The legal market in the UK has been in a state of radical evolution for some time. In these uncertain times, solicitors, particularly those in established local law firms, have the opportunity to compete with the large new entrants and other competitors around them on the level playing field of the web – provided they take the correct steps to optimise their websites and online presence.

The search for legal services online

There is a dramatic shift in the way people are buying legal services. The internet plays a key role in this, allowing people to find, review and discuss the best legal service providers for them, both in terms of quality and cost. The conversion rate from users to customers of a legal website is on average 30%, compared to an average of 2% conversion rate for e-commerce websites. This is largely due to the level of trust associated with law firms.

There are over 1.8m online searches made each month in the UK for the term ‘solicitor’ alone. For ‘lawyer’ there are 1.5m; by comparison, for ‘accountant’ there are 823,000, still a significant figure. There are countless other searches happening every minute for other, more precise searches.

This is not new. As the Law Society noted in a recent research paper, ‘The ease of use of search engines such as Google, and the availability of consumer reviews and ratings as "decision aids" for consumers, may lead to a transformation of the way in which shoppers search for product information and make purchase decisions.’

One of the most noticeable trends in recent years is the number of people searching locally for a solicitor or other legal service provider. In Google, for instance, people often search for specific types of solicitors in their local area. For example, there were around 2,900 searches on Google last month in the UK for ‘employment solicitor London’.

A level playing field online, but law firms must get onto the pitch

While the internet, particularly via search engines like Google and social media platforms, does not discriminate against smaller, established law firms, many of these firms are not using the internet to their full advantage. As a result, they are losing out to large companies entering the legal market who already know and can capitalise on the value of the web.

There are three main technical steps that need to be implemented correctly for law firms to succeed in generating business online effectively:-

1. The website must present useful content to search engines, integrate with social media channels and convert clients. Established law firms have mature domain names which have built up strength and history through time, with website content that is mostly hidden from search engines. When content on such domains is presented in an optimised manner to search engines, it can be like awakening a sleeping giant, especially in terms of search engine ranking changes and increases in traffic volumes. And provided the appropriate messages and calls to action in the right places, a greater number of visitors can be converted into clients. 2. The entry of the firm and its website in local search rankings. If a law firm has a local address, it can apply for, and verify, their local place listing in Google+ Local. Google gives increased prominence to those firms that have an authenticated Google+ Local presence so it is an ideal opportunity for law firms to get ahead of their nationwide competition and get found by clients searching online locally for their services.3. Developing a two-way conversation. People rely much less on TV, radio, newspaper, billboards or Yellow Pages to learn about and connect with products or services. Instead, two-way conversation focused not on buying a person's attention, but instead earning it is becoming key for people to connect with products and services. Through effective social media and content marketing with the website at the hub of all activities, law firms are able to connect much more with influencers and potential clients, increase word-of-mouth referrals and, ultimately, generate business in ways that have not been available until now.

Law firms willing to adapt to the changing landscape of the legal sector can take advantage of some relatively untapped opportunities afford by digital marketing. By investing relatively little in modern online marketing technologies, such as the steps outlined briefly above, small and medium-sized law firms are able to compete and indeed excel on the web’s level playing field against their larger rivals.

Stephen Moore is the founder of Moore Legal Technology