Gavin Ward explains how firms can use their websites and online presence to grow the reputation of their solicitors, practice areas and sector groups, acquire new clients from the internet, and ultimately succeed online

With legal aid cuts, new entrants to the market and more law firms offering fixed fees, lawyers are facing intense levels of competition. You need to be more visible, instantly appealing and shouting from the rooftops about how you offer a different and better service than your competition. But with so much noise and so many of your competitors already ‘getting online’, it is easy to have your message and voice drowned out – even if your firm has great lawyers who deserve to have online reputations that match their offline ones.

So how can you stand out? How can you grow the online reputation of your solicitors (and other fee-earners), practice areas and sector groups? How can you attract new clients to your practice? Below are seven practical tips that you should consider when formulating or revising your business development strategy for the year ahead.

1. Find out what’s being said online about your firm

As a successful law firm, you are likely to be doing great things for your clients already, but if your offline reputation is not reflected in your online presence, some prospective clients may never know how good you really are – and may never get in touch.

Search on Google for your firm’s name, and then the names of your key fee-earners. Add words like ‘reviews’ and ‘testimonials’ to your searches. What comes up? Most people looking to instruct a solicitor will scour the web to find out as much as they can about your firm and your people before instructing you, even if they were referred by a friend or colleague. Don’t you do something similar when booking a holiday or hotel? If what is returned in searches about your firm and people does not reflect how you want to be seen, you need to take active steps to improve this.

And yes, it is possible to mould Google search results for your practice and for your individual solicitors, particularly by following my second tip.

2. Acquire five-star reviews on Google my Business

Google My Business allows you to get your firm better listed with Google, which brings a range of benefits, including your firm’s appearance in Google’s local search results. Because people tend to search the internet locally for their lawyer and, indeed, by area of practice (such as ‘top employment lawyers Newcastle’, ‘criminal lawyers Liverpool’ or ‘personal injury solicitors Birmingham’), it is crucial that you have such a listing for your practice.

To really maximise the effectiveness of your listing to showcase your reputation, ask your best solicitors to request that their happiest clients give your firm a review on your Google My Business listing. It is best to have a template email or letter ready to send just after you have achieved success for them. We have found this to be particularly effective when done at the end of certain types of transactions, especially conveyancing transactions when your client gets the keys to their property. But make sure that not all of your online reviews are about a certain practice area, or people researching your firm may think that is the only thing you do or are good at.

Earlier this year, you would have needed at least five reviews to have stars appearing with your listing in Google Maps, but as of February 2017, Google has dropped that requirement to just one review. Note also that Google has started to pull in reviews from elsewhere on the web, including Facebook, Yelp and other sources, so it is worth considering expanding your efforts to include these other channels. You may find that there are already negative reviews for some of your solicitors on Yelp or other review channels; if that is the case, take corrective action as soon as possible. There are ways to have certain types of reviews removed, but best practice is to have someone at your firm respond quickly and constructively.

You may think that you do not want to get started with the online review game, as it could open the floodgates for negative comments, but online review channels are there whether you like it or not, so it is best to make a real effort to ensure that the reviews that are shown work in your favour to help you sell your services.

3. Have your solicitors share more than they promote

While you do need to have your solicitors promote themselves or the firm, rather than rely on others to do so, they should aim to do more sharing than promoting. It is best to aim for an 80/20 split. They should promote content created by those who will potentially instruct them or refer business to them. They should write genuinely insightful content about their niche specialisms, such as frequently asked questions, which can be disseminated through your firm’s website or local publications. And if they are networking on LinkedIn, they should contribute real value to the discussion – not just plainly promote themselves or your firm.

The father of modern advertising, David Ogilvy, noted that articles which provide useful free advice will ‘hook’ 75 per cent more readers than articles stuffed with sales messages. This is very much Google’s view on how your firm’s content should be written, too – content that shares valuable information that satisfies a demand will often be ranked higher in Google’s search results.

