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Law Firm Marketing

Law Firm Web Design: Which Comes First — Design or Content?

By Nancy Slome

Were you put in charge of leading your law firm’s new website? Do you have a team, an assistant, or you’re “it”? Law firm web design is scary. Have you even figured out how to start tackling this Herculean undertaking?

Relax. Take a deep breath.

Everyone who contributed to this post — well, this is not their first rodeo. And we’re here to help you make critical decisions about getting started on your new site.

This Is How Legal Marketing Pros Approach Law Firm Web Design

The success of a law firm website design relaunch depends on how you begin and the approach you choose to take.

In my experience, legal marketers typically begin the process by reviewing their firm’s website along with their peer firms’ sites. Next, they’ll compare what they like (and don’t like), and determine the level of in-house hours, external resources required, the budget and timeline.

Then, they will call in a designer or design firm and create a shortlist of web development agencies (sometimes with one or several designers on staff) and outside copywriters. If the law firm is big enough, there may be in-house designers and writers who can handle both design and content. The beauty in this approach is that the in-house professionals know the players, the firm’s voice and style, and the savings will be significant. However, assigning design and copy duties to the in-house team may overwhelm their ongoing responsibilities for the firm.

Getting buy-in is critical, so get these questions answered.

These questions must be settled before the flagman waves the green race flag:

  • How far do we want to go with our web design to improve the overall look and feel?
  • What is needed to update our current technology?
  • For content, are our matters and deals already entered in a database, or will we need to extract details directly from the lawyers?
  • Who will write or rewrite the copy?
  • What is the budget?
  • What metrics are required to demonstrate the website’s ROI?
  • Do we have buy-in from firm management, who will help promote this endeavor?

There is another critical question, however, that law firms should consider.

Which Comes First: Design or Content?

Actually, it depends.

While that may sound like a cop-out, there are issues to consider before you begin, so I posed this question to a few of my favorite legal marketing experts and friends. You’ll notice some similarities in their responses and an outlier or two.

  • According to Melanie Trudeau, “Some web design projects are pure content migrations where all the existing content moves over to the new design. Usually, these projects involve tweaks or additions to the prominent messaging statements — often on the homepage or hero areas.” Melanie continued, “Often, a project involves bio rewrites for all attorneys in coordination with a new design. Practice area descriptions are revised, consolidated, or written for the first time. And sometimes, a firm needs new recruiting pages or DEI content on the site. Still, it depends. But I’ve never seen a project where all the site content is revised during a website redesign. Probably because that would take years to complete!”
  • Writer Lance Godard immediately responded “design.” He said, “Hands down, the design drives the content. And when the design is edgy and nontraditional, content needs to be written in a style that reflects the firm’s focus.”
  • For Brandie Knox, “A project typically begins with the design and we suggest headlines and content areas. We’ll collaborate and deliver designs and suggested copy (even in draft form) together if we’re working with a copywriter. Brandie also noted, “This is our preferred approach!” She added, “Now if we have the content first, we will design to accommodate the content — but will often make recommendations to shorten the copy, add headlines or callouts, and break up the content into more manageable sound bites. That makes the content more easily digestible for the reader.”
  • Robert Algeri had a slightly different take: “Strategy comes first. Everyone involved needs to understand the firm’s business objectives and how crafting the website can achieve their goals.” Robert continued, “Strategy will inevitably include determining what content the firm can use to substantiate its claims of expertise, support its positioning, or better communicate what it does and why they’re the best at doing it. Hammering out the strategy (first) and then determining what needs to be written before delving into the design will increase the likelihood that a firm’s website project will be successful.”
  • Paula Zirinsky’s observations closely matched Robert’s methodology. She believes, “Existing content and strategic direction must come first. The website’s structure can be plotted, the design can progress, and the final copy can be completed.”
  • Eric Curtis works as a creative technologist and takes a holistic approach when working on web projects. Eric said, “Content defines the design; however, clients sometimes do not have the content generated at the start, so we work together to define the goal. I often use ‘Lorem ipsum dolor’ (dummy copy) and placeholder graphics to help my clients visualize the pages. If we have the final content at the start of the process, the end product is a little more dialed-in, and our projects go more smoothly.”
  • Lauren Michaud Knotts zeroed in on content. “Maybe it’s because I’m a ‘words’ person rather than a visual person, but I generally use the content as the starting point and alternate layering in design elements, then content, then design, until we reach the end product.” Lauren also prefers to “outline the main and sub nav menus to help me organize my thoughts — to be flexible as the process evolves. And as opportunities for ‘featured elements’ arise, we’ll start to flag them for a potential design treatment.”

What Legal Marketers Wish You Knew

In addition to the “Which comes first” question, I asked the experts: “Is there one piece of advice you wish every client knew before starting their next website project?”

Cyndy McCollough: Start with a clearly defined project charter.

“All projects include some scope creep, but you need to know what isn’t part of this project and what is.” When Cyndy is drafting a charter for the client, she starts by asking broad, open-ended questions, such as, “What are you hoping to accomplish?” If they answer, “Become the first choice for summer associates,” that’s great, she says. “But it tells me this might not just be a website project. If they don’t have any social media presence, I’d strongly suggest they need one as part of their overall marketing strategy. So now, it is more than a website project; it is a comprehensive digital strategy project, where the website and social media are both components. You need to help your stakeholders clearly define their success criteria.”

Brandie Knox: Get buy-in from key stakeholders throughout the process.

“Don’t wait until you’re ready for approvals!” Brandie says, adding: “Be sure to establish and adhere to an approval process. And hire a copywriter.”

Paula Zirinsky: Have a small committee that will make decisions and is empowered to do so.

Paula recommends: “Doing an audit within the organization to see gaps/wish lists. The committee needs to take all of those into consideration. Be inclusive and anticipate the reactions. But stay true to firm/leadership strategy.”

Lance Godard: Anticipate obstacles and create contingency plans.

Web projects are always more complicated than expected, and there are always unanticipated snags. According to Lance, “The more you can map out obstacles and develop contingency plans for overcoming them, the less time you’ll spend on the fly developing workarounds – and getting approval for them.”

Melanie Trudeau: Website redesigns are marathons.

Don’t forget, as Melanie says, that your firm’s website design project will need your attention throughout the entire process.

Thanks to the following experts for contributing to this post:

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Nancy Slome Nancy Slome

Nancy Slome heads up Lawyers Biography Service and is a seasoned legal marketing consultant with more than a decade of experience advising attorneys on strategic marketing initiatives and creating compelling content for law firm websites. She was recently the VP of Content Strategy at Jaffe and a principal with One to One Interactive. Nancy has held marketing director positions at Pillsbury and White & Case and served on the Board of Directors for the Metro New York Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. She is a regular presenter at industry conferences. Follow her @LawBioService.

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