So let’s get started. In the first part of this post, I’ll describe some of the reasons that lawyers should consider adding interactive features to their websites. In the second part of the post, I’ll catalog the different types of features available, and offer a couple of examples. Finally – because we’re all lawyers here – I’ll briefly identify some of the ethics issues to address when making a website or blog more interactive.
I. The Case For Increasing Interactivity
Interactive websites benefit both lawyers, prospective clients and the public. Some interactive tools help educate users. For example, autoresponders support education-based marketing initiatives by making it easy for prospects to sign up to receive a newsletter or an information-packed e-book. Online quizzes and assessment tests enable users diagnose, at least preliminarily, whether they have a legal problem that warrants retaining counsel.
Interactive tools don’t just educate clients, though. An action as simple as enabling comments on blog posts can help lawyers understand if they’re getting their point across or help identify other concerns. Forms allow lawyers to gather preliminary information about clients even before they call for an appointment. And surveys can provide lawyers with feedback from clients that lawyers can then use to further improve their practices and quality of service provided.
Interactive tools also facilitate immediate responses. On-site chats, “call us” buttons and self-scheduling calendars let clients get in touch right away, while their matter is still urgent, to set up an appointment or get a quick answer.
Finally, if nothing else, there’s a certain “gee-whiz” quality to interactive tools. They’re just plain neat – and convey an air of sophistication to many clients, even though they’re cheap and easy to implement. As a result, these tools will set you apart from the competition and impress clients and colleagues.
II. Types of Tools To Incorporate
There are literally, dozens of interactive tools and widgets that lawyers can deploy on their websites, with new ones frequently emerging. In this section, I’ll identify some of the types of interactive tools that you might incorporate along with some of the examples that I’ve personally used or seen employed at other sites.
1. Comment Features
On the interactivity scale, comments rank fairly low. A comment section is most appropriate on blogs; it allows users to participate in an online conversation about a post or ask additional questions. Most standard blogging platforms include comments as a default feature; however, you can also install a third party platform like Disqus to support comments. Third party comment platforms can make a comments section more dynamic, by enabling participants to receive notice when new comments are posted, and to reply directly to a specific comment. (I recently installed Disqus over at my home blog, MyShingle.com).
Emails are somewhat interactive – and indeed, most lawyers include an email address on their websites so that clients can get in touch. But often, emails invite lengthy rantings or omit important details that you may need to decide whether to pursue a client further. In contrast to email, forms provide a more effective means to gather preliminary information from a client because you can identify the information that you want the client to provide. Sometimes, that information may be as basic as their city and state so that you can figure out whether their matter occurred in a jurisdiction where you’re licensed to practice. A form is also conducive to providing more explicit instructions; for example, you can include disclaimers next to certain questions reminding clients not to provide too many details to avoid compromising confidentiality.
Some blog platforms, such as Word Press, support contact form plug-ins. Though my law firm website, CarolynElefant.com came with a Word Press plug-in form, my personal favorite is Google’s free form generator, which you can embed in any website.
Auto-responders do exactly what the name implies: they provide an automatic response to emails generated through a collection form that appears on the website. If you’ve ever been asked to complete an online form to register for a newsletter or to download an e-book, you’ve probably seen an auto-responder in action. At left, you can see an example of an auto-responder that visitors to my home site, MyShingle.com use forregistration.
Because auto-responders send an automatic reply to users, they are more dynamic than forms, which simply capture information but require a manual response. For that reason, auto-responders are useful for distribution of educational content, like newsletters or e-books, because once a user supplies the information requested on the form, the auto-responder will automatically send out the ebook or newsletter without need for human intervention. In that way, an auto-responder can help lawyers control distribution of valuable materials – for example, you can, as lawyer Jay Fleischman describes at LegalPracticePro, use an auto-responder to efficiently dispense information over a set period of time to keep your name in a client’s mind. Auto-responders may also deter competitors from downloading your work since they’ll have to use their name to retrieve it (true, they can create an alias name and email, but that involves an additional step).
One of the most popular and widely used auto-responders is Aweber, which costs around $200 annually. Aweber supports multiple releases and also includes templates that you can use to set up e-newsletters. Constant Contact is another inexpensive service for newsletter or event registration, with different pricing options starting at as little as $15 per month. If you’re not ready to commit financially, MailChimp offers a limited free auto-responder and newsletter service for up to 500 subscribers.
4. Assessment Generators and Quizzes
Assessment tests and quizzes serve as a fun way to engage clients at your site by teaching them about the law. For example, you might create a quiz on the structure of the Supreme Court or the Bill of Rights as a public service to educate clients about the law. There aren’t many online quiz creators, but one that is free and works for this purpose is Quibblo.com.
