Should your website infrastructure be custom- built from scratch, or built using a Content Management System? The answer depends on your tolerance for security risk, cost, and possible lack of continuity.
Keep in mind that the selection of your website infrastructure is not a decision based on what you want your visible website to look like. The same “look-and-feel” can be achieved through different types of infrastructure, with minor adjustments for most law firm websites.
Risk Factors to Consider When Choosing your Website Infrastructure Type
Security - There is no such thing as completely secure. Security is a sliding scale in any application… do you lock your front door? Install an alarm system? Hire an armed guard to stand over you while you sleep? Balancing security with continuity and cost presents an important dilemma for law firm partners.
Cost - Platforms and staff have a variety of costs, and they’re often inversely correlated. If you spend more money on a platform, you’re likely purchasing a more robust experience that has been designed for ease of use and doesn’t require paying a developer (or a team of developers) full time to build or maintain the platform. That doesn’t hold true for every circumstance and piece of software but tends to hold true for most Content Management Systems until we talk about enterprise-level systems.
Lack of Continuity - People quit, companies crumble, and circumstances occur where the continuity of your firm’s operations is challenged. Knowing your tolerance for not having control over your systems will help you decide how much control you need over your website and the ease with which that control comes.
What is a Content Management System?
The vast majority of lawyers are non-technical, and this is an inherently technical topic with real business implications. For technical folks reading this content, forgive the following analogy. For the rest of the legal industry, here’s a quick explanation of how your website works:
Think of your website’s text, images, and styling as produce in a grocery store. You’re serving this produce to customers (web visitors) and that’s a relatively simple transaction, but how does your produce go from a pile of cabbage to neatly organized and consumable aisles of food? Your Content Management System is the structure and logistics inside the grocery store. While you can choose what produce you want available in your store, you still need to have someone stock the shelves, organize the aisles, and ensure you don’t just have a pile of cabbage in the middle of a warehouse.
While you may choose the content in your site, you still need a way to structure and deliver the content to your visitors. Your content is actually being held in a physical server somewhere in the world, and interacting with that server, editing content, and structuring how that content looks falls to your chosen Content Management System.
Custom Built Infrastructure
“Custom-built” in this post means that a developer either creates a package of code and publishes that code on your server to create a visual website, or they use a combination of separate and distinct tools to achieve the same results. Although this custom-built site can be created using a combination of existing tools and code, the critical differentiator for this type of infrastructure is that any site’s custom infrastructure stack is unique, or fairly rare, in the world. That has two implications:
- This is the ultimate level of customization. If you need your infrastructure to do something, it can be built. There are few limitations except the resources and technical capability of your developers.
- A custom-built infrastructure requires developers who know how to build your web infrastructure from scratch.
Security Risk - Depends, but potentially the lowest possible risk. The security risk when using a custom-built site depends on the developer building and maintaining your site, and the infrastructure they choose to build and host your website. A skilled and experienced developer can create the most secure environment using customer tools and code, but an unskilled developer could potentially open loopholes in your infrastructure that would not exist with an existing content management system.
Cost - The cost of just the infrastructure and tools can be less than pre-built infrastructure for your website, but the cost of an experienced developer will be more - and be the true cost of this type of system.
Lack of Continuity - The greatest danger of a custom-built website using custom infrastructure is the continuity of a firm’s website. Because the infrastructure was created by an experienced developer, the firm is beholden to that developer for the continuity of the site’s structure. If the developer is no longer able to service the website, through accident or termination of willful employment, the firm is presented with two options. The first option is to find a relatively equally experienced developer who is familiar with the infrastructure in place and will be able to pick up where the other developer left off. The second option is to build a new website – a costly and redundant endeavor.
Content Management Systems for Law Firms
If a firm decides that a custom built infrastructure carries too much cost or continuity risk, the best option would be to build the firm’s site on a Content Management System (CMS). CMSs come in two broad varieties: Those that exist as a framework to fill in with custom modules, and those that exist in a prebuilt state for less-technical editing.
Existing Framework - CMS
“Existing Framework” in the terms we’re using today, refers to using an established CMS that allows plugins for a high level of customization, but still uses a consistent infrastructure. A key example of this type of website would be a WordPress site. While WordPress will provide you the framing of your CMS, you can layer in different page builders, third-party plugins to add functionality to your site, or custom plugins you create yourself.
If building a site from scratch is like carving a model house from a block of plastic, creating a site through a CMS like WordPress would be like building a model house out of legos without instructions. It can look however you’d like and you have a large variety of pre-built pieces to choose from. Unlike a custom-built site, WordPress sites are designed to have content blocks that can be edited by non-technical marketing teams.
