Earlier this year, Mark Britton left Avvo, the often-controversial company he founded in 2006 and led as CEO, after selling it to web behemoth Internet Brands. Explaining his departure in a memo to his staff, he wrote, “It’s time for me to go.”

In the latest episode of LawNext, Britton reflects on his 12 years at Avvo. In a face-to-face interview I conducted with him last week in his home base of Seattle, Britton recounts why he started the company, discusses why he sold it to Internet Brands, and explains why he left. He talks about what he believes his company achieved and what he achieved as CEO. He reveals his greatest disappointment and his frustration with Avvo’s ongoing battles with the organized bar. He also offers his advice to budding entrepreneurs.

Before founding Seattle-based Avvo, Britton was senior vice president, general counsel and secretary for Expedia after it spun off from Microsoft. Earlier, he was an attorney with Preston, Gates & Ellis in Seattle and senior counsel with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. He is a 1992 graduate of The George Washington University Law School and a 1989 graduate of Gonzaga University.

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Legal directory Avvo is shutting down its controversial Avvo Legal Services, a service that provides fixed-fee, limited-scope legal services through a network of attorneys.

Internet Brands, the company that acquired Avvo last January, has decided that the service does not align with its business and focus, according to a letter sent by B. Lynn Walsh, Internet Brands’ executive vice president and general counsel, to the North Carolina State Bar last month.

At Internet Brands, we are focused on our users, and making sure we provide them with accurate, and consumer-friendly information to help them navigate the difficult tasks of identifying and hiring lawyers. As part of our acquisition of Avvo, we have evaluated Avvo product offerings, and adjusted the Avvo product roadmap to align more comprehensively with our business and focus. Accordingly, we have decided to discontinue Avvo Legal Services. The discontinuation began this month, with completion expected by the end of July.

News of the shut-down was first reported last week on the Responsive Law blog, which also published the full text of the letter. Gabrielle Orum Hernández also had details at Legaltech News today.

The service had generated controversy within the legal profession. A spate of ethics opinions had concluded that lawyers may not participate in Avvo Legal Services. Within the last two years, eight states have issued such rulings: New YorkOhioPennsylvaniaSouth CarolinaNew JerseyUtahVirginia (pending Supreme Court approval), and Indiana.

Another state, North Carolina, drafted a proposed opinion approving participation in Avvo Legal Services, but the draft was sent back for further study.

Last month, as I reported here, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission published for comment its report that recommended loosening rules on attorneys’ participation in for-profit referral services such as Avvo Legal Services. Loosening the rules would help Illinois address the unmet legal needs of poor and moderate-income individuals in the state, the study said.

Yesterday, I reported that Mark Britton, founder and CEO of Avvo, is leaving the company in the wake of its acquisition in January by Internet Brands. Following is the email he sent to Avvo staff informing them of this news.

Dear Team:

Many of you have been asking about what’s happening with Avvo now that the transaction is closed – and the answer is quite a lot.  While we will share more in town hall meetings tomorrow, I’m writing to let you know that a number of your SLT members will be stepping down over the next couple of months — yours truly, Monica Williams, Josh King, Sachin Bhatia and Kevin Goldsmith. While this may come as a surprise to some, the five of us have been working through this the past month, and our departures increasingly made sense as we planned for the future with Internet Brands (IB). I’ll let the others share their own thoughts at their own time – because all of our situations, while similar, are also different.

My situation is pretty simple: It’s time for me to go, and let me explain why.

In the spring of 2005, I sat late-night at a kitchen table in Sardinia (which sounds somewhere between comical and exotic) sketching out my rough ideas for a consumer-centric legal marketplace that ultimately became the Avvo we know and love today. Unbelievably, that was almost 13 years ago; and I’m not sure I appreciated the long, wild ride I was uncorking that night.  It has been a rollercoaster of epic proportions; but I sincerely would not change a thing . . . except maybe the passage of time. My reality is that I’m now 51, and I have only so many “top of my game” working years left. I’ve developed a Captain-Hook-quality tick-tock in my head forcing me to be very selective regarding the last decade of my professional life (ok, maybe a decade and a half).

