Rich Dibbins, founder of legal sector specialist Staxton Digital, explains why a brief is crucial to the success of any web project and outlines the key information you need to include. (Updated 6 April 2023)
A comprehensive brief is essential for the success of any website project. The brief helps potential suppliers understand exactly what you are looking for and what they need to deliver.
Perhaps even more importantly, the process of developing the brief helps key people in the firm clarify what you are trying to achieve. Involving partners and other key influencers helps overcome objections and gives the project team the authority to lead things forward without undue interference.
Unless you have worked with them before, any website designer or other supplier comes to your project almost completely cold. They know very little about your firm, what makes you special and what you are hoping to achieve. A good brief puts them in the picture.
Give a quick explanation of your firm. Include basic details like how many lawyers and other employees the firm has and your main practice areas. Identify your main competitors and highlight what makes your firm special (your 'value proposition'). Provide a brief insight into how the firm aims to develop over the coming years. Put this in context with a short outline of what you think are the key features of the legal services sector.
Explain your current website and why you want to make changes. Have your objectives and priorities changed, do you want new functionality added or are you looking for a general update? What visitors does your website get and how well is it achieving your objectives? How does your website fit alongside your other online and traditional marketing activities?
Make it clear who the key people in your firm are in terms of the website project. Who is responsible for managing and maintaining the website? Who will be involved in the project team? What other stakeholders will influence the project? If possible, give an idea of the budget, to show you are serious about the project and not just picking suppliers' brains.
"Any web design project needs an SEO brief first – otherwise it’s like building a house without an architect's plan."
Sam Borrett, Director, Legmark Ltd
From the outset, be clear what services you are looking for. Plan all the way through to the live launch (and marketing) of the new site.
- Are you looking for design ideas alone, or will the supplier also be required to (re)build the website?
- Do you need website hosting and maintenance?
- Who will be creating and updating content?
- What are your digital marketing plans for the new website and who will carry them out?
- What internal resources do you have – for example, for developing and managing IT systems, and for producing website content?
- How will different suppliers – and your own employees – work together?
Law firms tend to feel least confident about website design and the technology that underpins the site – so there is a tendency for the brief to emphasise these. But a successful website relies just as much on good planning, marketing and communication.
Ideally, law firm partners will be actively involved in discussing and agreeing website objectives – and will then delegate more detailed decision-making to a project team.
Identify the different audiences the website is aimed at and what you are hoping to achieve. What are you trying to change – for example, developing new practice areas, changing perceptions of the firm, building a presence with a different type of client? What are the key messages you want the site to put across?
Describe any key segments – different types of individual or business – and how these vary for different practice areas. Think about other audiences the website may have an impact on, such as the firm's employees and potential recruits.
Define how you expect the website to help the firm win new clients and how this fits with your marketing strategy. Do you expect the site itself to attract potential clients (for example, through search engine optimisation) or is it more likely to be visited by people your firm has been recommended to? Do you expect visitors to end up contacting you directly, or is this just a stage in a longer client acquisition journey? For example, you might be aiming to capture contact details (eg if a visitor downloads a useful document) so that you can follow up later or add them to your mailing list.
Explain what role you expect the website to have with existing clients – for example, helping to strengthen relationships and providing an opportunity to cross-sell additional legal services. Identify any practice areas you want to emphasise, either because they are important to the firm or have a track record of acting as 'feeder' services that lead to instructions in other areas.
"Decide your prioritised objectives for the brief, so you all know what success looks like. For example: to attract potential clients, educate visitors, build credibility, differentiate your firm from the competition, or convert leads."
Rachel Tombs, founder and owner, Orion Legal Marketing
Collaborative brief development
Resist the temptation to draft a brief that sets out detailed contractual requirements and specifications. If you want a contractually-binding agreement, you can get to that later. The best briefs bring together the interests and expertise of everyone who will be involved.
- Think first about what clients and prospective clients will want from the site – and then how the site can provide this in a way that supports the key messages you are trying to get across.
- Set out what matters to you and what you hope to achieve. Give your suppliers the scope to use their design and technical expertise rather than trying to impose your personal opinions.
