By Popular Demand -- The Best (and a few worst) Law School Websites

I asked (in the world’s worst formatted poll) and you responded. The topic people most wanted to see was a rating of the best and worst law school websites. This is not a ranking, per se, but it is a rating of a few best and worst. Did we miss some? Let me know and we may very well do a Part II.

Disclaimer: full disclosure, a prospective law school student, Alex P., did a great deal of the research and writing on this. Spivey Consulting’s wonderful intern, Kelly Campbell, researched and wrote some more. I had very little to do with this other than looking at all the sites and adding a school and some thoughts. Having been a part of web design teams for more than 1 law school I tried not to get too involved!  

Intro:

There are currently over 200 ABA-approved law schools seeking the most qualified candidates from an ever-shrinking applicant pool. The desire to maintain both class size and student quality has dramatically increased competition between peer schools, suggesting that each aspect of a law school’s competitiveness be scrutinized and, where necessary, revamped. A law school’s website is typically the first and most important source of information for prospective law students. A prospective student can learn about course offerings, clinics, career opportunities, and faculty accomplishments while browsing a law school’s website. In the following blog post I will be reviewing some of the best law school websites and explaining what makes them so exceptional. If you think the T-14 occupies the majority of these spots–think again.

The Sites:

Web design is a tough business these days. Any thirteen year old with a laptop and some creative sense can create a beautiful tumblr or thoughtfully laid out blog in a couple of hours. Law schools must recognize that prospective students, in this day and age, are used to websites that are well designed, present information in a logical and concise manner, and use color palettes that are complimentary and not garish. My own biases towards websites that lack good taste always surprise me, I mean, it’s just a website right? Wrong. After perusing every homepage of the 202 ABA-approved law schools, I no longer have any guilt about reacting negatively to poorly constructed websites. Ugly colors, poor link placement, and any number of other web design errors are enough to make me want to leave the site and never come back.

Law schools must balance the needs of prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, and staff, creating competition in the placement of particular links on a page. It comes as no surprise that almost every law school homepage contains links to admissions, students, faculty, alumni, and careers. Let’s call these the key links as they are central to every good law school website, regardless of layout. There are three specific formats that most sites can be categorized by: including generic, big picture, and unique. I outline the characteristics of each of these as well as further explore the winners and losers in these specific categories below.

Generic:

The generic website is one that presents the key information in a row of buttons along the top of the website or in a column on the left/right side of the site. The best of these websites utilize appealing color schemes and leverage the simplicity of the site template to direct clicks towards the key links.

Good sites:

University of Detroit Mercy

What’s good: Cohesive color scheme. Rotating pictures with accompanying articles. Side bar includes the key links towards the top of the column. Non-vital but still potentially relevant information (like Events and News) are included at the bottom of the site, if the navigator is so inclined to scroll down.

What’s bad: The font of the main link column doesn’t fit with the rest of the site. There is also no expand menu if you hover over a link (this is one of my major gripes with law school websites).

William and Mary

What’s good: Color scheme is unique, consistent and doesn’t clash with the variety of background pictures that are displayed each time the page is reloaded. Key links are placed a few inches below the top of site which is refreshing. William and Mary, without cluttering the site, has included a Faculty spotlight, a plug for their externships, and an article on a successful alumni.

What’s bad: Can’t read “Law School” at times because the white font is hidden by an overexposed window.

California Western

What’s good: Clean and easy to navigate! Awesome color selection. No clutter and drop down menus to accompany the key links. They also included four changing photos with accompanying stories, allowing the viewer to easily explore different aspects of the school and what it has to offer. Very pleasant.

What’s bad: N/A

And the loser is:

Toledo Law

To be fair, one of the main links on Toledo Law’s website is Website Redesign Survey, which gives me hope for their future but also makes it seem like I am kicking them while they’re down. But, before they have a chance to change up their site, let’s take a peek at two of the reasons they need a redesign!

  1. Redundancy: They have placed almost identical navigation bars on the left and top right of the website. Pick one or the other! Toledo could be using that wasted space to promote faculty accomplishments or other interesting tidbits about the school.
  2. Font, color scheme, background: I am no font expert but if I had to describe it, I would characterize it as cheap and uninspired. That description could also be applied to the stone pattern of the website background as well as the choice of an incredibly dull and almost jaundice-like yellow.