As I shared with most of you in announcing this deal, my original intention was to spend something measured in years with IB to help them roll-up all of their great legal assets and maybe even get them public. That seemed to be good for IB, Avvo and me. But as I was able to spend more time with the IB team post-signing, it became clear to both IB’s CEO (Bob) and me that it was going to be hard for IB to keep my tick-tock at bay. The specifics here aren’t important or even that interesting, but this all led to me flying down to LA recently, and the two of us putting together a transition plan.

One of the reasons that Bob and I felt a faster exit may be better is that Avvo currently has such a deep, ambitious bench – and that bench will have greater opportunities to pursue interesting and expanded roles with me out of the way. A new leadership group will materialize over the coming weeks, and I’m confident it will have all the necessary skills to contribute to and realize the IB/Avvo opportunity.

So here’s the quick math:

13 years + tick-tock + solid IB platform + a deep bench = time for this founder to go

Even though it is time to go, I (along with Monica, Josh, Sachin and Kevin) are committed to a smooth and thoughtful transition. Our plan is to transition as much as possible over the next couple of months; but we realize there will be ongoing things that need our input. A good example is Lawyernomics: Josh and I will continue to help the team to plan and put on a great conference in Vegas. We are also committed helping the IB/Avvo integration move quickly, and the first step in that regard is our town hall meetings tomorrow. Calendar invites have already gone out; however, a friendly reminder that we are gathering with the Sales team from 2:00-3:00pm and the rest of the company from 3:30-4:30pm. Obviously, we have a lot to talk about regarding the future, but Monica, Josh, Sachin, Kevin and I are also happy to answer any questions regarding our respective transitions.

We will see you tomorrow!

Mark

Mark Britton

Mark Britton, the 51-year-old lawyer and entrepreneur who founded the often-controversial legal marketplace and lawyer-rating site Avvo in 2007 and served as its CEO ever since, is leaving the company.

In January, 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. When the acquisition was announced, Britton told me that he would remain with the company.

See also this update: Avvo Founder’s Email to Staff on His Leaving.

But in an email last week promoting Avvo’s upcoming Lawyernomics conference, Britton revealed he is leaving.

Lawyernomics is 53 days away, and I’m writing to encourage you to join me at my last Lawyernomics. Yes, you read that correctly: After twelve amazing years at Avvo (and one large acquisition by Internet Brands), I am turning the reins over to new leadership. …

This is my last Lawyernomics, but only the beginning of the next chapter for myself, and for Avvo. I look forward to staying closely involved in the legal industry for many years to come.

I reached out to Britton for comment over the weekend, but he asked to defer speaking until next week, because he is traveling.

Britton had been senior vice president and general counsel of travel site Expedia after it was spun off from Microsoft in 1999. In 2003, IAC Travel acquired Expedia and, nine months later, Britton left, having reportedly profited comfortably from the acquisition.

In 2005, he went to Italy to teach a semester of finance for Gonzaga University. While there, as he related during a 2007 interview on our Lawyer2Lawyer podcast, he began thinking about the difficulty consumers experienced in finding a lawyer. “When it comes to choosing a lawyer, your average consumer has no idea where to start,” he said in that interview. Those thoughts led him to found Avvo, named for the Italian word for lawyer, avvocato.

Avvo formally launched on June 5, 2007, with the then-audacious plan to rate every lawyer in the country on a scale of 1 to 10. As I reported at the time, the launch was controversial. Within days, two Seattle attorneys filed a class action lawsuit trying to shut it down. (We interviewed the attorney who filed that lawsuit in another Lawyer2Lawyer episode.)

When Britton appeared on our podcast just a month after Avvo’s launch, I asked him whether he had anticipated the backlash from the legal community. He did, he said, but his principle focus was on consumers and getting them the information and guidance they needed. “Even though we knew some lawyers would take issue with what we were doing, our focus in this product — was in serving the consumer and on getting them the help that they need.”

Needless to say, the class action failed and Avvo thrived, although not without continuing controversy and a few missteps — most notably its aborted 2010-2012 effort to expand into doctor ratings.

