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.