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Five Inexcusable Law Firm Website Design Mistakes

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I just spent a day checking out the competition. I flipped through about 25 websites that have been launched over the past year or so by large law firms, to see what’s trending and perhaps find creative inspiration. My key takeaway: today’s websites are better than ever. In fact, some were great. And none of the sites I examined were complete embarrassments.

All that said, many of the sites – some of which were created by well-known web designers for large law firms – had at least one significant shortcoming.

Below I’ve listed five of the most bothersome shortcomings I came across. Some of these shortcomings are due to the use of outdated technology. Others relate to the use of discredited web design paradigms. In my opinion, all are inexcusable for any website launching today.

Metaphorical Photos

This is a look that seemed cool in 1997 but was passé by 1999. Yet, some designers still lean on these silly photos. Why? Because it’s easy. The simplest, cheapest way to design a homepage is to write a headline about the firm’s “strategic approach” and put it next to a $2 stock photo of a chess board. Or to write a headline about how “different” the firm is, and place it next to a photo of a poodle with a pink mohawk. Ugh. When I see something like this, I just think, “The designer phoned this one in.”

Overly Narrow Format

It’s remarkable to me that anyone is still designing narrow, 1024 pixel-wide sites. On any recent computer, these narrow sites look ridiculously puny and feel outdated the moment that they launch. This is because monitor resolutions have grown far beyond 1024 pixels. Even little laptops often have high-resolution displays that are over 1900 px wide.

Today’s best websites use responsive design to expand the website to fill most of the screen. I’m guessing that most web designers who are still creating sites with a width of 1024 pixels are probably not proficient in responsive design.

The Homepage Carousel

This is often a sign of marketing indecision. When a firm can’t agree on a single headline message – the easy solution is to write five messages and put them in a rotating carousel on the homepage. The problem is that five messages is four too many. It all becomes noise.

Furthermore, users hate them. A usability study out of Sweden found that an auto-rotating carousel on the homepage got clicked by only 1.96% of users. When it was changed to a static image, it got clicked by over 43% of users.

As far as I’m concerned, practically any solution is better than the homepage slider. And sometimes the best solution is no headline at all.

High School Yearbook-style Photos

Attorney portraits are, without a doubt, the single most impactful element of an attorney’s bio. Why? Because images evoke a quick and powerful emotional response in a way that written words can’t. Today’s best websites feature large, beautifully composed, well-lit photos that reveal a little bit of the attorney’s personality. Yet, there are still some firms that use rigid, formal photos that look like they were shot in the basement of Sears. It baffles me that not all firms make portraits a top priority.

Old-style Mobile Sites (mobi)

If your web designer is trying to sell you an old-fashioned “mobi” site, you should probably find a new web designer. Responsive design, the current standard for mobile compatibility, is far superior. For example, responsive design accommodates all device sizes, is much better for SEO and, unlike mobi, doesn’t use a separate web address for mobile pages (which is confusing for both users and Google).

Why isn’t everybody using responsive design? Because it isn’t easy to do right. Back in 2012, it took my firm several months of challenging design and programming to nail it.

Other Inexcusable Design Mistakes?

So, what did I leave out? What law firm website design foibles drive you crazy? I’d love to know. Please post a comment!

This piece was previously published on Bloomberg BNA.

Comments

13 comments... read them below or add one.
  1. Bruce Mishkin says:

    Great article and kudos to James for mentioning the hackneyed scales of justice, to which I’d add … gavels, courthouse steps, law libraries, empty courtrooms with empty judges’ chairs, and audacious claims: Last week, for instance, I viewed an “aggressive” attorney’s website in which he billed himself as “New York’s #1 Criminal Defense Attorney” with absolutely no attributable source for that claim (except, of course, himself).

  2. Laurie McConnell says:

    Sometimes I prefer a mobile-first experience rather than a responsive site design. If I am on mobile, chances are I want a different organization and prioritization of site content (click to dial phone number, map with directions/gps, tourism site availability search). Often what I don’t want is an entire desktop heavy-bandwith site with a ton of content I don’t need shuffling down into a big long scroll that is NOT responsive to how mobile users are engaging with the content based on research and strategy with analytics on traffic. Mobile responsive is a MINIMUM requirement, but often not the be-all and end-all of the mobile experience.