As for Britton, the ABA Journal named him in 2009 to its inaugural group of “legal rebels” and Fastcase named him in 2012 to its second-annual Fastcase 50.

Will he, as he said in his email last week, stay involved in the legal industry? We’ll be watching for his next act.

The listing that gave rise to the lawsuit.
The listing that gave rise to the lawsuit.

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action against Avvo under the Illinois Right of Publicity Act, ruling that Avvo’s lawyer listings are comparable to the editorial content in Sports Illustrated and deserving of the same First Amendment protection. This is the second time in six weeks in which a right-of-publicity class action against Avvo has been dismissed.

Lawyer John Vrdolyak filed the lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois, alleging that Avvo was using his identity for commercial purposes without his consent, in violation of Illinois law. It did this by listing his profile without his consent and by placing paid advertising on his profile page, including advertising by competing lawyers, he contended.

But in granting Avvo’s motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman found that Avvo’s lawyer listings constituted non-commercial speech fully protected by the First Amendment. (The full decision is embedded below.)

[T]o hold otherwise would lead to the unintended result that any entity that publishes truthful newsworthy information about individuals such as teachers, directors and other professionals, such as a newspaper or yellow page directory, would risk civil liability simply because it generated revenue from advertisements placed by others in the same field.

The plaintiff had analogized his case to one brought by basketball star Michael Jordan against Jewel Food Stores after Jewel placed an ad in a commemorative issue of Sports Illustrated honoring Jordan’s
induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jordan claimed the ad violated his trademark and the Illinois publicity law. Jewel argued that, because its ad did not propose a commercial transaction, it was non-commercial speech protected by the First Amendment.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Jordan, holding that the ad had a commercial purpose and was therefore commercial speech entitled to a lesser standard of constitutional scrutiny.

Judge Gettleman disagreed, finding that the correct analogy was not to the ads in Sports Illustrated, but to its editorial content.

Defendant publishes non-commercial information and sells and places advertisements within that information. Sports Illustrated publishes a magazine that contains fully protected non-commercial speech. Within the magazine it sold and published advertisements, including Jewel’s. Jewel’s advertisement was commercial speech. The “Sponsored Listings” are commercial speech. Jewel’s ad did not convert the entire commemorative issue into commercial speech. Nor do the Sponsored Listings turn the entire attorney directory into commercial speech.

Based on this reasoning, Judge Gettleman concluded that Avvo’s lawyer listings are fully protected by the First Amendment and that plaintiffs’ attempted application of the right of privacy law does not survive a strict scrutiny analysis.

Last month, a California lawyer dropped his putative class action against Avvo after Avvo brought a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law. You can read more about that case in my earlier post.

“This is further validation that publishers like Avvo needn’t obtain the consent of their subjects prior to exercising their First Amendment rights,” Josh King, Avvo’s chief legal officer, said in a statement issued last night. “The purpose of a free and unfettered media is to provide transparency and openness. While we never felt like the principle was really at risk here, we’re pleased at the explicit recognition that our efforts to help people better understand lawyers and the legal profession is fully protected by the First Amendment.”

 

avvo_legal_services2

 

Recent legal developments have brought both good news and bad news for Avvo. Let’s start with the bad news.

Earlier this year, Avvo launched Avvo Legal Services, a service offering fixed-fee, limited-scope legal help through a network of attorneys. In an earlier post, I explained how this works:

Avvo sets the services to be provided and the prices. Attorneys who sign up for the service can choose which legal services they want to offer. When a client buys the service, Avvo sends the client’s information to the attorney. The attorney then contacts the client directly and completes the service.

Clients pay the full price for the service up front. Once a month, Avvo deposits earned fees into the attorney’s operating account. As a separate transaction, it withdraws from the account a per-service marketing fee that the attorney pays to Avvo.

Some commentators and readers expressed concern that this arrangement could constitute inappropriate fee sharing. Avvo’s CEO Mark Britton and General Counsel Josh King dismissed that, maintaining that the arrangement is OK because the marketing fee is paid as a separate transaction.