Big Picture:

As the name implies, the Big Picture site is one where the focal point is, you guessed it, a BIG PICTURE. Sometimes there are rotating big pictures, each linking to a story. Other times there is just a single, lonely, big picture. The Big Picture website is the evolved version of the generic website. The web designer probably likes the simplicity that a big picture brings to a site, as the key links can easily be incorporated into the site. Oftentimes, the only distinction between generic sites and big picture sites is the size of the main picture. However, the size differences occur enough and with such deliberation that I’ve decided to make these sites their own category. There are also instances of clever and creative designs that utilize pictures but that are not clever enough to be categorized as “unique”.

Good sites:

Duke

What’s good: Beautiful photos made me pause, check out the pictures, and then continue my evaluation with a calmer mind. Key links are provided in the bottom and include sub-links. No need for expanding menus! Duke manages to present a wide variety of information in a very simple and beautiful way.

What’s bad: Lots of empty space on the title bar. Green and blue combination reminds me of Delloite.

Mississippi College Law School

What’s good: Excellent color scheme. Brown is dignified and looks great with the muted grays and blues that are present in the rotating photos. Key links are located off-center with the expanding menus taking up space AWAY from the main photo. This is a small but noticeable plus in my book—not covering up the main photo shows a design decision that will probably be lost on most.

What’s bad: N/A

Cumberland School of Law

What’s good: Another simple and clean website. Great photos and simple colors.

What’s bad: For some reason they sprinkled the key links around the border of the big picture. It took me a while to realize that the prospective student link was on the bottom. I appreciate the effort to be unique but there are some conventions that must be followed, like keeping your key links bundled together and allowing for easy access for those who you are trying to recruit.

And the loser is:

Boston University Law

What’s good: An 80 million dollar capital campaign with a rather prominent feature on the homepage and slightly compelling campaign theme should help raise a bit of money. I suggest BU Law makes it an 81 Mil and uses the additional 1 million for a new website.

What’s bad: Very little information on the school.  Heck, it takes a while to even now for certain you are at Boston Law with the strange insistence on BU Law every which way.  The logo for BU, or what advertising firs call “marketing element”, is ugly, the pictures are boring and tired, and the color-scheme is almost non existent.  Politely stated, it looks like the son or daughter of a faculty member put together this site in a few hours.

Unique:

Unique sites are simply those that cannot be categorized as either big picture or generic. These sites attempted to create for themselves an image that is different from that of their competitors, although this was often to their detriment. Sometimes a specific theme or pattern exists repeatedly for a reason, that reason being that it works.

Good sites:

University of Oregon Law School

What’s good: Yellow!

What’s bad: Yellow!

Seriously though. Oregon does a great job of presenting the key links by contrasting classic black against an almost offensively bright shade of yellow (neon?). A nice little rotating series of stories above the Oregon ‘O’ adds information to the site and takes away some real-estate from the yellow. Similar to Oregon’s football uniforms, you either like this site or you don’t.

Stanford Law School

If you didn’t know that Stanford is located adjacent to Silicon Valley you will after visiting its website. The site is clean, cryptic, yet fantastically intuitive once you figure out how to navigate it. Long story short, if it wasn’t Stanford I’d put this website in the bad category. Stanford is lucky in that no matter how confusing or convoluted their website is, students will spend all day figuring out the site if it means a better chance at admission. I can’t speak for the law students, faculty, or staff, but I’m sure they quickly figured out how to access the information they need. In regards to overall aesthetic design, Stanford is tough to beat.

Vanderbilt Law School

What’s good: Nice colors. Simplified key links. A nice big area at the bottom to display big pictures (with linked stories of course) and collect our clicks.

What’s bad: If you have a drop down menu, make sure it doesn’t drop down over another drop down menu. The current setup of Vandy’s key links forces users to come at each link strategically in an effort to prevent setting off the opening of an unwanted drop down box.

And the loser is:

Georgetown Law

My main gripe with Georgetown’s website is its focus on videos. They have a very cool moving panel system that highlights many of the great opportunities afforded to Gtown students, however I am not one to watch videos on a school’s website. Moving panel system aside, Georgetown’s website seems to be ripped straight from a template on Blogger.

Conclusion:

A legal education is associated with leather bound books and rich mahogany, and it is the duty of a law school’s website to reflect that. More importantly, prospective students will be investing large amounts of time and money into their education and they need to trust the institution they will be attending. Recruiting is admissions has changed substantially in the past 15 years and where contact with a school used to come in the shake of a hand at an admissions recruiting event, it is now just a click away. Well over 90% of prospective students get their introduction to a law school from that school's website. A well-designed website is a major component of developing this trust and serious effort should be devoted to presenting the law school in the best light possible.