Bravo for Avvo? Not so Quick

Today’s debut of Avvo may have been the most hyped new-product launch the legal field has seen in years. With $14 million in venture capital, a board of directors that includes former LexisNexis CEO Lou Andreozzi, and an advisory board made up of former ABA president Robert Hirshon and Stanford Law professor Deborah Rhode, the buzz was that Avvo would be something big, even if no one knew what.

That something turns out to be a site that promises to rate every lawyer — eventually throughout the United States but for now just in Arizona, California, D.C., Georgia, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington. Avvo awards each lawyer a “score” of 1 to 10 which is supposed to be an assessment of how well that lawyer would handle a client’s legal issue. The score is calculated based on data Avvo collects from public records, Internet sources and information supplied directly by lawyers. The company says it will not release more detailed information on its ratings, “because we don’t want anyone to try to game the Avvo Rating system.”

So can the worth of a lawyer be calculated in a numerical score? Call me a skeptic. The problem is that the qualities that make a great lawyer are intangible. Yes, a disciplinary record is a tangible fact that reflects poorly on a lawyer. But what about a lawyer’s win/loss record in the courtroom? Perhaps the lawyer has lost more than won, but perhaps that is because the lawyer is a committed advocate willing to take on the tough cases no one else will. What kind of scoring system could calculate that? What kind of mathematical scoring system could measure a lawyer’s ability to provide sage counsel to distraught individuals or troubled businesses?

The problems inherent in a site such as this are illustrated in an article published today by CNET’s Declan McCullagh, Lawyer Rating Site Not Without Objections. After testing Avvo, McCullagh found it “riddled with bizarre errors, profiles of attorneys who have been dead for more than a century and inexplicable scores in which some felons received better ratings than law school deans and internationally renowned litigators.” For example, those searching for a lawyer in Illinois might be interested in one named Abraham Lincoln, described by Avvo has having been licensed to practice law in the state for 171 years.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito each receive overall scores of 6.5 out of 10 and ratings for experience and trustworthiness of three stars out of five. By contrast, Avvo CEO Mark Britton is given a score of 8 out of 10 and experience and trustworthiness ratings of four out of five. Are we to conclude, then, that Mr. Britton would be a better choice of lawyer than either Justice Ginsburg or Justice Alito? Avvo board member and Stanford Law professor Deborah Rhode is rated a perfect 10 and given five stars for experience and trustworthiness. Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan earns only a 6.4 rating and three stars for experience and trustworthiness. Should Prof. Rhode take over Dean Kagan’s job?

McCullagh notes that disbarred attorney Lynne Stewart, who is currently in federal prison, gets a 6.5 score and no disciplinary sanctions, while Atlanta attorney Ulysses Ware, convicted of securities fraud in April, gets a 6.3 along with a trustworthiness rating equal to that of the aforementioned Supreme Court justices.

These examples illustrate the obvious and inherent weaknesses of a site that attempts to measure the immeasurable. I would have yet another concern — that Avvo might discriminate against small-firm and small-town lawyers and favor big-firm, big-city lawyers. Avvo says its ratings are calculated using public information:

“We calculate the Avvo Rating based on data we’ve collected from multiple sources, including public records (such as the state bar associations, regulatory agencies, and court records), published sources on the Internet (including lawyers’ websites), and information lawyers supply to Avvo. This information is then considered by our mathematical model to arrive at score from 1 – 10. The Avvo Rating takes into account many factors, including experience, professional achievements, and disciplinary sanctions.”

So what happens to the lawyer who has no Web site or only a simple Web site, who has no “public record,” whose name is never in the newspaper and who never publishes articles in bar journals? Does that lack of publicly available information result in a low rating? In contrast, what of the mega-firm lawyer whose firm has a sophisticated Web site and an aggressive PR staff promoting the lawyer’s profile, achievements and articles? Does that lawyer have an advantage in Avvo’s ratings?

We have no idea. Nor with the consumers at whom this site is directed. I would worry that Avvo cannot live up to its promise, that plenty of well-qualified, hard-working lawyers will not get a fair shake, and that many consumers will be misled.

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Tagged: Avvo
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11 Responses to “Bravo for Avvo? Not so Quick”

  1. Anonymous says:

    A very thoughtful post, Bob.

    I imagine the site will start getting some press in the near future when lawyers start filing suits over the rating system, comments filed by former/current clients, and/or the trusthworthiness gauge.

    As for potentially defamatory posts by former clients, the site does not appear to alert a lawyer when someone has commented upon him or her, and does not appear to allow the lawyer to set the record straight with a counter post. In fact the user FAQ states that former clients posting comments need not identify themselves at all.

    As a lawyer, I lost interest when I learned that in order to claim/modify my profile, I had to turn over credit card information. And the following FAQ answer was also disconcerting: “Keep in mind that we collect lawyer profile information from different sources that we do not control, and we do not verify such information.” Not very reassuring.

  2. Hi Robert,

    This is Paul Bloom, co-founder and VP Products at Avvo, and I wanted to provide some perspective on Avvo so that your readers can understand what we’re doing and why.

