Domain Names Critical to Law Firm Web Sites

Thousands of law firms have launched web sites, and the number continues to grow rapidly. Many of the National Law Journal 250 largest U.S. firms have created sites, or at least reserved domain names. Selecting a domain name is a critical first step in launching a site.

The elements of a domain name are the "forename" selected by the firm and an extension chosen from abbreviations adopted by the Internet Network Information Center, or InterNic: .com, .cc or .to for commercial organizations; .edu for educational organizations; .gov for government agencies; .org for nonprofit organizations; .mil for military agencies; and .net for networks.

Initials or Image?

Among the NLJ 250, most firms have selected forenames derived from the initials of their names, such as http://www.phjw.com, the site of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky &Walker LLP. The objective is a domain name that is easy to remember and consistent with a professional image. Boyle, Adley and Deeds might want to avoid using http://www.bad.com.

Firm marketing administrator Kimberley Griffith, of Los Angeles' Paone, Callahan, McHolm, & Winton LLP, notes that other firms have opted for forenames comprising some or all of the words in their names, such as http://www.paone.com, which is used by her firm. Domain names with less words are easier to recall. Marketing consultant Kevin Brownkbmarktg@aol.com) notes that his law firm clients have integrated their images into their domain name selection. If a firm is known by an abbreviation, such as ABC, he recommends using it in the domain name. If a firm has an area of specialty, such as intellectual property law, he suggests including that in the domain name, such as in http://abc-iplaw.com.

Outside the top 250, some small and boutique firms have chosen forenames that project images of their specialized practice areas. In this camp are Nashville, Tenn.'s Siskind, Susser, Haas & Devine in immigration law (http://www.visalaw.com); Miami's Martin Howard Patrick, P.A. in real estate law http://www.dirtlaw.com); Frisco, Colo.'s Oppedahl & Larson LLP in intellectual property law (http://www.patents.com); and Lexington, Ky.'s Miller, Griffin & Marks, PSC in equine law (http://www.horselaw.com).

The web site's domain name often serves as the basis for lawyers' e-mail addresses as well. Most Internet service providers offer domain-name services for both web hosting and Internet access. Consultant Jerry Lawson (lawson@netlawtools.com), author of a forthcoming American Bar Association book on the Internet, advises that the most prestigious e-mail addresses are those that use the law firm's domain name rather than the name of an ISP.Thus, jsmith@sjt.com is preferable to jsmith@compuserve.com.

As with all other marketing activities, ethics is an essential consideration in selecting a domain name. It is important to avoid conveying an impression of specialization unless the firm is board certified in the area of practice conveyed by its domain name.

Reserving a Domain Name

There are several ways to check the availability of, and to reserve, a domain name. Most ISPs and web-hosting companies will provide this service for a nominal fee. Inquiries can also be e-mailed to postmaster@rs.internic.net, and domain names can be searched via Inter Nic's web site (http://www.internic.net) by selecting "who is" from the menu. Jerry Lawson suggests negotiating if another organization already has registered the law firm's first-choice domain name. He notes that New Orleans' Phelps Dunbar L.L.P.successfully negotiated with a small business that previously had registered the domain name http://www.phelps.com.

To avoid litigation, the firm should select a domain name and immediately register it with Inter Nic, even if the site launch or commencement of e-mail access is not imminent. Another litigation avoidance technique is to register the domain name as a trademark or trade name. Prompt action is warranted here, because most desirable specialty names, and many two- and three-letter abbreviations already are taken as forenames within the .com extensions. If a desired name is not available, the firm should consider using a variation with the word "law," as in http://www.jwlaw.com, the site of New Orleans' Jones,Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre.

Inter Nic's introduction of new extensions, such as .cc, have added to the inventory of available domain names. However, a firm risks misdirecting visitors away from its site by using a .cc extension for a name that already exists with a .com extension. By way of analogy, intended visitors to the American Corporate Counsel Association's site (http://www.acca.com) sometimes happen upon the site of the Association of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (http://www.acca.org) by mistake.

There are several print publications available to marketers seeking information about law firm web sites. Recommended reading includes ABA Law Practice Management publications like The Lawyer's Guide to Creating Web pages (1997), The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet (1997), and Law on the Internet: The Best Legal Web Sites (1998). These and other publications can be ordered through the publications page of the ABA's site.

Names already selected by law firms can be checked via links to the directories of law firm websites posted on the sites of Law Journal Extra!, Hieros Gamos, Yahoo and FindLaw. Articles about law firm websites have been published online and listed at Lawyer Marketing and Law Guru.

Websites have a vast potential for furthering law firm marketing goals. The audience reached by law firm sites include clients, prospects, recruits, vendors, media, the legal community and the general public. Websites are essential for an online presence in this age of increasing reliance on the Internet as a medium for research and entertainment. Selection of an effective domain name is a critical first task in the process of creating a firm web site. Firms should act quickly to select and register domain names, as the number of available, desirable names will dwindle as more firms establish presences on the Net.

Copyright 1998 Marketing for Lawyers