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Seven things professional services firms should think about BEFORE hiring a web designer

Unless your firm opened its doors last week, you already have a website. But perhaps the design is looking a little, well, 2003. The profiles are inconsistent. And you’ve introduced a whole new practice area that isn’t even included. The world of web design technology and marketing move pretty fast and chances are any website that’s more than a few years old not only looks out of date, it probably doesn’t support your new marketing tools such blogs, video and social media.

There is no doubt that your online presence is important. Not only does an effective website help you win business from site visitors; it helps them (and the search engines) find your site in the first place. Even firms that rely on referrals for most of their new work need to have a strong online presence. Because everyone being referred to your firm is going to look at the website before making contact.

So yes, it’s time for a new website. What’s the first thing you do? Start looking for a web designer, right? Unless your firm has some very deep pockets, you are unlikely to be engaging a full service agency with strategists, writers and graphic designers to develop your new site.

The fact is we all have our specialties. And you are going to need a great web designer. Just not yet. There’s a lot of work to be done before you call in the coder. Here are some tips:

#1 First things first: why are you building the site?

Are you looking to attract new clients? Position your firm as a market leader? Re-position your firm’s services or introduce new ones? Build brand awareness? Attract new talent? Reduce overhead by making initial contact with your firm more automated?

Whatever your objectives, they will determine how you build your site, the content you include, and the activities you choose to promote it. Start by getting your objectives down on paper and agreed by the partners in your firm.

#2 Who is your firm, really?

Your firm has a logo and some corporate colours, but a brand is made up of so much more than a nice design or a tag line. It’s every contact that people outside your firm experience—and form an opinion on. These things build perceptions and go beyond the hard facts, it’s how people feel about your firm; the qualities they would use to describe it and the work you do. Clients choose law firms that inspire confidence and trust, and your brand is an important part of that.

Your new website will likely be one of the primary ways people learn about your firm and experience your brand, so its important to know what your core messages are and the tone of voice you want to use to support them.

How are you different from other firms? What makes you better? Why should clients choose you? Are you a very professional and serious place, or friendly and approachable? Do you offer a traditional or modern legal service? What characteristics would you want people to use to describe your firm? These will decide your tone of voice and core messages. This step is where you move beyond ‘we are dedicated to delivering excellent client service” type cliché messages and do some soul searching to identify and articulate what the firm and its people really stand for. Good designers will come up with visual concepts for your site that can reflect your messages and values.

#3 Who are you talking to?

Of course you want to speak to potential clients. Who are they? Are they buying their first house, instructing you on their tech company’s IPO or is the head of HR at an NGO needing help with an employment dispute? Are you well known amongst the groups you’re targeting? Aligning the content structure of the new website with the firm’s business and strategic plan is an essential part of the planning that needs to take place before the designer is brought on-board.

What about current clients? Do you look after all of their legal needs? Could they benefit from more than one area of expertise that you have in-house? Do they even know about these other areas?

Perhaps you’re looking to expand the firm. You’ll want to think about attracting great talent.

Your competition is also an audience, of course and like it or not, so it the press.

That’s a lot of different groups to think about, and now it’s time to put yourself in their shoes. What do you know about them? What are the stresses and challenges that they have now that your firm can help with?

# 4 What do your audiences want to know?

What do people, including current clients, think about your firm now? What do you want them to think? Is there a shift that needs to occur, or are you simply reinforcing a reputation you already own?

One good way to check if you are consistent in your messages is to ask a random set of people inside your firm to describe it or the work you do in three sentences. It’s not scientific, but you’ll soon see whether or not you are sending clear signals.

Once you have a clear idea of the overall brand message, tone of voice and audiences, you need to focus on the content itself. What do your audiences need to know and what do you want to tell them? Your site will have many pages covering your practice areas, community involvement, recruitment and more. Here are three priorities to think about:


This is the first impression for any visitor. It should quickly and clearly communicate what your firm offers and why the visitor should care. Avoid trying to tell your whole story on this page. It’s the ‘headline’ that is intended to draw your visitor in; as they dive deeper into the site, they’ll be more receptive to detail. There are also lots of basics that are unique to law firms that should be easy to find on the home page such as a phone number and access to the lawyer profiles.

Your team

Profiles typically drive 70% of traffic to professional services firm websites. After all, people hire people, not nameless, faceless firms. Your profiles should share the team’s expertise and experience, and why that will matter to potential clients. Writing and presenting online profiles that are memorable and effective at selling the services of a lawyer/accountant is challenging and needs to be a priority. Too many profiles are dull and sound alike. A good profile stands out and is memorable

News / Articles / Events

Clients of professional firms are increasingly turning to their advisors for added value content. Thankfully, today’s sites make it easier than ever to support your marketing through articles, blogs, video, guides, white papers, thought leadership reports and more. Your web plans will need to take into account what tools your firm currently uses to promote its business and which ones it intends to use in the near future. Think long and hard about your firm’s ability to deliver on these commitments before adding the functions to the site. A blog page on your site that hasn’t been updated in 9 months will not make the sort of impression you are hoping for.

#5 ‘Do it yourself ‘ is best left to weekend projects

Hire professionals. A lot of people can write. Not many can write well. Fewer still have experience writing for the web or the legal/accounting sector. An experienced writer will make your site sing on key.

Professional photographers are worth their weight in gold (see post "I have a buddy who's a pretty good photographer'). They will help you create a consistent look, particularly for profile photos. Your photos will benefit from good lighting, a sense of framing and the ability to highlight the positive features of each person. Many people don’t enjoy being photographed; a good photographer can elicit a great shot from even the most reticent subject. Your photographer will also be able to work with the designer to create the shots needed to match the your tone of voice and the designs for the site.

#6 User experience

This is an area where your planning and a good designer will really help. While web design does go through trends, there are solid principles that make for a good user experience. Your designer can advise you on how to structure the site so that the information you wish to convey is easily found through simple and intuitive to navigation. People have little patience these days. If they can’t easily find the information they’re looking for, you’ll lose them.

Primary and secondary navigation – how will you group the information, what is most important to site visitors? What’s natural and expected by web users? Don’t make your visitors jump through hoops or click three times when one will do.

Think about the structure of your information, for example practice groups or industry groups. Your firm may be organized one way, but will that make sense to visitors to the site? Your designer will need to know how all these levels of information fit together before they start working on designs and layouts.

#7 what happens once the site is built?

Once your site is built, how do you plan to attract traffic? Have you got a team assigned to manage content marketing—blogs, social media, and news/PR for example. You’ll need to allocate resource to this if you want it to be effective. You might also consider spending budget on paid search, particularly if you are hoping to attract private or individual clients.

If you plan on having regular content such as blog posts, videos, articles, news items and webinars feature on the site you will need to plan a site architecture that accommodates this content and makes it accessible in multiple ways.

Ready to go?

So, before you call being the process of interviewing designers, take the time to think through and agree internally what you’re asking from the designer. At the first meeting you should be able to tell them:

  • You values, differentiators and core messages

  • The objectives of the site

  • How the site should be structured to best promote your services and capabilities.

  • How the site should support on-going marketing

  • Who will be preparing all the content for the pages and when it is expected to be turned over to the designer

  • Who your main competitors are (you don’t want to have a site that looks too much like them!)

You can have the best web designer in the city, province, country or world, but no matter how talented they are, chances are they hey will not understand your industry or firm. Having this information ready will give them tools they need to design a fantastic site that is unique to your firm and effectively support your future business needs. Taking these steps ahead of time will not only result in a great website, it will help the project stay on schedule and on budget.

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