Other examples of “Existing Framework” types of CMSs are Drupal and Joomla. Drupal is generally used by larger enterprise companies, and Joomla is very similar to WordPress but allows for different degrees of customization.
Security Risk - the largest downside of using WordPress specifically, is the security risk involved. This is a topic that deserves it’s own post, and this one by Kinsta has excellent data and details if you want the deep dive, but the broad summary is that if you religiously maintain your WordPress infrastructure using established best practices, you have a minimal risk of security troubles. If you do not regularly maintain your infrastructure, including updating your core code versions, updating plugins, removing and replacing plugins that are no longer secure, and regularly backing up your website, you run a very real risk of security vulnerability.
(image source: Wordfence)
While WordPress will notify you when plugins are out-of-date, it will not update those plugins for you. This leads to many website owners failing to keep their infrastructure up-to-date.
Cost - WordPress itself is free, but it does need to be maintained by a developer and some premium plugins do cost money. Changes in WordPress to content does not require a developer, so developer costs would be less than a custom-built site. Hosting the site through a WordPress hosting service will also be a cost, but hosting your site will be a cost regardless of which option you choose.
Lack of Continuity - A WordPress site will be subject to a significantly lower risk of continuity loss than a custom-built site. WordPress developers are available around the world, and come in a vast array of experience and expertise. However, because WordPress does allow for some freedom in development choice, every WordPress instance will be different in its own way. That being said, most full-time WordPress developers should be able to triage your existing WordPress site and adapt to its existing nuances.
Prebuilt Infrastructure - CMS
Keep in mind, the “look and feel” can be customized with each of these website options. The “prebuilt” infrastructure option, is referring to the backend of your website and the amount of customization and maintenance that the infrastructure requires.
Prebuilt CMSs have an established framework, hosting service, and editing interface that is all consistent across every website built on this infrastructure. An example of a prebuilt platform would be HubSpot’s CMS. While you can customize the content and modules inside of your HubSpot website, the engineering team at Hubspot is responsible for the hosting, maintenance, and feature roll-out for the backend of your site.
Infrastructure that you can’t control is inherently less customizable than infrastructure you control completely. However, if you do not have the technical resources to optimize a custom infrastructure for your website, then that customization becomes a liability, not an asset. One of the most attractive features of HubSpot’s CMS is that it is designed to be almost entirely used by non-technical staff for content editing.
Security Risk - For Hubspot specifically, their engineering team is responsible for most of the security in your site’s infrastructure. This can be a benefit or liability depending on the staff you have access to in your firm. For the vast majority of law firms, having an engineering team dedicated to system security at Hubspot is significantly better than the firm’s internal talent. There are plugins and third-party platforms that you can give access to your Hubspot site that may compromise your site’s security, but that applies across all three types of websites.
Cost - A prebuilt infrastructure like Hubspot’s CMS will cost significantly more in platform costs, but significantly less in labor. Your Hubspot CMS won’t require any developers to maintain and update, as Hubspot’s own staff are continuously updating and maintaining their platform. This option is particularly attractive for firms that don’t have developers on staff, as paying for the platform is much cheaper than hiring a web developer full time.
Lack of Continuity - The continuity of a prebuilt infrastructure site is reliant on the continuity of the company behind the platform. In other words, your Hubspot site will exist, as long as Hubspot’s infrastructure exists. If you were to lose staff that are familiar with the Hubspot platform, Hubspot has an online academy to train new staff, and the platform itself is familiar to marketers around the world. A prebuilt structure has the least amount of risk of losing continuity.
Rigidly Prebuilt Infrastructure - CMS
There is a point of taking pre-built infrastructures too far. Wix and SquareSpace, for example, are excellent systems for what they were intended to be. They’re a superb resource for a brick and mortar restaurant that needs some online presence, or a small online store. If you feel inclined to build a personal webpage or blog, either of those services should serve your needs at a very low cost.
However, systems like these trade convenience for ability. By almost completely removing the need for technical expertise to use a rigidly prebuilt infrastructure, law firms will be severely limited in their ability to build a high-converting site that matches the look and feel that they prefer.
The purpose of a website, after all, is to inform visitors about your firm’s unique offerings, and ultimately convert those visitors into leads that will become clients through an optimal intake process.
If you are looking to make decisions around your law firm’s website design or infrastructure, reach out to the Practice Alchemy team for a free assessment. Practice Alchemy advises firms on website infrastructure decisions, optimizes existing websites to generate more leads, and builds captivating web experiences for firms looking to update their digital presence.