- Involve a cross-section of relevant employees across the firm, including individuals from IT, marketing and other customer-facing roles. How could the site make their lives easier and improve their ability to perform well? For example, should the site include a client support area with downloadable documents and answers to common client questions?
The aim is to develop a full, written brief that you are happy with. Even if you start the process by issuing a formal request for proposal, make sure that you provide opportunities for potential suppliers to ask questions and make suggestions.
"The more time you invest in the brief outlining what you want/like, the better the outcome will be... however, don't forget it's equally important to list the things you don't want/like –agencies aren't mind readers and this will ensure they don't go down the wrong road from the start."
Kristina Oliver, marketing director, Keystone Law
Use the brief to set out any specific requirements that you have – for example, if the site must use the same colours and typefaces as your other marketing materials. Specific requirements might include:
- Conforming to existing brand guidelines, a defined tone and style, or particular values that matter to you (for example modern or customer-focused).
- Specific types of content, for example lawyer profiles,descriptions of practice areas, plus transparent pricing and the SRA badge.
- Particular types of functionality, such as site search and an email contact form.
- A content management system that can be used by the firm's employees and any related training requirement.
- The need to work with or fully integrate with other software the firm uses, such as online payments, calendars and calculators.
- Specific technical requirements such as a responsive website, accessibility requirements, pages built in line with SEO good practice, provision of site analytics, security including https, and so on.
- Digital marketing activities to support the website, both at launch and on a continuing basis.
- Future-proofing for developments down the line that can already be anticipated.
Make it clear if you are only providing illustrations of your preferences and possible solutions, rather than definitive requirements. It can be helpful to give examples from other websites of what you do and do not like, and to explain why.
Think about how any existing website imagery and content will be reused, updated or replaced. Can this help control costs? Or will reusing assets from a website that is currently underperforming undermine the success of any new site?
"Provide a fully detailed brief, so the web agency can then give you a detailed proposal with accurate pricing. It pays to get it right first time, to avoid delays and out-of-scope costs later on."
Helen Cox, marketing consultant, Helen Cox Marketing
Timescales and budgets
Include an indication of the budget in the brief. This helps potential suppliers understand the scale of the project and whether it is likely to be something that suits them. Ask for an explanation of costings as part of any submission they make.
Set out what your timescales are, both for the supplier selection process and for the project itself. Make it clear whether timing is flexible or if there is a fixed deadline that must be met.
Make sure you allow enough time at the start of the process for the initial 'discovery' phase, where you clarify exactly what you aim to achieve before starting detailed implementation. Bear in mind any limitations on what you can achieve internally – for example, if a new site will require client testimonials or case studies that you need to provide.
"Be realistic about your timescales. 2-3 months is often too short for this key investment in your marketing and sales strategy. Getting the objectives clear, gathering input from key people and then creating a website that achieves what you want all takes time."
Ben Trott, managing director, Marketing Lawyers
Submissions and selection
Including an explanation of how you will select suppliers in the brief is another way to help them understand what you are looking for. You may not want to explicitly share your evaluation criteria, but it's worth thinking these through in advance.
Make it clear if there are any specific requirements (eg legal sector experience) or conditions (for example, not working for any of your direct competitors). Ask potential suppliers to supply a list of reference sites they have worked on that they think demonstrate their expertise, and for client references.
Explain what form you require any bids to be submitted in, the information to be included, and what the deadline for submissions is. Provide details of who to contact if they have any questions about your requirements or the submission process itself.
Website brief top ten
- Be clear about the business objectives that are driving the project.
- Think about your audiences – clients and others – and what the site can do for them.
- Explain the firm and what makes you special.
- Agree key objectives and get buy-in from the partnership and key influencers.
- Create a project team and delegate detailed decision-making to them.
- Involve employees from across the firm.
- Be clear about any branding, technical or other constraints.
- Don't impose your own solutions – use suppliers' expertise.
- Take a collaborative approach and include a full discovery phase.
- Avoid unrealistic timescales and unnecessarily tight deadlines.