    The impetus behind Avvo is quite simple: most consumers are lost when faced with choosing a lawyer. A recent Ipsos survey (sponsored by us) revealed the following facts:
    -only 17% of consumers say it’s easy to find detailed information about lawyers
    -only 17% of consumers feel very confident in their ability to choose the right lawyer
    -as many as 25 million consumers considered hiring a lawyer over the past two years but didn’t because they didn’t know how to go about choosing one.

    These are pretty astonishing numbers that shed light on a situation that isn’t good for consumers or for lawyers. Avvo set out to address this issue by providing information and guidance to consumers, and by providing a free platform for lawyers to share information about themselves.

    To provide consumers with the information they’ve told us they want, we’ve aggregated data from several sources: state bars, courts, and lawyer web sites. Much of this information would be difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to find on their own. But that’s just the starting point. Now that we’ve launched, any lawyer can claim their profile and update it with as much information as they want, as often as they want – for free. They can also invite clients to rate them (just as clients provide references in the off-line world), and invite other attorneys to endorse them. Together, this allows attorneys to show a complete picture of themselves to potential clients.

    We also provide guidance to consumers, and one way we do this is through the Avvo Rating. While no rating system is perfect, the Avvo Rating has been informed by input from legal experts, hundreds of lawyers and thousands of attorneys. However, because we have more information on some attorneys than others and since the Avvo Rating is based upon what we know about an attorney, lack of information does affect the rating. The depth and breadth of our beta site is in those areas that drive roughly 85% of today’s internet searches for lawyers – areas like divorce, criminal, personal injury, etc. The person that is going through an emotional divorce, for example, will not get much help from a Supreme Court justice or attorney general.

    Finally, I’d like to address the point you made about a bias against small-firm lawyers. We actually designed the site to help level the playing field between small-firm and big-firm lawyers. For example, any lawyer can claim their profile for free, so now small firm lawyers without big marketing budgets can instantly get an online presence populated with as much information as they want (a recent ABA study reported that only 40% of solo practitioners have a web site). Avvo’s peer endorsement feature is also helpful to small-firm attorneys by letting them show consumers the network of attorneys they have access to if needed to help with a case—an area where small-firm attorneys have sometimes been at a disadvantage compared to lawyers who work at large firms that have many lawyers under the same roof.

    None of this is to say that we’re perfect. We are working hard to improve the site by adding more information and tools that will be helpful to both consumers and lawyers. And we certainly welcome feedback from you and your readers.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Paul of Avvo says above that the Avvo rating system has received input from “hundreds of lawyers and thousands of attorneys.” And that’s from the co-founder.

    If Avvo is really concerned about leveling the playing field and allowing consumers to easily access information about lawyers, just drop the numerical rating system and keep the rest of the site as is with all of the information.

  4. Paul says:

    Good catch on the typo. I noticed it as soon as I hit the “publish” button. I intended to write “thousands of consumers”.

  5. I increased my rating from 5.6 to 9.3 by filling out my profile. Initially, Avvo.com gave me 2 out of 5 stars for trustworthiness. I have never been sanctioned by any legal organization. I properly maintained my trust accounts.

    After I filled out my education and recognition section did my trustworthiness increase to 5 out of 5 stars.

    This website strictly relies on attorneys clamoring to their website to fill out the profile. In turn they can prove high traffic stats to Affiliate Networks and receive top dollar for showing ads because their website has amazing traffic stats.

    The disciplinary actions they make public are already available through the Washington State Bar Association. Their claim of providing the public, the consumer, vital information is not novel. State bar associations already provide that solution.

    The best way to retain qualified counsel is to interview with many attorneys. Review their websites, look up their status on < www.wsba.org > and get referrals from friends or family.

    If you leave the attorney interview with bad vibes do not retain their services. If you cannot trust what they are saying do not hire them. Avvo.com cannot provide you with that information.

    I have seen too many local attorneys with high rankings on that website. I would rather have my dog represent me or family members than some of the high ranking hacks on Avvo.com.

  6. Anonymous says:

    One point missing in this discussion is that sanctions levied against attorneys vary quite drastically across the fifty states. For example, what one state may allow in terms of advertising may result in an admonishment of an attorney in a nearby state.

    Moreover, any time a website begins to rely upon Google “Ad Words” for advertising dollars, its credibility tanks with consumers. When I see a site with Ad Words, I’m clicking the back button at lightning speed.

    Finally, Avvo seems to hang their hat on the presumption that they can post whatever they want because an opinion is Constitutionally-protected speech. Just one problem with that: free speech can quickly turn into defamation in a civil case.

    This issue is not about the government v. Avvo. It’s a non-governmental issue between Avvo and private attorneys.

  7. Anonymous says:

    what about this new lawyer-matching site, http://www.hiretrade.com?

  8. […] those unfamiliar with Avvo, it is a new-generation online legal directory that was launched in June 2007 by Mark Britton, the former general counsel of online travel agent, […]

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