Fourteen years ago this week, a federal judge in Seattle dismissed the class action complaint filed by two lawyers seeking to shut down the lawyer-rating site Avvo, which had launched five months earlier.

While calling the rating of attorneys “ludicrous,” U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik nevertheless ruled that the opinions expressed through Avvo’s ratings system were protected by the First Amendment.

(Legal Tech Look-Back is a continuing series of posts that turn back the calendar on legal tech news.)

Although Avvo today is primarily a directory for consumers to find lawyers, its initial concept when founder Mark Britton launched it on June 5, 2007, was to score every lawyer in the United States on a scale of 1 to 10.

At the time, the idea was shocking to many in the legal profession. Even I was a skeptic, writing upon Avvo’s launch that no numerical score can calculate the worth of a lawyer. “The problem is that the qualities that make a great lawyer are intangible,” I said then.

Technology journalist Declan McCullagh, writing at the time of the launch, 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.”

Nine days after the launch, a Seattle class-action attorney, Steve Bermanfiled a lawsuit on behalf of another Seattle attorney, John Henry Browne, calling Avvo a “flat-out scam.”

But just five months later, Judge Lasnik dismissed the lawsuit. Here was the money quote from the opinion:

“Rather than seeing the Avvo ratings for what they are — ‘that and $1.50 will get you a ride on Seattle’s new South Lake Union Streetcar’ — plaintiffs Browne and Wenokur want to make a federal case out of the number assigned to them because (a) it could harm their reputation, (b) it could cost them customers/fees, or (c) it could mislead the lawyer-hiring public into retaining poor lawyers or bypassing better lawyers. To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action.”

Avvo founder Britton’s response to the dismissal was succinct:

“As I have said many times before … this is a case that never should have been filed. It was aimed at chilling and censoring the opinions of Avvo, consumers and even other lawyers. So preposterous was the case that I don’t need to give it any more ink here. Simply read Judge Lasnik’s decision — it sums up the preposterousness better than I ever could.”

Fourteen years later, Avvo is still rating lawyers. But a lot has changed for the company.

In January 2018, Avvo was acquired by Internet Brands, a web behemoth that already owned a portfolio of legal sites such as Nolo, Martindale-Hubbell, Ngage and Total Attorneys, as well as sites in several other verticals.

A few months later, Britton announced his departure from the company.

Soon, Internet Brands began to dismantle many of the innovations Britton had introduced, shutting down Avvo Advisor, a service that provided on-demand, fixed-fee legal advice by phone, and Avvo Legal Services, providing limited-scope, fixed fee legal services.

In a September 2018 episode of LawNext, I interviewed Britton about his time at Avvo. He recounted why he started the company, why he sold it to Internet Brands, and why he left, as well as what he believed his company achieved and what he achieved as CEO.

As it happens, I had also interviewed John Henry Browne, the plaintiff in that lawsuit, back in June 2007 for the Lawyer2Lawyer podcast, and the following week, Britton came on that show to offer his response.

Today, Britton remains active in legal tech as an investor and advisor, including serving on the board of legal tech company Clio and as an investor in startup Clearbrief.

In a 2018 column at Above the Law, I called Britton “the person who most disrupted law this decade.”

But perhaps the perfect end to this story is the fact that the two lawyers who brought that class action 14 years ago seeking to shut down Avvo, Berman and Browne, have since gone on to claim their Avvo profiles. You can’t fight progress.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.