline isn’t standard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. 

3. Law of Triviality

Cyril Parkinson is also credited with another “law” that often throws law firm websites off-track, which is the “Law of Triviality.” According to Wikipedia, the Law of triviality suggests that:

“[M]embers of an organisation give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. [Parkinson] provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.”

The Law of Triviality in the context of law firm website projects takes many forms.

Committees and agencies, alike, obsess over the features, designs, and technologies incorporated into competitor websites, instead of focusing on opportunities for differentiation and their own firm’s unique value proposition.

A great deal of time is spent considering images, colors, and font choices, but too little is devoted to thinking about what holistic story they should be telling throughout their sites. They routinely overlook important priorities such as lead generation and target industry-focused SEO, and focus on lesser ones such as headshot styles.

...clearly establish hierarchies of priorities at the outset of a website project

This is not to say that these lesser priorities are unimportant, but they are relatively trivial in comparison to others. A law firm website is not an online brochure. It’s the engine that drives all of your marketing, and should play an integral role in moving prospects along the buyer’s journey. Law firms, therefore, must clearly establish hierarchies of priorities at the outset of a website project so that they don’t get bogged down by trivialities.

Practical Application:

  • Set clear, big-picture goals. I suggest, in no particular order, focusing on the following: lead generation, storytelling, brand differentiation, target industry focused content.

4. Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law is an epigram that suggests that: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” 

There are myriad things that can (and often do) go wrong during a website redesign project. Some of the most common include cost overruns, technical glitches (or major malfunctions), loss of SEO rankings, and integration problems with other IT systems (CRM, HR, Accounting, email) to name a few.

No matter how carefully you plan, no matter how rock-solid your process is, no matter how adept your agency is, there will be problems. Do your best to anticipate them, but build in time to prepare for the eventuality of having to fix those that do arise.

Practical Application:

  • Build in sufficient time for testing and quality assurance. At the point at which you think you’re done, schedule two to three weeks of testing to make sure the website is operating flawlessly across browsers and devices, links aren’t broken, all typos are caught, your CMS is working, and everyone is clear on the launch plan.

5. Pareto’s Principle

Pareto’s Principle, also called the 80/20 Rule, is a rule of thumb which suggests that for many events and actions, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

In the context of law firm marketing, conducting an 80/20 analysis can help you identify your firm’s highest impact, highest leverage marketing activities and investments. By taking a hard look at how they’re spending their marketing time and attention, firms will find that most things matter very little (80%), and a few things matter greatly (20%).

[Thanks to data] we can figure out the 20% of activities that matter most, and do more of them...

John Wanamaker, a 19th century merchant who is regarded as one of the pioneers of marketing, famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” While I’m sure that all of us who focus on marketing can empathize with Wanamaker’s sentiment, we have a modern-day advantage that he did not. We have troves of data that allow us to deploy our time and resources toward higher ROI activities. We can figure out the 20% of activities that matter most, and do more of them.

This is particularly true when it comes to website redesign projects.

Firms can understand with enormous specificity how users have found and interacted with their website through their analytics, as well as what information their clients and prospects are interested in through the Google AdWords Keyword Planner tool. This information allows firms to build into their website more of what matters, and less of what doesn’t.

Practical Application:

  • Refine your site’s architecture and design. Most law firm websites are full of features and pages that don’t matter. It’s likely that 80% of the activity on your site is occurring on approximately 20% of its pages. Eliminate, synthesize, and slim down your site. Focus and eliminate, so you can perfect the rest, and your users will have a better experience.
  • Optimize your website content. One of the Golden Rules of marketing is that clients and customers care about themselves, first and foremost. They’re not interested in what services you provide or accolades you’ve earned, they care about outcomes. Accordingly, 80% of your site content should directly speak to the needs, desires, interests, and pain points of members of your target market. Speak their language. Demonstrate empathy and understanding of their challenges. Then devote 20% of your content to demonstrating that you have the expertise and authority to help your clients get what they want.
  • Craft smart content marketing initiatives. Dive deeper into your analytics to understand not just where visitors are spending their time on your site, but how they got there in the first place. The odds are that there are a small number of “gateways” that are leading to most of your traffic. These likely include popular articles published on your site that rank highly in search results, as well as articles published on other, high traffic, influential sites that link back to your own. Analyze and understand what makes this gateway content popular, and incorporate the lessons learned into future publishing efforts.

 

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Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading creative services and business development training agency for lawyers and law firms. He specializes in helping law firms build engaging websites, powerful brands and profitable books of business through storytelling and content marketing strategies. Jay is author of the recently released book The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer. In 2016, his first book, One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice, was published. Jay is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and previously he was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner.]

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