Somewhat different from a quiz about facts, an assessment test can also help clients determine whether they need to hire a lawyer. For example, a bankruptcy lawyer might create a test that asks clients about their ability to pay their bills or whether they are subject to pursuit by debt collectors, and assign points for each answer. Depending upon the number of points, the answer key might suggest that a client consider the bankruptcy option (as discussed in Part III, you’d want to include extensive disclaimers and caveats as part of the test, to avoid having a client believe that it constitutes legal advice).
The best out-of-the-box online tool that I’ve found for assessments is theAssessment Generator. Robust and easy to use, the Assessment Generator lets users create five different types of assessment tests (the example above is one that I created here at MyShingle, that lawyers can use to evaluate their need for a contract lawyer). There’s a free version of the Assessment Generator available; the more full-featured version costs around $10 a month.
5. Surveys and Polls
Like quizzes, polls can entertain site visitors – for example, soliciting their opinion on anything from political issues (Do you agree with the President’s Supreme Court nomination?) to personal preferences (How many hours a week do you spend on Facebook?). Several blog platforms offer poll plug-ins, but you can also create and install your own with services likeWidgetBox.com. With polls, users can vote and then see the results of the poll after voting.
Surveys are a little different from polls because users won’t automatically see results. You might include a survey at your website for clients to provide you with feedback on your firm. In addition to using Google Forms (mentioned previously) as a basis for a survey, you can also try Wufoo or Survey Monkey, both of which offer a limited free option.
6. Online Scheduling
Are you losing clients because you don’t have the staff to answer your phones and schedule appointments promptly? One interactive tool that can remedy lack of staffing is a do-it-yourself scheduling system installed at your site. Scheduling systems are basically an online calendar where prospective clients view your available openings and set up their own appointments. The calendars are set up so that only the site owner can view the names and information associated with the appointments; site visitors don’t have access to this private information.
7. Call Me Buttons and Live Chat
Ideally, your website should provide multiple ways for clients to contact you. Most sites include phone numbers and emails – but if you’re not available, the client will still have to wait for a response. That’s why you might consider getting a free Google Voice number to use as a “call me contact” at your site.
Previously in beta and available via invitation only, GoogleVoice is now open to all. Google Voice allows users to create a “Call Me” button which can be embedded in your website. When users click the button, they’ll be connected to your Google number, which in turn, you can set up to re-direct to another phone number – thus, increasing the chance that you’ll be available to take the call when it comes in.
Equally interactive is live chat, another feature that can be installed at a website – and a concept that I discussed about a year ago here at MyShingle. With chat-ware, users can type in a question at your site and you or your staff can supply an immediate response. Live chat options include ZohoChatand BoldChat, which costs around $300/year.
III. Ethical Caveats
Any blog post on interactive websites for lawyers – even one as lengthy as this one – is not complete without a discussion of ethics issues. Below are some of the ethics red flags that interactive technologies may raise, and suggestions on best practices for addressing them:
1. Creation of Attorney-Client Relationship/Legal Advice: One potential ethics risk of interactivity is that the immediacy of the communication may create the perception of an attorney-client relationship. Or, a client may believe that the attorney is providing legal advice. For example, consider a situation where a client asks a specific question in the comments section of a blog or through live chat. If an attorney replies and provides suggestions, a client could rely on that advice – and the attorney could face malpractice exposure if the advice turned out to be incorrect. To avoid any perception that a communication at the website constitutes legal advice or gives rise to an attorney-client relationship. lawyers should include appropriate disclaimers.
Likewise, if you include an assessment generator at your site on a topic like whether a prospect qualifies for bankruptcy, include caveats to clarify that the test provides guidelines – it is not a definitive diagnosis of a legal problem (nor is it legal advice) and that all cases are different.
2. Confidentiality & Conflicts Issues: Clients may assume that information collected in forms will be treated as confidential. If you are using a free form generator, the information that you gather may not be fully confidential – and the client should be advised of that risk. At the same time, you should limit the type of information that you collect to begin with – never ask potential clients to provide social security numbers or extensive details about their claims through a form that is not secure.
3. Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL)
Some of the communications that you receive at your site may involve individuals in jurisdictions where you’re not licensed to practice – and potentially trigger UPL claims. Make sure that your site is clear on where you are licensed to practice, and avoid substantive responses on matters that are outside of your jurisdiction.
As I’ve posted repeatedly, many lawyers focus myopically on SEO, without any thought to how to convert transient visitors into paying clients. By inviting interaction, lawyers can make their websites more inviting and impressive to visitors, and in doing so, improve their chances that short term visitors will eventually become long time clients.