Your Website Is Not a Reception Area #abatechshow

Today I was bored and decided to see what Rachel Rodgers is up to. Something she said caught my eye:

As a lawyer with an online-based law practice, your virtual law office website is your storefront and reception area. The first impression you leave with website visitors can often determine what they think of you and whether or not they will become clients. Its important that your virtual law office website be an interactive, trusted resource for your clients that reflects your personality and gives them a sense of what its like to work with you.

Ah, the future of law! Technology is going to change everything about lawyering! In the very near future no lawyer will have an office and everyone will work from either Starbucks or their living room. The cat will proofread your briefs. There will be no need for filing cabinets because all paper will be stored in the cloud (or the trunk of your car). Court will be held in a chatroom, and the judge will be a moderator. Judgements will be in bitcoin and people convicted of crimes will be banned from the internet or something. This is where it’s all going! Get your iPad ready!

Of course, this “future of law” is usually propagated by non-lawyers and failed lawyers who claim to be qualified to tell us about the future without ever having been part of the past.

So get this. In the future, your website serves as your reception area!

Err, wait, what?

As a young lawyer with a real office, here is my actual reception area:

reception area


My office:

my office smaller

This is where Leo practices from:

Leos office

Leo is the real life Don Draper.

And even though law offices of the future are paperless, we have an entire room devoted to, um, storing paper:

storage office

Me and Leo once shared this space as our office.

If you’re so young and hip, why do you have offices? They’re so expensive. Why not do it all online? This is the future, you know.

Because you know what’s nice? When a client comes in and you say “Can I get you a glass of water, some soda, or a cup of coffee? Here is a tissue, I know this is difficult for you to hear… let’s go into my office, close the door, and chat privately.” Rather than “I can’t afford an office so let’s meet at the Starbucks where I’ll buy you a mocha latte… just talk real quietly so no one can hear our private conversation, okay? Glad you liked my website!”

We put a lot of time, money, and effort into having a physical space where people come into and find impressive. A few years ago, when we started, Leo and I shared a very small office that is now designated as our storage room. We had access to a shared conference room in our building. It wasn’t so nice, but it did the job. As we expanded, I moved into the bigger office and Leo stayed in the side room. This year we were fortunate enough to expand again. Leo got a bigger office and we built a private conference room. We dedicated the side office to physical files and a space for our assistant. (I wish there was such thing as a paperless law office. There just isn’t.) In designing it, we listened to Scott Greenfield, who stressed the importance of durables – and furnished the place in authentic mid-century furniture. Yep, that is all Herman Miller Eames furnitures.

We worked hard to develop the office. We didn’t spend that money on technology, gadgets, SEO, or marketeering. We didn’t take lavish vacations or buy big houses, and I am still driving the 2004 Honda Civic I bought after graduating law school.

So why spend money on building nice office space? Because our goal is to build a credible, lasting law practice, not make a few quick bucks and spend it on crap. A law firm is an investment, and you have to keep investing in it to grow.

What does your office space have to do with getting good clients?

Our conference room isn’t just a place to see clients. It’s also a place we use to throw events, host meetings by civic associations and other groups, and entertain people. The board of directors needs a place for a meeting? Great, let’s do it at my office. You know, interacting with real people in real life. Doing this kind of stuff leads to getting good clients by fostering meaningful relationships.

When designing the conference room, we took the approach of Spencer Aronfeld – which is to “make it your own.” (I highly recommend you read his book if you want to start and grow a law practice.) If you’re going to have your own law firm, it’s important that you “make it your own” rather than just be a lawyer who is self employed. Hosting parties and entertaining people not only makes your job much more enjoyable, but it also leads to getting better clients.

In addition, good clients with important cases are more likely to hire your law firm if you have nice space. You want to send the message that you’re a lawyer whose services are worth paying for. If you want good cases and good clients, you don’t want to be the guy who no one will pay for so he can’t afford a real office. You also don’t want to explain to a good potential client why you can afford a snazzy website, but you work from your living room to save money. Unless you want clients looking for the cheapest lawyer in town.

