By Gina F. Rubel
Special to the Legal
As tempting as it is to look at a competitor’s website, say, “I want what they have — but better,” and leave the rest to a website designer, law firm administrators risk heavier site maintenance costs — as well as untold headaches — if they don’t understand their options. Firms need to be aware of the differences between open-source code and proprietary code content management systems for websites. There has been a lot of discussion lately throughout the legal marketing community about the two and the hazard of choosing one solution over the other.
A content management system, or CMS, is basically the platform on which a website is constructed. Some content management systems are proprietary, meaning that they typically are owned by the site developer. A law firm is likely to pay licensing and maintenance fees that can run $80,000 per year or more, according to Laura Powers, vice president of Furia Rubel.
Even if a firm is willing to pay those amounts to avoid the hassle of website upkeep on its own, the firm is at risk if its website developer goes out of business — not an uncommon occurrence in the Great Recession. A law firm whose vendor goes belly up can find itself without support for its website. In fact, we saw this with one of our clients a few years ago — they had a website that was developed on a proprietary platform, the website company went out of business and the law firm was left with a site they could do nothing with. The entire site had to be redeveloped, essentially doubling the firm’s investment.
According to Powers, a better alternative to proprietary code is open-source code: free software that is available at no charge. One well-known example of open-source code that is used by many for their personal blogs (and even by businesses) is WordPress. What law firms gain by choosing an open-source option is control over their websites and flexibility in making revisions to them. Powers said, “We don’t work with proprietary software because we believe the client should be able to own their website and have any competent, generalized Web programmer support the site if given the credentials to access it.”
A sometimes-voiced and misplaced concern about sites constructed using open-source code is security. Will sites built using open-source code be especially vulnerable to hacking? This isn’t really a proprietary vs. open-source issue, Powers explained; rather, it concerns a developer's skill level and awareness. “The way to prevent common hacks is to make sure that any software, proprietary or open-source, has been coded and secured properly,” she noted. To be proactive in preventing website hacking, law firms should seek hosting in a dedicated, secure server environment.
When considering open-source options, law firms should also take care not to embrace the “latest and greatest” hot trends in platform technology, Powers cautioned. “Although the development communities for some of these open-source products may be large now, when the next hot platform comes along, they tend to move on and abandon the old products quickly,” she said.
We prefer to program in PHP, MySQL and jQuery. “PHP and MySQL have been around for a very long time, have a proven track record of flexibility and stability, and are fairly universal,” Powers explained. JQuery is also a good choice because we can code animations that work not only on desktop machines and other devices, but also on devices such as the iPad and iPhone, where Flash is not supported.
Do law firm administrators need to be well-versed on the intricacies of coding? Of course not. But they need to know to ask about open-source options. Prospective Web partners themselves should address different choices and clarify why they prefer to work with certain solutions.
Gina F. Rubel is the owner of Furia Rubel Communications, a strategic marketing and public relations agency with a niche in legal marketing. A former trial attorney, she is the author of Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers. Rubel and her agency have won many awards for legal communications, PR, media relations, website and graphic design, strategic planning, corporate philanthropy and leadership. She maintains a blog, is a contributor to National Law Review, The Legal Intelligencer Blog, AVVO Lawyernomics and The Huffington Post. You can find her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter. For more information, go to www.FuriaRubel.com.