It isn’t the style or functionality of my website that I hate, it’s my writing. The site is my firm’s electronic brochure and it’s designed so that folks in need of a personal injury attorney can find it and consider retaining my firm. But creating such a website is a real problem because of three conflicting concepts:
- Biography: A need to show potential clients that you know what you are doing, which includes some past results;
- Search Engine Optimization: A way for those potential clients to actually find the site; and
- Fear of Juror Backlash: If jurors looks you up mid-trial, even though they shouldn’t, you have to make sure that they are not put-off by the content.
Biography is where we must start because the first thing any potential client will want to know is if the lawyer is the right one. The who, what, where and when of your professional life must be out there for the potential client to examine and, hopefully, be impressed.
And that’s the hard part, impressing the potential client. Because most of us were not brought up to brag. We’re taught as kids to be modest. Yet on the website we must do the opposite by showing past results and clucking about ourselves, and this does not come naturally. Except, perhaps, if you are Gloria Allred.
This wasn’t a problem in “the old days,” meaning before 1999 when I created my first site. I submitted verdicts and settlements to the New York Jury Verdict Reporter, which printed them up. Then I handed those printouts to clients so that they knew what kinds of cases I had successfully handled. In the digital age when information is demanded immediately, however, there is the need to put this stuff up on the web out of concern that the potential client will move on to another firm.
But even if lawyers know how to write their biographies well, and demonstrate that they know how to handle significant cases, and figure out how to do that with a fair degree of modesty, they will still run into the problem of …
Search Engine Optimization. What good is a website if no one finds it? Well, it’s only good if they already know your name. But if people are perusing a practice area without already having an attorney’s name, then you must do something to jump to the head of Google’s search results.
And part of optimizing the website for search engines is the requirement that certain keywords be repeated over and over until the copy makes you puke. This is, once again, unnatural. Seeing the same phrases gratuitously repeated destroys any decent writing that you may have done. This means that while you wrote the site for a client to find you, now that they have found you they will see that your writing leaves much to be desired.
But it gets worse. For not only must you brag about what you have done, and not only must you write poorly to get noticed by Google, but if you try cases for a living you also have to worry about…
Fear of Juror Backlash: Yes, we have to keep jurors in mind when creating a website because no matter how many times a judge tells jurors not to look you have to assume it will happen anyway. And here is the catch: What might look like a decent website in the eyes of the potential client (showing a track record of success) may look like obnoxious braggadocio to a juror.
Worse yet, it will look like poorly written obnoxious braggadocio due to the need for the search engine optimization. Thus, years of work getting to trial may now be impeded if a juror believes their verdict will be just some notch on a lawyer’s gun belt.
We live in an era where we occasionally see wretched lawyer ads — and now solicitation by website or blogs. While such lawyers are few and far between, their antics may get broadcast widely in the electronic age, and it sends a powerfully negative message to the public. Those horrid ads, as well as the occasional loopy lawsuit that finds its way to Overlawyered or the local papers where they are often justifiably skewered, helps to create and feed a deep cynicism when it comes to attorneys.
Of course, if a lawsuit makes the papers that means it was the exception and not the rule, since plain vanilla cases aren’t of interest to the media. But we must still deal with this anyway when picking jurors since those ads or crazy cases were the impression left on the jury pool. Only a fool would believe it doesn’t have an effect.
So the juxtaposition of these three elements — clients, search engine optimization and jurors — creates an unsolvable riddle for me. One possibility is to create a 2nd website, and have that swapped out with my real one when I am on trial so that jurors are not offended. But that doesn’t take care of the conflict between potential clients (where good writing is beneficial) and SEO (where poor writing is beneficial).
Nor is the problem solved by signing up with one of the many attorney search services that pollute the web so that they might feed you cases. For by outsourcing your marketing to these companies you may also be outsourcing your legal ethics. (See: New York’s Anti-Solicitation Rule Allows For Ethics Laundering and Must Be Modified and Is SueEasy the Worst Lawyer Idea Ever?)
I’d like to end by saying that I’ve have solved this riddle. But I haven’t. Nor have I seen any other personal injury website solve it, even those written by “professionals.” Many of us do the same thing when it comes to our content, repeating the keywords for Google, listing past results and hoping that we can find a happy middle ground. Many of the sites appear to be oblivious to the potential for juror backlash.
If anyone does know the magic bullet — and it seems to me that this is a job for a copy editor not a marketer — I’d love to hear about it in the comments or on your own site. It must exist in some form.
I’d also add that this is not a request for marketer solicitations, but a public discussion on how the competing issues can be reconciled so that those attorneys whose sites appeal to consumers (personal injury, criminal defense, divorce, residential real estate, etc.) can be informative, dignified and easy to find amongst the clutter of the web.
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