Law Firm Web Accessibility — True Inclusion in Legal Marketing

October 18, 2019

Forward-thinking legal marketers and lawyers are beginning to address the issue of law firm web accessibility while non-profits and disability advocates have long made securing an accessible internet a top priority. In our digital world, it’s only becoming more essential.

Information technology is all about increasing our potential, about empowering people to do more, to extend their capabilities. This is what makes it exciting, this is what compels people to spend whole days waiting in line for the release of the newest iPhone; it’s not because they’re in desperate need of higher pixel-resolution, it’s because they hope that the latest model will help them to unlock their hidden capabilities.

Today, you’ll find more computing power in your smartphone than in all the mega-computers NASA possessed in 1969, the year they sent two astronauts to the moon. And you don’t have to be a Harvard-trained rocket scientist to make use of your smartphone’s capabilities. It’s not just sheer processing power that has improved, technology today is more accessible than it’s ever been before.

As legal marketers, our role is to help law firms connect their expertise with the people who need it most. But what if your law firm’s website isn’t accessible to people with impaired vision and hearing? This sends an implicit message, and not only if your firm specializes in Elder Law or in disability planning. Whatever your firm’s scope of practice, you are committed to serving a community. In today’s digital world, it is essential that firms ensure their websites are made as accessible as possible.

Web Accessibility and the Law

Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability according to the U.S., Census Bureau Report (2016). When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) he hoped that it would ensure people with disabilities were given “independence, freedom of choice, control of their lives.” Signed twenty-seven years ago, ADA could not predict what the internet would become, or how ubiquitous information technology would transform our daily lives.

Title III of the Act protects against discrimination “on the Basis of Disability in Public Accommodations and Commercial Facilities”. Application of this Act has lead to widespread improvements in infrastructure, including the installation of wheelchair ramps, verbal cues at traffic stops for the visually-impaired, and braille signage. The ADA helped make shopping malls accessible in the 90’s, but what about online realtors in 2017? Do non-government websites, including law firm websites, need to comply with ADA?

The uncertainty regarding the application of ADA to the internet has left private companies open to litigation. The National Association of the Deaf sued Netflix for violating ADA in failing to provide adequate closed captioning on “Watch Instantly” streaming video. Netflix settled the case, paying the Association’s $795,000 in legal fees, and agreeing to their accessibility terms. In other cases, the rulings of the courts have been mixed. Ultimately, enforcement of ADA falls to the Department of Justice (DOJ). While the DOJ has previously dropped hints that ADA may apply to the internet, it has not taken a decisive stance.

In the most recent turn of events, the Trump Administration released its Unified Regulatory Agenda on July 20, 2017. This Agenda placed web accessibility on a list of “2017 Inactive Actions”. It appears that, under this current administration, the Department of Justice will take no action to define web accessibility regulations, at least for the foreseeable future.

a parent with a young child looking at a website

This leaves us to navigate a patchwork of conflicting court decisions and a landscape rife with litigation. Whether there are regulations in place or not, it still makes good business sense to ensure that your law firm’s website is accessible to the public. More than that, it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why Should Web Accessibility be a Priority for your Law Firm?

Without the Department of Justice bearing down on your firm’s website, you might wonder why you should be concerned about accessibility at all.

Here are 5 very good reasons:

1. User-friendly design benefits everyone

You don’t have to be visually-impaired to benefit from clean design and text that is easy to read. In lieu of government regulation, the tech community moved ahead with devising their own standards for accessible design, outlined in the WCAG 2.0. (Designers looking to ensure accessibility usually look to meet the standards under Level AA.) These standards are considered best practices in the design & tech community— as you work to meet them, you’re likely to confront and then fix design issues that were a problem for all your users.

An Elderly women using an accessible law firm website.

You’re also going to make accessing your website a good deal easier for a rapidly aging population. The Population Reference Bureau reports that “the number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060”. That is a lot of potential clients who stand to benefit from more accessible web design. Accessible design helps the disabled, the elderly, the sleep-deprived office worker, everyone who hates squinting at too small text, everyone who has gotten lost trying to navigate to the right web page. Accessibility means good design and that’s just good business.

2. Google gives priority to accessible websites

The only entity that may hold more sway over the internet than the government, Google grants websites that meet accessibility standards a higher ranking in their search. The way a search-engine like Google “reads” a website is similar to how blind person would: not being able to view a picture, Google “reads” the alt text. When you include accessibility features into your firm’s web design, your site’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) benefits!

3. Protect your law firm from litigation

In this uncertain legal climate, following best design practices could help to protect your firm from a lawsuit. Recently, a Florida federal judge ruled in a trial verdict that a blind plaintiff could continue his lawsuit against the retailer Hobby Lobby as to whether their website violates Title III of the ADA. While, in March of 2017, a similar lawsuit was dismissed against Domino’s Pizza. A lack of federal regulation has created a vacuum, which makes it hard to predict how vulnerable your firm might be to litigation. Who knows what the lobbying power of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) could yield? And having your firm sued by a non-profit would be a true public relations disaster. Taking steps toward accessible design will help mitigate the legal risk.

4. If the regulations evolve, you’ll be ready

While the current administration has expressed their desire to pare down government regulation, the future of ADA’s application to the internet remains very much an open question. As well, State governments may yet take the matter into their own hands.

5. Most importantly, your website communicates a message of who you are as a firm

No matter your focus, your firm is committed to providing legal services to a community. Visitors to your website will come from a diverse range of backgrounds and possess different capabilities. Making your expertise accessible to as many people as possible shows a commitment to prioritizing the needs of your clients and the community within which your firm practices.

Lynn Fitzpatrick Foley
Fitzpatrick Foley

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