At Draw, we produce an annual benchmark report, which studies the digital presence of the top 30 law firms in the UK by revenue, an exercise designed to keep us abreast of the current digital marketing trends amongst the local, legal elite.
An interesting and powerful by-product of this report is that it highlights not only where the legal sector is focussing its attention and resource, but also the areas of shadow which the sector has perhaps overlooked.
The presence of these shadows is consistent across many of the firms featured in the benchmark, which hints to us that they're probably the result of sector-wide bias, such as the Streetlight Effect:
A policeman sees a man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the man has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the man replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is." 
In our opinion, the challenges hiding in the shadows provide the greatest opportunities for law firms who are looking to supercharge their digital presence and create a meaningful competitive advantage - and hopefully this article can act as a small but powerful light.
1. LACK OF CLARITY AROUND THE ROLE OF THE DIGITAL ECOSYSTEM
This is a challenge for any brand that doesn’t sell directly via their site. After all, businesses with discreet goods and services sold online have a clear mission: upsell and sell more.
The function of their digital channels become crystal clear, which gives the business a singular focus around which their efforts can be concentrated.
Within the legal sector however, there are number of discrete challenges which complicate this situation (services aren't typically bought online, engagement decisions are often made by committee, the role of personal relationships), but just because you can't put a big "buy" button on your website, doesn't mean that it shouldn't have focus.
A digital presence can do many things: help acquire new clients, grow existing clients, improve and extend market awareness, improve market perception; but it can only do these things if it's designed around these goals which are then pursued relentlessly.
If your site is aimed at a target, it might hit, it might miss; if it's aimed at nothing, it will hit nothing every time.
2. CONTENT ISN'T WORKING HARD ENOUGH
The volume of content produced by legal firms — a product of briefing and alert services as well as thought leadership initiatives — is rivalled only by publishers and universities. Many firms have digital archive of these documents and increasingly they're being made available to clients and prospects.
Unfortunately, firms aren't taking advantage of the this massive boon, with many either burying the content deep within their site, only making it available as downloadable documents or pdfs, or not linking it to similar content and relevant services.
In many cases, firms are making all of these mistakes, so it’s no big surprise that the content doesn't get the traction that they would like.
There are three main solutions to this challenge:
Linking the content together with good tagging taxonomy so that from one article the reader can see all related articles by author, topic, sector or practice area.
Make the content readable by presenting it in a way that a human might actually want to look at. If you want to know what good content presentation looks like at the moment, check out mashable.com, medium.com or qz.com. This includes ensuring that it renders perfectly on all of the devices it's likely to be viewed on.
Understanding what you're trying to achieve by making the content available and communicating that to the user. Is it for acquisition? Include a call to action. Is it for sharing/social reach? Include a (social) call to action.
This plays helpfully into our next point:
3. RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF CONVERSION
Once you've established what your digital properties are trying to achieve for the firm, it's time to make sure that's what they're actually doing.
When you've only got the attention of your reader for a few seconds on each page, you can't afford to be coy. This doesn't mean putting giant, fluorescent star-bursts on each page, but it's absolutely essential that a viewer understand both the options and actions available to them at any given time. On every page of your ecosystem they should be able to instantly understand, WHAT they can do, HOW they can do and WHY they should bother.
This means you need to be explicit about what actions you want your audience to perform, how they can do it and what they can expect to get out of it.
Want me to sign up to your newsletter? Show me where, make it easy and tell me how it will make my life better.
4. USING SOCIAL AS A BROADCAST TOOL
The social media accounts of many legal firms can often seem like a firehose of press releases, spraying headlines and over a largely indifferent crowd with little-to-no consideration to the medium.
If it were meant as a forum for regurgitating press releases, it would be called broadcast media - but that name was already taken.
The key to social media is - duh - all about being social; which means interacting with people and sharing ideas, as opposed to just just tweeting blindly into the dark.
If you're firm isn't ready to find their social voice yet (Slaughter & May don't have a twitter account that speaks), then social is still an amazing listening tool and should not be overlooked as quick way to gauge sentiment.
The NYPD could well have saved themselves a world of pain if they had listened to people's opinions before inviting everyone to share them in a very public fashion. 
5. LEGAL WEBSITES ARE A REFLECTION OF THE FIRM'S AND NOT CUSTOMER NEED
One of the biggest side-effects of firms building websites without a specific focus or direction, is that they end up being a reflection of the firm, its structure and its foibles with little regard to the needs to the audience.
If the visitors to a law firm website want to find out in which sectors or practice areas a particular firm operates, then they're well served. Similarly, if they want to see stock photos of people from different cultural backgrounds shaking hands, they're probably ok there too.
If they actually want to achieve something, then it starts to get tricky - quickly.
In order to create an effective digital presence, firms must carefully balance the needs of the business with those of the customer. Too far in one direction, and you're creating a wonderful customer experience with no business benefit, but too far the other way and you're at the current state of play where firms are spending all their time and effort talking about what they do as opposed to communicating how they can help their audience.
There are two ways to understand what your audience actually needs;
you can ask them, or
you can watch them.
Ideally you would do both as it gives you the chance to hear them out, but also to discern what they say they want from what they demonstrate they want - and that's the holy grail.
6. LACK OF ORGANISATIONAL TRUST IN THE MARKETING DEPARTMENT
The final missed opportunity is actually a hurdle, which many law firms face but few seem prepared to acknowledge. The unique structure of law firms means they often have a lot of partner stakeholders who, by their nature, are highly opinionated and are often keen to be involved in areas outside their core remit.
This is not a problem in and of itself, but particularly in a website redevelopment project that can last the better part of a year, all stakeholders need to be aligned from the outset lest you risk having the project scuppered at the last minute with well-meaning, but destructive intervention.
Combatting this challenge In a law firm, typically means building awareness and consensus within the firm around how the marketing department (or project steering group) will make decision about digital. This can be done a number of ways, but we’ve found that it’s most helpful to build a framework with key stakeholders joining up the broader strategic objectives with the more tactical concerns like functionality and content.
By running a thread between the higher order items and the day to day, it allows the stakeholders to understand the decision making process and have confidence and trust in the marketing team to deliver.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
While the six points above might initially seem quite disparate, their impact on your digital ecosystem can be mitigated quite easily.
If you’re planning a redevelopment of your website or digital assets, then now is the perfect time to address these challenges. Make sure that these items are on the agenda for discussion with both your agency and your internal team as even airing the issues will go a long way to “heading them off at the pass”.
If you’ve just completed a redevelopment (or the next one is still a few years away), then it’s likely that these issues are going to be more deeply entrenched. In this case, it will be easier to focus on just one or two of the smaller issues (e.g. content) to build the internal momentum required to tackle the bigger ones like trust and direction.
To learn more about how Draw works with legal firms to drive business transformation through digital channels, please get in touch.
Photo by romana klee / CC BY