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[Note: This column was originally published by the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of the American Bar Association in Probate & Property, Vol. 12, No. 6 (November/December 1998).]
Getting Found on the Internet
By Daniel B. Evans, Technology-Probate Editor
Robert A. Heverly's Technology-Property column in the May/June issue (Vol. 12, No. 3, p. 20) offered general guidelines about practicing law on the Internet. After lawyers figure out how to use the Internet, the question they most often ask about the Internet is whether one can really get any clients from it.
The answer is yes. I have acquired clients from the Internet, and I explain how in an upcoming book, How to Build and Manage an Estates Practice, to be published this spring by the Law Practice Management Section. What follows is an advance peek at some methods of finding clients that use the Internet.
How: Search Engines
One of the more useful devel-opments on the Internet is the availability of general purpose "search engines" that can be used to find information of almost any type on the Internet. For example, the Alta Vista search engine sends out electronic "spiders" or "bots" onto the Web that search for new Web documents, then indexes them so that a user can find any document just by the words used anywhere in the document.
Lawyers can use search engines to find information for their clients or cases, but they often do not realize that clients can use the same search engines to find lawyers. So, if a lawyer or law firm publishes information about itself or its practice on the Internet and that information is indexed by a search engine, a potential client looking for legal information or a particular kind of lawyer or law firm may be able to find the Web pages of the lawyer or firm through that search engine.
At least, that is the theory. In practice, there are a number of problems, not the least of which is that there are already lots of lawyers on the Internet and running a search for "estates" and "lawyer" will return hundreds (perhaps thousands) of listings.
Who Is Looking?
To figure out how to be found on the Internet, you need to know who is looking and what they are looking for. Based on my experience, there are two different types of people looking for two different kinds of information about estates and trust law.
As one might expect, a significant number of people search the Internet for information on estate planning issues. Many in this first group are simply looking for free information, but some may be potential clients if the services seem to suit what they perceive to be their needs and the lawyer is located in their city or state.
For the second type, I was surprised by the number of inquiries I received from people living outside of my state who were looking for information on probate procedures in my state, usually because a relative had died (or was close to dying) in my jurisdiction. After they found that
I was a lawyer who provided some useful information and who seemed to be the kind of lawyer they needed, they contacted me to find out what might need to be done (and how much it might cost) for legal proceedings in my state.
There are opportunities to contact clients in your state through the Internet, but there are also opportunities to contact out-of-state clients with estate or trust interests in your state. Most of the clients I have acquired through the Internet have been from the second group, not the first. This shows that someone looking for a lawyer close to home may receive a referral from a friend, but for people who are looking for a lawyer in another state, the Internet may be the only way they have (or know about) to shop for a lawyer.
What Are They Looking for?
The three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location, and the three most important considerations for an Internet Web page are content, content, content. Getting found on the Internet takes more than just putting up a "homepage" with a description of your practice, then sitting back and waiting for the clients to roll in. Publishing on the Internet is more like publishing a newsletter than publishing an advertisement because without interesting and useful content, no one will ever find you.
Providing content helps in two different ways. The content you provide can be indexed by Internet search engines, and more specific content increases the chances of being found by a more specific search. For example, a search for the words "estate planning" will turn up thousands of sites, but a search for "California revocable trust with community property" may turn up only a few. The more specific the content you provide, the greater your chances of being one of those few.
Providing content also increases the chances of being included in links from someone else's Web site. The reason it is called the "Web" is that pages can provide hypertext links to other pages, so that users can jump from page to page and site to site just by clicking on a link. Although search engines provide an automated way of finding Web pages, many people provide their own indexes to Web sites based on their personal judgments about what is useful or valuable. Many people find relevant Web pages by jumping from site to site until they locate what they want.
For example, my Web pages include a list of lawyers in other states who have put together Web pages that I think provide useful information about estate planning or estate administration in their states.
I do this as a service to the people who find my Web pages but really want information on a different state. Some lawyers in other states have similar links to my Web pages for similar reasons. Providing interesting and useful content on your site increases the chances of being included in that kind of "Web" of estate pages.
What content can you provide? The most valuable information is specific and practical, not general or theoretical. Consider the following suggestions:
Estate administration procedures. What seems to be the most popular page on my Web site is a simple list of the tasks required of an executor and when those tasks need to be completed. For someone facing an estate administration who has no idea of what to do, that kind of simple checklist or timetable can be extremely valuable and reassuring.
Local probate procedures. What forms need to be filed? Where are they filed? What is the cost?
Death taxes. Most estate law-yers write about the federal estate tax, but what about state inheritance tax? Is there one? How is it calculated? When is it due?
Other probate costs. In addition to filing fees and taxes, other common concerns include executors' commissions and legal fees.
Will and trust basics. Potential estate planning clients will most likely be interested in knowing what normally goes into a will or revocable trust, the formalities of executing a will or trust and the mechanics of funding and administering a revocable trust in your state.
Powers of attorney and living wills. Other popular topics include the use of durable powers of attorney and the problems relating to medical decisions, either by the family or through advance health care declarations (living wills).
Estate planning strategies. Information about common estate planning strategies will appeal to those people looking for an estate planning lawyer.
Newsletter articles. Any articles that have been published in your newsletter, or are suitable for publication in a newsletter, are also suitable for a Web page.
Penn Jillette (of the magic team of Penn & Teller) once wrote that the growth and popularity of the Internet was certain because it helped people with the two most basic human activities: shopping and sex. Some people are using the Internet to look for nude photos, but even more people are shopping for goods and services, and they are sometimes shopping for lawyers.
To be found on the Internet, you not only need Web pages but also need pages that provide information people want. And if you build it, they will come.
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Evans Law Office
Daniel B. Evans, Attorney at Law
P.O. Box 27370
Philadelphia, PA 19118
Telephone: (866) 348-4250