  3. Cathy Reisenwitz says:

    Missing or unclear call to action.

  4. James Bliwas says:

    A few of my least-favorites:
    1. The nav menu is hidden inside a little box in a corner of the screen, making it cumbersome to go from one section to another.

    2. In the stock image category, the photos of smiling “lawyers” and “business people” – none of whom have ever stepped foot inside the firm.

    3. Using the scales of justice in any context.

    4. Long, convoluted sentences that sound like they were written after a large committee reached a compromise, packed into copy-dense paragraphs that make a page intimidating to look at and difficult to read.

    • Dion Algeri says:

      James – Your list is great. I agree with all of them. Three of the items on your list are age-old problems in the legal marketing world (bad stock photos of people, scales of justice imagery and badly written text).

      However, the first item on your list is brand-new and worth exploring further. The navigation style you describe is called “hamburger navigation” and it was first used on mobile sites. Within the past year or so, some law firms have launched websites using this navigation style on their full-sized, desktop website.

      I’m not a big fan of the hamburger nav on desktop sites. Designers like it because it removes the clutter of navigation from the site. However, I think that it hurts usability by hiding navigation options from view. That said, I think we may all feel very differently about this topic in a few years for the following reasons:

      1) Time changes perceptions – Right now the hamburger nav is new and foreign, and thus seems difficult to use. Maybe in a few years we will adjust to it and consider it normal and natural.

      2) Usability standards – Currently, there are no usability standards for the hamburger nav. Designers are experimenting with various implementations – and some are doing a really bad job. Maybe designers will figure out a better way to implement it and standards will emerge.

      Or perhaps the hamburger nav will go the way of Google Glass and the Segway scooter: promising innovations that turned out to be a flash in the pan.

  5. Jeff Dennis says:

    Three recent trends that really bug me:

    1. I’ve seen a lot of sites (in my local market and nationally) where the homepage scrolls vertically into other defined sections that, if you were to click on the real homepage side nav, would have anchored you to that section anyway. I’m not sure if they were built for mobile or what, but the way the images jostle around and don’t always align correctly drives me nuts.

    2. There’s also been a recent trend of using huge partner or client portraits on homepages. The idea is somewhat personal, but invites a lot of criticism from users. My first thought is usually “is that really the best photo they had of that person?” instead of “how can I get where I need to be?”

    3. So much trite language. If you’re a reputable corporate law firm, people should assume you’re “results-oriented,” “experienced” or “client-focused.” Use that valuable real estate for something more productive or meaningful.

  6. Alex Coussy says:

    Web Design Mistakes, most of the time the impression to us is purely negative, but I think it has a big impact for us on how to learn and will help us in near future. Very inspiring article indeed!

  7. Roman Rivera says:

    With more and more people searching for Attorneys online as shown in this survey: https://www.mosesandrooth.com/how-people-find-lawyers-in-2015/

    Web design is now more than ever a necessity to ensure new clients. These design mistakes such as unresponsive websites designs for phones are dramatic errors that really hurt an attorneys business.

    Thank you for posting this article hopefully this aids some attorneys or anyone with a website to help drive more traffic to their website by thinking about design and user experience.

  8. Rain Tan says:

    I though the home page carousel was very interesting point you brought up. Haha i didnt knew being static changes the game so much.

    Anyway great article. being responsive is super important now. Since google likes website that are responsive. i seriously hate website with barrow design. looks so old.

    Oh yes i thought it was a great idea to include a clear Call-to-action (CTA) as a point. Many great web design still lacks a good and proper CTA, which is very important!

  9. Trish Riedel says:

    Wow great article, I once knew a web designer and actually, some of them don’t pay much attention to what works or what’s new, you mention some really eye opening stuff here, especially what you said about the carousel, I’ve seen it quite often, but honestly never clicked any.

  10. Chameleon Print says:

    That’s an interesting study about scrolling. I wouldn’t have thought it was such a big deal. I like the idea of a web design creating a story out of content through scrolling. It looks like the web is becoming more and more personal and even enjoyable, which I think is a good thing. I’m excited to see how these trends continue to develop.

  11. Andrew Hudson says:

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  12. Andrew Hudson says:

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