Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
September/October 2004, by Delia Venables

Website Design for Lawyers
by Alex Heshmaty

1. Structure and Navigation

One of the most important elements of a good website is a clear, logical structure. This makes it easier to maintain the site and also reduces the likelihood of a user "getting lost" in the site or not being able to find what they are looking for. On arrival at the home page, the user should be able to see all the relevant areas of the site and to get to their chosen destination immediately. A good example is Campbell Hooper's website at www.campbellhooper.com.

If designed well, frames can offer a good system of navigation, ensuring that a single navigation bar is seen throughout the site and giving the user some consistency. However, care must be taken to avoid "frame within frame" problems and, where there is information that a user may wish to print out, it is a good idea to provide a "print" button which will print the contents of a single frame.

2. Content is King

Many websites exist solely as a kind of online brochure which can be valuable in its own right. However, in order to actually gain value from the site, good content can provide a "hook" for attracting clients. There are various ways to provide good content. This could simply consist of writing the occasional article, in-house, on a relevant legal topic and uploading to the site or sending out regular email newsletters highlighting developments in a certain area.

As an alternative to writing your own material, content can be "purchased" (or licensed) from companies such as:
* Emplaw, www.emplaw.co.uk
* Conscious Solutions, www.conscious.co.uk
* Words4Business, www.words4business.com
* Editing for Law firms, www.editingforlawfirms.co.uk.

3. Simple Layout and Use of Whitespace

The less clutter on a website the better. A good design will be fresh and crisp, and have different elements well spread out whilst taking into account the limited screen acreage. Scroll bars should be used with care as pages which scroll too far can be extremely annoying and may cause the user to feel like they are looking for a needle in a haystack. Plenty of "whitespace" ensures that different elements are kept apart and makes browsing a more pleasant experience. Take a look at www.capsticks.com for an example of a well laid out site with good use of "whitespace" which maintains a simple, fresh and crisp appearance.

4. Maintenance/Updating

It is vital that your website is well maintained and kept up to date. Some web designers will charge extortionate amounts to make simple updates so if you intend to have your website maintained externally it is a good idea to agree to the terms of maintenance in advance, before agreeing to the initial build, or alternatively, have the website built using a content management system which can be maintained by your own non-technical staff. Links to external sites should be regularly checked. Try Xenu's Link Sleuth (it's free) at http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html.

5. Use of Web Technologies

HTML, Javascript, Flash, CSS, ASP and XML are just a few of the languages, applications and server technologies which can be used to build a website. In general, the more complex the technologies used to build a site, the more expensive but not necessarily the better. If used inappropriately, some website "enhancements" can actually have a negative effect on a site. For example, Flash can be used to add smooth, interactive animation to part of a site or even to build a complete website but it can sometimes look "gimmicky" and slow down the loading time of a site. As a general rule, only use the web technology which is necessary for the design or the usability of your website.

6. Style and Consistency

Choose and stick to one set of fonts and colours. Sans-serif fonts (eg. Arial, Verdana, Tahoma) are usually easier to read on-screen whereas Serif fonts (eg. Times New Roman) look better in print. Georgia is an exception to the rule, as it is a serif font that was designed to be easily read on a computer monitor. As for colours, it is better to stick to different shades of a small palette rather than using a large palette. It is also important that the same layout is retained throughout the site for ease of navigation. A company logo displayed on every page can strengthen corporate identity. A site which maintains good consistency, style and identity is Norton Rose at www.nortonrose.com.

7. Accessibility

Accessibility of a site is becoming increasingly important, as described in more detail in other articles in this newsletter, and there is every likelihood that increasing pressure will be put on website providers to ensure that their designs are as accessible as possible to all users. Flexibility is an important element of accessible design, enabling the user to resize text or change colour schemes. CSS is a useful language for ensuring that a single page can be displayed in many different ways, with different colours, fonts and other styling.

8. Browser Compatibility

Although the most widely used browser is Microsoft's Internet Explorer, there are a wide range of other web browsers which can be used, including Netscape, Opera and Mozilla. Then there are all the different versions of each browser as they are constantly being upgraded (IE 5, 5.5, 6 etc), as well as different platforms (PC, Mac, Linux, FreeBSD etc) and different operating systems (Windows 98, 2000, XP etc.). Each browser variation can interpret a website differently but a well designed site will minimise these differences. It is worth downloading at least one different browser and testing the results, e.g. Mozilla Firefox www.mozilla.org/products/firefox).

9. Loading Time

Although the advent of broadband has reduced the concern for loading time, this is still an important issue. Heavy graphics and processor-hungry applications (eg. Flash and PDF) can slow down a website and create a negative user experience. Badly designed code can also have the effect of slowing down a site. It is always worth testing your website using a 56k modem before making it live, as that is the speed at which many users will arrive. A fast-loading home page is of great importance but do avoid the mistake of the "Click Here to Enter" welcome page as this just increases needless clicking and can be frustrating.

10. Contact Details

After speedily entering your site, easily navigating to the updated content and marvelling at the pleasing colour scheme and clear layout, a potential client will hopefully want to contact you. It could be said that the whole purpose of having a website is to communicate with clients or potential clients. Therefore it is of utmost importance that contact details remain prominent throughout your website. Aside from all the usual details (name, address, telephone, fax, email and perhaps departmental contacts) it can be useful to provide a form and maybe even a ring-back service. Placing a "contact details" link on a navigation bar which can be seen on every page will usually be enough to ensure that contact details remain prominent. Hopefully, this will help to convert website users into paying clients!

Alex Heshmaty graduated with an LLB (Hons.) in English and European Law at UWE, Bristol in 2000. He became interested in web design and, after training with an ISP in Bristol, became Systems Manager at DiscLaw Publishing Ltd, taking charge of the technical side of web operations at www.emplaw.co.uk. He left DiscLaw earlier this year in order to start his own web design consultancy.
Email: alex@legaltechie.co.uk.

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