4. Stand out from the crowd

Many lawyers and law firms have the same or similar practice areas listed on their websites and LinkedIn profiles, with little to distinguish them. They also often use the same language to describe themselves – such as ‘friendly’, ‘personal’, ‘professional’ and ‘approachable’. If you use these terms, you will look the same as every other firm. Equally, do not go too far the other way to differentiate yourself: for instance, ‘aggressive’ is a well-searched keyword for lawyers in the US, but we wouldn’t recommend going quite that far here!

Instead, you need to think about what really makes you different. Why should someone choose your firm and your solicitors over anyone else? It is incredible how many lawyers cannot answer this question effectively. This may require some deeper reflection on core strengths and goals, but it is worth it to help you distinguish your practice from others out there.

In doing so, focus on how you help people and what your clients say about you.

And once you have established your core differentiating strengths, you can infuse all your online content, both within your website and across social media channels, with messages focusing on those strengths.

You also need to think about what kinds of enquiries you do not want. For instance, if you do not want new legal aid clients, avoid having the text ‘legal aid’ in a searchable format on your site. So, instead of having the term ‘legal aid’ in the body text or titles of your pages, hide the words within an image without ‘legal aid’ in the filename or alt text: Google and other search engines won’t rank you or display your practice for people searching for ‘legal aid’ or related keywords.

5. Lights, camera, action

One great way to distinguish your firm from your competitors is to have short, informative and professional videos made, featuring some of your best solicitors, and have them published on sites like YouTube, Vimeo or Wistia, and incorporated into your website.

Websites that have such videos in place tend to convert potential clients to enquiries at a higher level than those without. Potential clients are often confused about the legal process for many areas of practice and have a lot of questions, so short, informative videos providing useful introductory answers will appeal greatly to them, and make them more likely to instruct your firm. Videos are also the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting with a potential client, so they can be a compelling way of showing people that your lawyers are the right ones for them.

A further benefit of videos is that search engines like Google love them, provided you mark them up with the right keywords, so your firm’s website will be bumped up in search engine results.

6. Build your brand consistently

Better branding, applied consistently, can help your practice to grow. Some lawyers think branding is confined to their logo or the colours they use, but it is much more than that: it is what you are, what you do and how you do it for your practice, both on- and offline. And ultimately, your brand is what your clients say it is.

To build your brand consistently, you need attention to detail. For your online presence, typical branding mistakes made include having poorly designed websites, incomplete social media profiles, and website content that does not reflect who you or your solicitors really are, and not dealing with online enquiries as fast and professionally as you would if that potential client had walked in from the street.

7. Use more effective calls to action

The search for a specialist solicitor who can deal with a specific legal issue increasingly begins online. It is therefore vital that your firm and your main solicitors can be found, and that you make a great first impression

What do you want potential clients to do – or, indeed, not do? It can take a great deal of energy and investment to attract the right visitors to your website, but if you don’t make it clear what you want them to do, they are likely to drop off and visit a competitor’s site instead. This is where effective calls to action come in.

An example of an effective call to action is: ‘Call Lucy Jones, our head of employment law, for an initial consultation.’ Such a message, strategically placed, should lead to more online enquiries than if you had weaker or non-existent calls to action. In addition, if you can promote your main solicitors for each practice area further, such as in the sidebar of each page, you should both help to boost their personal brands, and attract even more enquiries.

For certain types of legal service, potential clients are in ‘distress purchase’ mode. In this case, it is even more important to have the right calls to action.

Final thoughts

The days of profitable work falling into lawyers’ laps are over. Spurred on by the smartphone revolution, internet usage continues to grow and, thus, the search for a specialist solicitor who can deal with a specific legal issue increasingly begins online. It is therefore vital that your firm and your main solicitors can be found, and that you make a great first impression with those who find you online.

To succeed online, your firm’s strategy will always require continual refinement, but the tips above should get you one step closer to building your online reputation as a great law firm, with a great team of specialist solicitors.