Your law firm needs a website, preferably one you can modify yourself without knowing HTML. Probably the best option for this—WordPress—is also free. WordPress powers Lawyerist as well as my firm and personal websites. If you can draft an email, you can build a website in WordPress.

There are essentially three ways to get started: WordPress.com, shared hosting, and a virtual private server. WordPress comes in two flavors: .com and .org. Both are free; the difference is where the software is installed, and what you can do with it. The easiest way to get started is with WordPress.com, but it is also the most limiting. The best way to get started is to get your own shared hosting account or virtual private server, and install your own copy of WordPress.org.

It isn’t too hard to switch between the options, but you should start with the one that will suit your needs best, so here is a look at each option.

Installing WordPress on shared hosting

Signing up for your own shared hosting account may sound daunting, but it is easy to do and very affordable. Most law firms should start with shared hosting.

You can get started with HostGator for under $4/month, including a shiny new domain name, if you need one. (Randall just used HostGator to set up his new WordPress website, actually.) You can get shared hosting even cheaper with GoDaddy (less than $2/month), but I like the software HostGator uses (cPanel) better than GoDaddy’s account manager. By the way, if you are paying more than $15/month for shared hosting, you are getting ripped off.

You can get an account with HostGator or GoDaddy and have a WordPress website up and running in a half hour or less, even if you don’t know what you are doing. Just log in to cPanel according to the directions in the email from HostGator, find the Fantastico De Luxe icon, click on WordPress, and follow the directions to install. HostGator’s customer service is very responsive, and can help you with the installation process if you run into problems.

Once you’ve got a basic WordPress install up and running, you will want to find a theme and customize your site. Most WordPress themes are free, but it’s definitely worth considering a premium theme like Thesis, which we use as the foundation for Lawyerist, and which I also use for all my websites. Thesis saves a ton of time and makes it easy to modify fonts, colors, header images, etc., without knowing how to code HTML and CSS.

Stepping up to a virtual private server

Shared hosting like HostGator is cheap and easy to use—and perfectly adequate for most law firm websites. But shared hosting doesn’t always deliver the best performance because you are sharing resources with other users. That means if another use on your server has a website that gets a lot of traffic, your site will slow down when that site is busy. That makes shared hosting a little unpredictable.

It may be worth spending a little more to get more speed, as well as a server of your own. A virtual private server is a great bridge between shared hosting and a dedicated server. It’s complicated, but a virtual server is a server of your own, though you share hardware—but not resources—with other virtual servers. Unlike shared hosting, if another website hosting on another VPS on the same machine goes down, yours will be safe.

I enthusiastically recommend the hosting provider we use at Lawyerist, WiredTree (starting at $49/month). When we needed to upgrade from shared hosting, I was discouraged to find that most hosting providers seem to assume you know how to administer your server if you are upgrading to a virtual private server. I am not a server admin, and I have no interest in becoming one. I just want to put up a website. That’s why I was looking for a managed VPS service. WiredTree takes care of all the server administration, so I can focus on writing for Lawyerist instead of maintaining the server. And if I need help, I can call WiredTree 24/7 and get a real, knowledgeable human.

With a virtual private server, your website should be faster and more reliable than with shared hosting, as long as you go with managed VPS hosting provider like WiredTree. Once you have your virtual private server up and running, you can set up and use WordPress just as you would with shared hosting.

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is the easiest option of all to use, but it comes with significant drawbacks. To build a website on WordPress.com, all you have to do is sign up for a free account and pick a name for your site.

You can make a decent law firm website with WordPress.com, but your ability to customize and extend your website is extremely limited. For example, unless you buy the ad-free option ($29.97/year), many visitors will see ads. You can only use the included themes, although you can pay for custom CSS ($14.97/year). You’ll definitely want a custom domain ($12–17/year) so you aren’t stuck with a yourlawfirm.wordpress.com address. And unfortunately, you cannot use plugins, which is what makes WordPress truly powerful.

While WordPress.com may work—in a pinch—for the truly frugal law firm, shared hosting or a virtual private server are a much better option for just about everyone.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrmuskrat/3637703614/)