Now, one ethics panel says otherwise. The South Carolina Bar’s Ethics Advisory Committee issued an opinion last month (Ethics Advisory Opinion 16-06) concluding that Avvo Legal Services violates the prohibition of sharing fees with a non-lawyer.

[T]he service collects the entire fee and transmits it to the attorney at the conclusion of the case. In a separate transaction, the service receives a fee for its efforts, which is apparently directly related to the amount of the fee earned in the case. The fact that there is a separate transaction in which the service is paid does not mean that the arrangement is not fee splitting as described in the Rules of Professional Conduct.

A lawyer cannot do indirectly what would be prohibited if done directly. Allowing the service to indirectly take a portion of the attorney’s fee by disguising it in two separate transactions does not negate the fact that the service is claiming a certain portion of the fee earned by the lawyer as its “per service marketing fee.”

The opinion further holds that the fee arrangement would violate the prohibition against giving anything of value to a person for recommending a lawyer’s services.

The service … purports to charge the lawyer a fee based on the type of service the lawyer has performed rather than a fixed fee for the advertisement, or a fee per inquiry or “click.” In essence, the service’ s charges amount to a contingency advertising fee arrangement rather than a cost that can be assessed for reasonableness by looking at market rate or comparable services.

Presumably, it does not cost the service any more to advertise online for a family law matter than for the preparation of corporate documents. There does not seem to be any rational basis for charging the attorney more for the advertising services of one type of case versus another.

A disclaimer attached to the opinion notes that the Ethics Advisory Committee has no disciplinary authority and that its opinion is purely advisory.

(H/T to Christopher Miller for bringing this to my attention.)

Now On to Avvo’s Good News

A California attorney has dropped his putative class action against Avvo in which he claimed that by using attorneys’ names and likenesses on its website, Avvo was violating California’s laws on rights of publicity and unfair competition.

Aaron H. Darsky, a San Francisco litigator, agreed to dismiss the case after Avvo brought a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law, according to Avv0’s press release.

Courthouse News Service, quoting Avvo GC Josh King, reports that Darsky agreed to dismiss the case to avoid paying Avvo’s attorneys’ fees after a judge indicated his claims couldn’t hold up. U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam made “very, very clear” that he would rule in Avvo’s favor, King told Courthouse News.

The order of dismissal was entered by Judge Gilliam on Aug. 2.

A similar class action remains pending in Illinois, according to Courthouse News.

AvvoLegalFomrs

After reporting yesterday on Avvo’s launch of Avvo Legal Forms, I had an opportunity to speak today with the company’s CEO, Mark Britton, who is in Las Vegas, where he is attending Avvo’s annual Lawyernomics conference.

After my post yesterday, Ken Adams of the blog Adams on Contract Drafting wrote a post criticizing the new offering as “a real stinker.”

That Avvo has the gall to announce this dreck with some fanfare isn’t simply a failure on Avvo’s part. It’s symptomatic of a broader failure, in terms of quality, of the consumer market for fill-in-the-blanks contracts. That failure has to be attributed to hack vendors: you can’t blame consumers for not holding out for quality that currently isn’t available.

Britton’s reaction: “This is just silliness.” (See also the comment to Adams’ post by Josh King, Avvo’s chief legal officer.)

“The point that is being missed here,” Britton says, “is that you have over 50 percent of people who have money and are potential clients but who are not using lawyers. You have this explosion of DIY [do it yourself] that is like a virus.”

“The question is how do you get in front of those people who want to do it themselves,” he continues. “Even though they say they want to do it themselves, they don’t really mean that.”

Mark Britton
Mark Britton

Avvo’s research indicates that most people who say they want to do it themselves would actually value a discussion with a lawyer, Britton says. By providing free legal forms, Avvo Legal Forms is an attempt to get in front of consumers who would otherwise go to paid form sites such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer and bring them to Avvo, where they can be introduced to Avvo’s various services for connecting consumers with lawyers.

“Our belief is if we can get in front of these consumers at the time that they think they need DIY and get them — I guess the term is upsold — but introduce them to our directory or our Q&A or Avvo Advisor, then we can start tapping into this market of people who wouldn’t mind having a lawyer involved.”

