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Building Your First Web Site

By Anthony Paonita

Building Your First Web Site SAVVY law firms have embraced the Web as a great marketing tool; they've put downloadable brochures, e-mail requests, office maps and driving instructions; and basic legal checklists online.

Big law firms have become pretty adept at building sites; showing just how clever they (and their Web designers) can be. But a solid Web site is not just the province of megafirms so big and rich that they can hire color consultants to determine Web site palettes. You can do it, too -- and without a full I.T. staff and platoon of black-clad designers.

Why would you? It's an electronic shingle, a calling card and a way to show potential clients what you can do. With a simple link on the page, clients can write to you. Plus, when you get the hang of it, you can share documents online with clients and your colleagues out on the road.

If you have a computer and an Internet connection, you're about two-thirds of the way there. Start with the easy stuff, and work up to a complicated, professionally designed site. Here's how to get to the finish line:

Word processors aren't just word processors any more. They've become sophisticated layout tools -- and Web page design helpers.

The two big ones that most of you already use, Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect, both can create HTML, or Web pages right off the bat, without adding a thing. (At least in the most recent couple of versions, anyway.) It's pretty easy, if you're halfway adept at using either program. Just type and add images where you want them, and select the "save as HTML" or "save as Web page" from the "File" menu.

READY, SET, DESIGN

Here's what you'll need to put together a professional Web site. Now all you need is good content.

* * * *

ADOBE SYSTEMS INC.

Adobe GoLive 5
(Response no. 260)

$290 (Mac and Windows)

Features: Built-in integration with other Adobe programs, such as Photoshop; image optimization; history palette; support for latest Web standards

* * * *

MACROMEDIA INC.

Macromedia Dreamweaver 4
(Response no. 261.)

$280 (Mac and Windows)

Features: Simultaneous page and code windows; site mapping; integration with Flash and Fireworks image editors

* * * *

MICROSOFT CORP.

Microsoft FrontPage 2002
(Response no. 262)

$150 (free with Office XP Pro Special Edition)

Features: Site mapping, Office interface, PowerPoint drawing tools

Occasionally, you'll find a rude surprise. Images may not be exactly where you want them to be. You have to remember that Web pages are more fluid than the templates you might use to type up a motion. Different monitor resolutions, page widths and other variables such as computer operating system and available fonts will change the look of a page. This is where the word-processor approach doesn't offer much help. Test your page out by opening it with a browser.

Images, too, need to be optimized for Web use. Most photos on the Web are in the "jpeg" format, which compresses them enough so that they don't occupy too much disk space, while maintaining decent quality for viewing on the screen. If you're serious about this, you'll want to invest in at least a simple image editing program, to size your pictures, crop them, and do at least some rudimentary color and brightness adjustments.

Adobe's Photoshop is the gold standard for any serious work, but it's pricey and does more than most people need. The LE "lite" version is enough for most consumer-level use.

A word about design: Keep it simple. Don't get cute. Keep font usage to a minimum -- keep in mind that most computer users won't have that exotic script font you think bespeaks class and elegance. And restrain any impulse to use horizontal bars that change color or any such gimmick. You'll just look silly, and it won't say much about your practice.

Publishing Your Masterpiece

You'll have to put your creation somewhere on the 'Net, too. If you're like most people, you started out with an online account with a big Internet service provider, which gave you a few megabytes of space for a Web site. Part-time Webmasters soon grow weary of their Internet service provider's chinzy space allocation, typically five or six MB. It'll do at first, but start adding images, or long documents and you'll be bumping against your limit.

Luckily, though, there are services out there that can help. Yahoo's Geocities, for example, has a much higher server space limit. Plus you get Web-based authoring tools to help you design your site. With a decently fast Internet connection, such as DSL or a cable modem, designing and posting your content online becomes less of a chore.

You might also wonder whether your practice's needs are served by having a domain name with a generic ISP-- you know, something like home.aol.com/yournamehere. You might want to check out Web hosting services and your own practice domain name.

Graduation Day

Once you get the hang of it, the easy way becomes a little too easy for a lot of Webmasters. Word might do a decent job of putting something simple up on the Web, but you'll find yourself yearning for precise image placement, support for style sheets (they allow precise text formatting, among other things) and site management, which helps you keep track of what's on your Web site.

To get there, you'll have to invest in a professional WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) Web design package. (You can learn HTML code, and use a text editor also. But you have better things to do with your life.) In the old days, there were a fair amount of midlevel choices, but most of them have dropped out of the picture.

The only one still left standing is Microsoft's FrontPage 2002, which, like much of Microsoft's software, provides zillions of templates and can take most of the guesswork out of designing a Web site. It's free if you've got the Pro version of Office for Windows, and only about $150 if you don't. (There's no Mac version.) If you're adept at using Word and PowerPoint, FrontPage's interface will seem familiar.

I tried out the two giants of WYSIWYG Web design packages, Adobe's GoLive and Macromedia's Dreamweaver 4. These definitely are not for the dabbler. We're talking a commitment in both purchase price and learning curve.

That said, Dreamweaver fared somewhat better in my "ignore the manual, let's see if I can fake it" test. The menus and palettes are quite a bit easier to guess at their functions. Adobe usually does a good job in making all of its software work the same way, and I'm pretty familiar with Adobe software, but GoLive just wasn't as scrutable.

That said, it works well with other Adobe software, such as Photoshop. At some point, you'll be going back and forth between a Web and image editor as you design your pages. Dreamweaver does this too. And you can buy Dreamweaver with Macromedia's own Web image editor, Fireworks, which optimizes images so they look nice but don't take forever to download at modem speeds.

My advice? Start slowly, use what you've got. When you outgrow that, work up to the big, complicated programs. By then, it'll be easy as, well, typing out a motion.

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor for The American Lawyer and a contributing editor of Law Technology News.

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