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Our Thoughts on Stock Photos and Legal Web Design

We’re professional legal bloggers, so we focus more on the content of a legal website rather than its design. With that said, though, our blogging escapades and SEO research have brought us to hundreds of law firm websites, giving us an idea of what’s “in” and what is just plain ugly, even if they happen to be the same.

Which is why, when we saw the article in Above the Law claiming There are a Whole Lot of Terrible Law Firm Websites, we couldn’t help but take a look. What we read, though, was disappointing, to say the least. So disappointing, in fact, that we felt the need to devote a blog article to explaining why.

What the Article Said About Online Legal Marketing

It didn’t say much: It was only 100 words, an image, and an embedded video. It’s actually the perfect kind of article that you should never post in your legal blog, for fear of being penalized by Google’s Panda algorithm.

Distilled into a more manageable 38 words, the point of the piece was this: Too many law firms “don’t get it” and keep using stock images in online marketing. This “robs firms of an opportunity” to market themselves. Check out this video to see a contrast between the worst and the best!

How the Article Shows a Lack of Basic Comprehension

There are 3 elements to the article that betray a lack of even a basic level of understanding of online legal marketing:

  1. It parrots a literal advertisement
  2. It insinuates that law firms choose “boring imagery,” despite a better option
  3. It thinks that law firms are leaving money on the marketing table by using these “hackneyed” pictures

1. The Video Is Just an Ad for a Marketing Firm

Let’s start with the embedded video, which is the article’s centerpiece:

The basic claim here is that law firms tend to use 3 types of images at the front of their webpages:

  1. Smiling attorneys
  2. City skylines
  3. Architectural columns

They forgot to include gavels, law books, or the judicial scales, but we digress. The main point here is that these images are overused, cliché, and forgettable.

The video then pivots into better branding strategies, messages to potential clients that are uniquely tailored to the strengths, focuses, and sometimes even the name, of the firm. You can tell the video is trying to plant a particular idea in your head: The music seems like a brighter version of the theme from Inception.

Ignoring the fact that many of the pictures from websites that use these “better branding strategies” have the same cliché and forgettable images, the true defect in using this video for the article is that the video was created by a legal web design group. The “before” pictures are carefully selected to enhance the “after” images to make it seem like the product (the marketing firm) works and that you should buy it.

To say that “this fun video…runs through some of the laziest firm website designs out there and contrasts them with some of the best, most innovative examples of law firm marketing” is dishonest, and suggests that Above the Law has swallowed this marketing firm’s advert hook, line, and sinker. It also makes us wonder: Were they reading our blog when we wrote that Google is slamming websites that host sponsored content without disclosing it?

We only wrote that piece 2 years ago.

2. Stock Photos Are Like Bail, or Cake

The second misunderstanding that the Above the Law article makes is its insinuation that law firms should just stop using these cliché photos.

This is hilariously naïve.

Many law firms that market online are small firms that need to make every dollar count. Hiring a professional photographer or web designer to shoot quality photos and edit them specifically for your law firm’s website can quickly run into the thousands of dollars. We know: We’ve done this sort of thing. Doing it yourself, even if you have the equipment, takes time and energy that lawyers know would better be used to represent their clients, and is almost guaranteed to produce a low-quality product. We know: We’ve done that sort of thing, too.

Stock Photos in online legal marketing

This leaves us with the “old standbys”: Smiling attorney portraits and stock photos of classic legal imagery. Don’t believe us? Get on these photo hunting websites and find 5 photos that would be “new” or “innovative” on a law firm’s website:

Note: Your budget for this project is zero. Also, you can’t use any images that require attribution, because where would the photo credit go?

In a sense, calling a law firm “lazy” for using stock imagery on their webpage is like calling a person “lazy” for not making bail after an arrest. Not everyone has the same means or resources: This Above the Law article looks down on firms that use tacky stock photos and sneers “let them eat cake.”

3. A Lost Marketing Opportunity?

Finally, choosing to use stock imagery doesn’t scuttle a firm’s online marketing efforts.

Sure, the prohibitively expensive hiring of the exact web design group behind the aforementioned video would likely lead to nicer photos and branding work that is catered to the firm. The result is often unique, and can grab the attention of prospective clients in ways that cookie-cutter sites never will.

But—and we speak with the experience that comes from staring at the websites of hundreds if not thousands of attorneys—this is above and beyond the norm. For every law firm website that shows off a unique branding strategy, there are approximately 147 that use the cookie-cutter method.

And here’s the real kicker: Many of those standard-looking websites rank higher than the ones with professional branding. With that higher ranking they attract more viewers, which begs the question: Like a tree falling in the woods, if no one sees all of those great images and branded messaging, does it really exist?

The Takeaway: Check Off the Boxes

Online Legal Marketing Check BoxesIn the end, if you’re going to market your law firm online and have the money to throw into a one-of-a-kind website, go ahead and do it. The results could be gorgeous and your website could win awards and you could see your bottom line grow as potential clients remember how your firm’s site stood out among the competition.

Or you could save a boatload of money, focus on diligently checking off the online legal marketing boxes (have a flat site architecture, internal link to landing pages that convert, maintain a legal blog, etc.,), and see your bottom line grow, anyway, because you’re scoring on the SEO front and converting those leads into clients.