But do you really want a client who is looking for the cheapest lawyer in town?

By the same logic, that means we should put a bunch of money into our website, right? Isn’t your virtual space just as important, if not MORE IMPORTANT, than your physical space?

Err, not so fast. Here is what we have right now:

http://www.fishtownlaw.com

Cost? $0. Leo made it for free on Weebly. In my opinion, here is all you need for your lawyer website:

- Who you are and how to contact you (email, phone, and address)
– Practice areas that you actually practice (not “everything ever”)
– Some background about the firm
– Awards and other stuff you want to show the public

Yes, we can afford a new website. And we actually have a revamped website coming soon, whenever we get around to it. But it’s about a 0 on the priority list, somewhere behind “rearrange the filing cabinets.” Shockingly, we’re still in business despite having a simple and free website.

But… how? Because our practice is entirely referral based. The only use our website gets is sometimes a client will check us out before calling us, or after meeting with us. It doesn’t generate clients, though, and it’s not supposed to.

Why do you hate technology?!?!? Do you seriously believe we should go back to writing everything with quill pens?

I don’t hate technology. I use Apple products. Dropbox is great. Nothing is more annoying than clients who don’t have email and courts that don’t have electronic filing. And yeah, I have an iPad and an iPhone, both of which I like, and I’m on Twitter and Facebook.

Technology is great, and I like to think our firm integrates it well.

However, technology will never replace certain fundamental aspects of lawyering. Most importantly, it will never, ever replace the human elements of lawyering. You will always need a private place to chat with your clients, and lawyers will almost always benefit from having a space where they can entertain groups of people. The internet will never change that.

Anyone who tells you it will is probably trying to sell you something.

You’re just mean and picking on people just starting out who can’t afford an office!

No, not really. Again, keep in mind that the space where are files are kept used to be shared by both me and Leo. We paid about $200 a month for the office, but it came with shared conference space. What is now my office used to be rented by another lawyer. A judge donated some books to us, and all of our filing cabinets and furniture were acquired second hand. We started at the very bottom.

What I have learned is this – usually lawyers with nice offices worked hard to start and grow a legitimate law practice. It took a great deal of time, blood, and sweat to get there.

A snazzy website will never replace a nice office. It just won’t. So you can either pretend like you’re successful lawyer and call your snazzy website your “reception area”, or you can work hard and and actually become a successful lawyer over time. One who actually has a nice reception area in real life.

The choice is yours. We’ve chosen to do the latter. Hopefully it works out.

But that doesn’t make any sense. Why are you willing to put lots of money into your physical offices, but not your website?

Because good office space allows us to entertain real people in real life. The human aspect of law will always be more important than the virtual aspect. As lawyers, we deal with real people, who have real problems, that are decided in real courtrooms. The outcomes have real consequences.

The profession of law has always been about people, and it always will be. No matter how much technology “changes the game.”

I echo Leo’s sentiments about running a successful law practice: if you’re a young lawyer trying to build a practice, focus on the fundamentals.

Don’t worry all that much about your website. It will never be your reception area.

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9 Responses to Your Website Is Not a Reception Area #abatechshow

  1. Max Kennerly says:

    It’s not your reception area, but it is your business card more than your actual business card is. If a potential client hears your name, the first thing they’ll do is Google your name then look at your website.

    Does that mean dump $20k on something flashy? Of course not. But your website should have some substance about you, and should at least allow potential clients to get a sense of who you are. I’ve long said the primary purpose of a lawyer’s blog is to give potential clients who already know your name and are investigating you something to read. It is the free sample, so to speak.

    • Eh, I think the importance of a website is greatly exaggerated. Some of the most successful lawyers I know don’t even have them, or haven’t updated them in like 5 years.

