When a Law Firm Splits, Who Gets the Website?
Nothing lasts forever. Law firm partnerships are no exception. If you've decided to leave your firm or split with a partner, you've almost certainly given some thought to who gets the coffee maker and who gets the sofa.
But what about your website and email accounts? The website is on all your ads and the email in everyone's contact lists. Most firms have five kinds of digital assets:
- a domain name
- a website
- your email addresses
- a business phone number
- a handful of virtual profiles (such as business listing on Yelp, or firm-specific social media accounts, and so on)
At the very least, you want to make sure that no messages fall between the cracks while you make the transition. But in the big picture, you’ve invested far more in these virtual assets than you did in the Nespresso machine. They have value. But, unlike the coffee machine (which one of you will simply unplug and carry down to your car), you likely have no idea where to start with divvying up your digital assets. Heck, even just listing them may give you a headache.
A seamless transition for you and your firm is always the goal — and always possible. In fact, handling the most important of these – the website and email addresses – is surprisingly straightforward with the help of a competent law firm website developer.
Best Practices for Handling an Old Law Firm Domain Name
Your "domain name" is what you likely think of as the company's ".com name" – it's the root of the web address people type in to visit your website, and the part of email addresses after the "@" symbol.
In most cases, you are going to retire the old domain name when you split up your firm – but that doesn't mean just letting it expire! Doing so makes it possible for a bad actor to re-register the domain and get up to hijinx. In 2018, an Australian cyber security expert demonstrated how easy it is to "hack" law firms by re-registering their expired domains. Without compromising any computer systems – or even breaking the law – he was immediately receiving sensitive correspondence and banking records. Most criminals will go a few steps further, impersonating the attorney or using the spoofed law firm email to infiltrate (or even lock you out of) online services like file sharing, legal portals, court services, banking, and so on.
For both security and practicality, one of the former partners will have to agree to continue to be the official owner of the domain name. They will be responsible for keeping it online so email and web searches are properly forwarded.
This sounds onerous; it really isn't. Behind the scenes, your web development company will put proper redirects in place, so that all former partners maintain their authority and rank among search engines after the split, and emails arrive where they should.
Once you've had your web developer set it up, it's just a matter of keeping the bill paid. We recommend keeping that old domain for ten years (don't worry, the cost of doing this can be extremely reasonable).
Scenarios for Splitting a Website
Fundamentally, there are three ways to handle splitting up a law firm's website design:
- One person keeps the existing website design and the other starts over with a fresh look.
- "Clone and customize": make each lawyer a complete copy of the existing website design and update colors and graphics as needed
- Make a fresh start by fully retiring the website and each lawyer starts with a fresh new design concept
If the existing law firm website design is suitable, it is often most economical for it to be repurposed for as many existing partners as possible. Even if repurposing the website is a stop-gap measure, it will allow attorneys who are remaining in business for themselves to hit the ground running with their new business entity.
There are also three common scenarios for splitting the existing website content:
- Split the site content, usually by practice area, with each former partner getting the content that's pertinent to their focus.
- One person keeps the existing content and updates it accordingly to remove mentions of previous partners, testimonials and services that are no longer offered
- Make a fresh start
Regardless of which option you choose, in almost every case everyone will get a new domain name and a visual rebranding. So, if your original site was AdamsBakerPLC.com with a red and black color scheme, after the split you might be AliceAdamsAttorney.com in gray and blue, and BobBakerLaw.com in green and white. You would then replace the old AdamsBakerPLC.com website with a single "splash page" explaining that the partnership has dissolved and listing new contact information (including links to the new websites) for each of the new practices.
One wrinkle is if you have a strongly branded domain name or one that has high search engine visibility. These are often desirable to one or both parties after the split. For example, if your previous partnership used the domain name YourCityCriminalLaw.com either attorney could use it for their new practice, and both might want it. In these cases, one partner would keep the name (compensating the other for its value), but you'd still want to rebrand visually, in order to prevent confusion about who is operating the practice now, in addition to splitting up or revising content to reflect that the practice has changed.
If one partner is trying to preserve existing search engine rankings it needs to be understood that all parts of the website – domain, site architecture, technology, content and marketing efforts – are interconnected. Any change to any part of the website can result in a change to search rankings, traffic and leads. Maneuvers to reorganize a firm and preserve search rankings should be carefully planned with the help of a law firm online marketing expert.
Properly Managing Email When a Partner Leaves
While the law firm's website is the most salient digital asset, it's far from the only one. The second leading cause of storm and stress during a digital asset split is email.
This is really easy for a competent computer professional to handle. Once you've determined what the new domain names will be and who will hold on to the old domain name, then it's a simple matter of setting up email forwarding and autoresponders to properly route email to the new addresses. Forwarding emails means that even if clients use your old email address, the message will still arrive in your new inbox. It’s for your convenience – but it can leave some emailers blissfully unaware that you have a new email address. That's where the autoresponder comes in: this uses the same technology as the automatic "out-of-office reply" you turn on when you go on vacation. But in this case, the message informs the sender that the old partnership is no longer in operation and gives them all your updated contact information (you can use basically the same message you put on the old domain name's splash page). This encourages senders to update their contact info, in addition to keeping them up to date on changes in how you operate.
For help with email forwarding, setup, and related issues, we recommend reaching out to our friends at DakoTech.
Other Digital Assets: Phone Numbers, Business Profiles, Professional & Social Media Presence
Splitting the website, setting up new domains, and routing email covers most of the split. All that remains is a little housekeeping with your last few digital assets: your phone number, business listings, and any social media or professional profiles.
Your old business phone number is similar to your old domain name: keep it active and make sure whoever holds onto it regularly checks the voicemail and directs the calls to the appropriate lawyer.
As for business profiles like Google Business, Yelp, Yellow Pages, Facebook Pages, LinkedIn pages and Twitter accounts dedicated to your business: these listings will all show up prominently in search results, even after you've moved on, and are ill-equipped to handle situations where a firm has split up.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of good options here for dividing the asset. Business profiles and their associated online reviews can only be transferred to a single new business entity or switched to "Business Closed" status. If left untouched, it can take months (or years) for third-party websites to learn through public databases and public feedback that the old partnership has ceased operating as such.
Although it's a bit time consuming, if the listings will not be transferred to a new entity, we advise lawyers prevent any public confusion or annoyance by logging into each of the major listings and manually indicating that the business is closed. This will immediately remove the business contact information from search results or show the business as closed. You can then create a new entry for your new firm or solo practice. You can use our free business location audit tool to locate your firm's local listings: Perform Business Location Audit.
In many cases individual professional and social profiles (e.g., AVVO, LinkedIn, Lawyers.com, SuperLawyers, Martindale Hubbell, etc.) operate independent of where you work and can simply be updated with your new firm information. You can post announcements where appropriate to let your audience and followers know of your new situation.
In the case that one of the partners has invested significant time in a social media channel and built up a meaningful following, it may make sense for them to change the name on the profile to match their new practice (i.e., shifting from tweeting as @AdamsBakerPLC to @BobBaker4Justice). Most platforms support such name changes. That said, they will also tend to redirect traffic looking for the old pre-breakup name to that new one, which may not be a desirable outcome if Alice Adams and Bob Baker are no longer on good terms.
Smoothing the Digital Transition Out of Your Law Partnership
Dissolving a firm or partnership is often stressful – but it need not be difficult. At The Modern Firm, we regularly help attorneys make the split, using best practices to transfer and repurpose law firm websites to give everyone a fresh start. Need help? Let's talk.