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As the creator of Webby Books and co-founder and webmaster for the Stetson Journal of Advocacy and the Law (the first online law review designed to be read online), I am often asked what tools or platform I recommend for a law practice looking to create or update its own website.
Indeed, I actually address this question in one of the classes I teach at Stetson, namely Tech Issues in Law Practice Management. One of the tasks we address in the class is building an effective website — one that can attract business and strengthen reputation on the front-end, while securely enhancing efficiency and workflow on the back-end.
One of the things that concerns many of those asking this question is the assumption that having a website must be expensive — because every page will need to be hand-coded, in a manner somewhat analogous to the way that each word-processed document needs to be individually written. But, while that is how web pages were first created, things have moved on considerably.
Nowadays, web pages are typically constructed with re-usable parts. A typical arrangement sees a page divided into the header, the footer, a sidebar, and the main content, each of which has its own template, and which are automatically put together on the fly when someone visits a particular URL.
The advantage of this approach is that several of the elements in a page remain the same throughout a site, irrespective of the specific page visited. This means that the creation of a new page typically requires only that the new content be written from scratch. There is no need to do so for the whole page.
Instead of requiring the hand-coding of every page, websites today are typically built using platforms that provide a means of taking each element and using them to compose the required page on the fly when accessed by a visitor. These platforms are known as Content Management Systems (CMSs). The question, then, is what is the most appropriate CMS for a law firm.
In the United States, there are really seven major CMS offerings. They are, in descending order of usage: WordPress, Wix, Joomla!, SquareSpace, GoDaddy Website Builder, Weebly, and Drupal. But one player is dominant. As this chart shows, WordPress accounts for close to 50% of all American CMS usage on the .com extension.
The answer to that question is almost certainly yes. But its market share is not the reason for that answer. On the contrary, that market share is arguably a contributor to one of its weaknesses. But those weaknesses are heavily outweighed by its strengths.
The major factor that needs to be taken into account by any law firm creating or updating a website is one that is all-too-frequently overlooked. It is whether the platform is proprietary or open source. Proprietary means that the code belongs to an individual or organization, who can protect its rights through patent law. This means that copying, modifying, or decompiling the code without permission is all strictly unlawful.
Open source code, by contrast, may be freely copied, modified, or decompiled. It is not always supplied free of charge, but its mantra is “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.”
Many lawyers are instinctively fearful of open source code. They are familiar with the world of private property rights, and they have heard terrifying tales of the “tragedy of the commons.” Yet those tales have often been exaggerated. Indeed, the late Elinor Olstrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her work demonstrating that property in common is often, in fact, managed more successfully than is property utilized for the benefit of individual interests.
Nowhere has Olstrom’s point become clearer than in the world of software. What those timorous lawyers don’t realize is that they make use of open source code every day. The overwhelming majority of web servers run on the Linux operating system. (The rest run largely on Windows; there is no Mac OS for web servers.) Linux is open source. So too is the server software itself (whether it be Apache, Litespeed, or nginx).
But that is not all. The software that enables you to make a secure, encrypted connection to your online bank account (OpenSSL) is open source. So is Android. So is pretty much all of the Chrome web browser (and those bits that aren’t are essentially cosmetic), and all of the Firefox browser.
So open source is not only ubiquitous, but just as familiar to us as proprietary software. We should, therefore, approach the question of which to choose in a rather more rational manner.
The true nub of the issue is that proprietary CMSs — and this means Wix, GoDaddy Website Builder, SquareSpace, and Weebly — all suffer from two major problems. The first is inevitable; the second is by design. But I’ll take those points in reverse order.
The design issue is this. Proprietary CMSs work hard at providing an easy-to-use-out-of-the-box (or “on-boarding”) experience. While that might sound like a plus and not a minus, the problem is that this means that such CMSs do not scale well. Scale brings complexity, which is precisely what they want to avoid. So this isn’t going to change. While a proprietary CMS might work for a small retail business, for example, it is highly unlikely to suit the complexity of a growing law firm in a highly competitive environment.
But the bigger problem is the one that is inevitable. Its significance is easily highlighted by the following question: what will you do if you are dissatisfied with the service or reliability, or if the price is increased beyond what you are prepared to pay?
If you think the answer is that you can just move your site elsewhere, think again. With a proprietary system, you can’t just move it elsewhere — because there is simply nowhere else you can move it. Sure, you can move your domain name and content — but not the structure and design of your site. That all belongs to the CMS, not you, because it’s their code. No-one can host it but them.
So, if you do decide to move, you will have to choose another CMS altogether. And all you’ll have to start with will be a series of pieces of text and some images. Even the work you’ll have put into getting highly ranked on Google (known as Search Engine Optimization, or SEO) will be lost. You will lose that ranking and will have to start again from scratch.
Because Wix, GoDaddy Website Builder, SquareSpace, and Weebly are all proprietary systems, I cannot recommend them.
WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal are all open source. Nevertheless, as the Wix incident suggests, the choice here is not difficult.
Joomla! is effectively dying a slow death. In comparison to other CMSs, it has proved to be unnecessarily inflexible, and so is difficult to customize well. There are very few high-quality websites now running Joomla!, while a steady stream of sites are converted each month to another platform. Joomla! is simply best avoided.
So the choice is a simple one: WordPress or Drupal? Top-quality websites can be built using either platform, and both scale very well. (WordPress is used, for example, by newspapers and international broadcasters.) So why does Drupal not figure more highly in the usage statistics referred to at the beginning of this post?
The answer is largely a matter of cost: Drupal is a platform built for high-end developers, who then typically charge considerably more than developers working on other platforms. As a result, a Drupal website typically costs several orders of magnitude more to build than a WordPress website.
Since WordPress can comfortably accomplish what a typical law firm needs for its web presence, Drupal is exceedingly unlikely to be the right choice.
WordPress is, therefore, almost certainly the right choice of CMS for almost every law firm. As an open source CMS, you can have virtually any professional web-hosting company install it on their servers. Additional good news is that WordPress is not only free as in freedom; it’s also free as in beer. You just need to pay your host for the rental of its server. And if you don’t like your host’s service, it’s easy to move your whole site elsewhere. There is absolutely no lock-in.
Another feature of WordPress is that it is sufficiently straightforward to enable lawyers, who would like to do so, to build and run their own sites. It is fair to say that it is not as easy to use as SquareSpace, for example, but that is the trade-off for using a platform that involves no lock-in and is truly scalable. And, while it might not quite be plug-and-play, WordPress is still quite easy to learn, with plenty of people around to help out if you get stuck — including me.