      What irks me is when a virtual lawyer, or a non-practicing lawyer, stresses the importance of a great website as an alternative to real office space. Yeah, you probably want a website if you’re a lawyer. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that important. The greatest website in the world will never, ever compensate for nice office space because there is a human element to the practice of law.

      I’m perfectly happy with our free Weebly website. We had a new website designed, but it’s at the bottom of the priority list, even below “re-arrange the storage room.”

      • Max Kennerly says:

        Your website fits entirely within what I mean. It conveys most everything you need or could know about you guys, and then there’s also a blog that gives potential clients a sense of who you are. Free Weebly, free WordPress, plus some thought into appearance and some time into content. That’s all I mean.

        Sure, we all know a couple successful lawyers with worthless or defunct websites — all of whom have spent decades building referral bases, and most of whom have highly specialized areas of practice. You’re not one of them. Neither am I. If someone gets one of our names, or one of most lawyers’ names, the next thing they’re going to do is a little online research, and if the end result is “WTF? Is this guy even real?” or “I dunno, I can’t find anything about this guy” then there’s good odds they’ll just look somewhere else.

        As for office space, well, you know we believe in having a nice office space. :-)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I could not agree more. I like a nice website, but real space is critical and our office is one of the first things new clients comment on.

  3. First and foremost, congrats on the new space and your recent expansion. I agree that office space is important for a practice like yours. You’ve positioned yourselves as community lawyers, afortiori, it makes sense to have a physical space in the community you serve. The same is true for many consumer based practices – and in fact, from what I’ve seen during my ten years of tracking solo trends is that the most successful consumer lawyers – from DUI to family law to estate planning – generally operate out of some type of attractive physical space.
    But – and here is my caveat – not all law practices are the same and not all lawyers want or need office space. Firms that provide outsourced general counsel services often work on site for clients. Some lawyers (often women) only want a virtual or part time practice. Many firms here in DC provide service on a national basis and rarely see clients at all. Appellate practice does not necessarily require space.

    That doesn’t mean that lawyers in these categories shouldn’t have an office ( I have physical space for an intern and staff), only that an office may not be critical. It may be that full service Westlaw (for an appellate lawyer) or costly CLE and conferences or even a slick website my be more important an expense than an office. If making it your own means anything, it means that lawyers have to do what works for their practice.

    • Yeah, you’re right. Virtual practice makes sense for some people in niche practice areas. However, a virtual law practice should certainly not be goal, rather it is a solution that works for some people in a limited situation. For the vast majority of practitioners, and especially those fresh out of law school, it probably won’t work. You’re better off scraping together $200 a month for a crappy office instead of trying to hide behind a website and rationalizing your situation by calling yourself a “virtual lawyer”. Maybe one day you’ll make enough money that you can get better office space, or perhaps your practice won’t require an office. But the goal shouldn’t be to pass failure as though it were success like Rachel is doing.

      When it comes to building a practice for a young person, I’ll go back to Aronfeld’s book. One of the most important suggestions he made is to wake up every morning, put on a suit, and go to the office every day even if you don’t have any work. This way you feel like you’re self employed lawyer rather than an unemployed lawyer. Me and Leo took this advice, and I think it was instrumental in making the jump from being employed by a law firm to having a law firm that generates a full time income for us. I know many too solo attorneys who are closer to unemployed than self employed.

      In any case, I agree that there is nothing fundamentally “wrong” with a virtual law office for some people in specific circumstances. But to do what Rachel does and suggest it’s a magic way to have a great, flexible lifestyle and make lots of money is a joke. Success in law takes time and investment – not fancy websites.

      Personally, I would encourage any young lawyer trying to build a practice to get office space and not cut corners by going the “virtual” route.

  4. Mike Pospis says:

    Very impressive. What is the rent for the whole space (offices, reception area, storage, etc.)? FWIW I’m in the “brick and mortar” crowd.

  5. […] week, Jordan Rushie brought up the importance of office space. Carolyn Elefant followed up and noted that affordable […]

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