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 Hybrid Lawyer

Hybrid Lawyer: Part 2

February 20, 2009

Following my earlier post about ‘legal hybrids’ I want to explain why it matters that I am as knowledgeable about the internet as any web designer.

One good reason is that there are key areas on which businesses need independent advice before they launch their online business.  There are many pitfalls intellectual property lawyers could help them to avoid.

For example, a business should think carefully about its online brand name.  Currently there is a misconception that the best way to trade online is through a descriptive name.  Therefore many businesses set themselves up with names which may be good for the search engines, but which are totally non distinctive, and therefore useless as vehicles in which to capture any brand value that the business might generate if it succeeds.   Only a lawyer who understands search engines AND trademark law, can give proper advice on this important topic, so that the client can make an informed choice.

Not only do businesses make the mistake of asking their web designers to advise on this important topic, but they also ask them to register their domain names.  We occasionally come across sad cases where the web designer has disappeared abroad, taking the client’s valuable domain names with them, and leaving the internet business totally bereft.  It has taken one business we know, more than a year to get back with a new online presence.

Businesses need guidance when engaging a designer to set up their website, but few realize how vitally important this contract is.  It is amazing how naïve otherwise sensible business people can be when it comes to commissioning a designer to develop a website for them.  While it may be impracticable to scour every contract that you come across in business, let alone get legal advice on them all, some contracts are just too important to take lightly.  A contract for a website is one of them, and even more so if it is for an e-commerce site.

Many businesses engaging the services of a web designer do not even realize there is a difference between web designers, and search engine optimization experts.  Despite the limited knowledge many designers have about search engine optimization and internet marketing, businesses with little knowledge of the web assume their web designer is the best source of advice on most matters to do with the internet, including what constitutes an effective website for their business.  I have seen a few instances where businesses have been provided with a very pretty flash website, only to realize that flash sites do not register with the search engines at all.

The fact that businesses rely on their web designers as online business advisers far more than is sensible is particularly concerning given that web design and internet marketing is a completely unregulated industry, and anyone can set up offering any web related services.  Although there are many excellent and highly professional web designers and search marketers out there, there are also a large number of self proclaimed web gurus who are less than trustworthy.

So if businesses are to have impartial advice, they need internet lawyers with deep understanding of the web who can give really valuable commercial input of a comparable quality to advice lawyers now offer for offline business transactions.  Among other things this means the lawyer will have to be able to specify the type of website the designer should deliver so that the unspoken expectations the client has are brought to the surface.

The fact that few lawyers have a good enough understanding of the web and the technology, and in particular of search engine optimization and online marketing to be able to give valuable business advice to new businesses embarking on doing business online, is one reason why web designers – as the people who can provide the business with a website – tend to replace lawyers as business guides on the web.
By allowing themselves to be marginalized as people who produce documents such as terms of website use, privacy policies, returns policies, standard terms for online shops etc, lawyers have now been completely supplanted in many internet business situations.  Increasingly the need for their input is dispensed with at the lower start up end, as many designers sell documents or can point their clients in the direction of websites which sell these.  Increasingly, only more substantial businesses are using the services of internet lawyers.  And these will have purely legal issues to handle.

Lack of vital knowledge when engaging a web designer to create a website means business owners may not receive the right start for their online business.  It is no exaggeration to say that the wrong choice can cause a business to fail.  If you are dependent on your website for business, and your web provider is too slow or too expensive, there are going to be huge costs and difficulties associated with moving to another website provider (due to the inherent ‘stickiness’ of the relationship).

So there is a vital role for lawyers such as me to play as online business advisers.  But that is not all I can do. For clients looking to do business online and ensure their brand is prominently placed in search rankings, and who prefer to look to a web business as their preferred option I can fill the brief via my part ownership of the technology business Alpha Analytic which is run by my husband and his staff.  This business provides websites, search engine optimisation, Pay Per Click management, and various brand monitoring services, and I will be covering this topic in future blog posts.  I hope to write some on brand protection and promotion and social networking and web 2.0 in the near future.