Britton draws an analogy from his experience at Expedia, where he was its first general counsel. People would come to the site thinking they want the lowest airfare. But when they’d realize that the lowest fare required two stopovers, they’d realize that wasn’t really what they wanted. “We helped them get to what they want.”

I asked Britton why the forms site is not more explicit about opportunities for do-it-yourselfers to connect with a lawyer. That will come, he says, after Avvo has had more of an opportunity to get the forms out there and responsive to Internet searches and then learn how people are using them.

“Our product roadmap will have a cross-sell coming in quite quickly. We just have to be careful that we understand how they’re using those forms first.”

Britton says that Avvo hired lawyers to create the base forms and to be sure that they are compliant in all states. It is unfair, he suggests, to compare these forms to ones created by a lawyer.

“You cannot compare a bespoke product from a lawyer that will cost you thousands of dollars to a product that is an entry-level product designed for people who are doing everything they can to avoid a lawyer,” he says. “Let’s get them that product and then start the conversation from there.”

AvvoLegalFomrs

Crossing into a territory already occupied by companies such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, Avvo announced today the launch of Avvo Legal Forms. But Avvo’s new offering has one big difference from those other companies — all of its forms are free.

Today’s news, announced at Avvo’s annual Lawyernomics conference in Las Vegas, comes just two months after the company launched Avvo Legal Services, provided fixed-fee legal services in a number of states.

Avvo describes the forms as “a selection of no-cost, high-quality legal forms for family, businss, estate planning and real estate.”

So far, Avvo Legal Forms lists just 20 available forms. But Avvo says that it expects to have more than 200 forms available by the end of the year. The forms include a “wizard” feature to assist in filling them out, as well as e-signature capability (via HelloSign). Forms can be shared with those who need to process or sign them.

The forms feature is tied in to both Avvo Legal Services and Avvo Advisor, Avvo’s phone consultation service. Consumers who create a form through the feature can opt to either discuss it with a lawyer by phone for $39 or have it reviewed by a lawyer through Avvo Legal Services for flat rates starting at $99.

Avvo’s announcement says that offering free forms to consumers can help drive business to lawyers:

Forty-two percent (42%) of consumers who try to handle their own legal affairs end up consulting an attorney for a solution to their legal problem. Avvo gives form creators the ability to seamlessly move from drafting and receiving a form directly, to scheduling a document review with a lawyer.

In a related blog post, the company expands on this, saying, “We developed forms to bring more consumers to you.”

 

AvvoLegalServices

Avvo is beginning to roll out a service that offers fixed-fee, limited-scope legal services through a network of attorneys.

The service, Avvo Legal Services, offers a variety of limited-scope legal services at a fixed fee. The services range from review of legal documents such as business contracts and non-disclosure agreements to more involved matters such as uncontested divorces and citizenship applications.

Last year, Avvo launched Avvo Advisor, a service that provides on-demand legal advice by phone for a fixed fee of $39 for 15 minutes.

Avvo is currently offering the new Avvo Legal Services in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston and Phoenix, according to an FAQ on Avvo’s website. According to an email I received from Avvo inviting me to enroll, the service will launch in my state of Massachusetts in mid-February. The Avvo website says that the service will be expanding to new areas quickly.

Avvo sets the services to be provided and the prices. Attorneys who sign up for the service can choose which services they want to offer. When a client buys the service, Avvo sends the client’s information to the attorney. The attorney then contacts the client directly and completes the service.

Clients will be within the attorney’s geographic area and are able to choose the attorney they want to work with. They pay the full price for the service up front.

After the service is completed, Avvo sends the attorney the full legal fee. (Fees are paid once a month.) As a separate transaction, the attorney pays Avvo a per-service marketing fee. This is done as a separate transaction to avoid fee-splitting.

The email provided these examples of services and fees:

  • Document review services: $199 client payment, $50 marketing fee.
  • Start a single-member LLC: $595 client payment, $125 marketing fee.
  • Uncontested divorce: $995 client payment, $200 marketing fee.
  • Green card application: $2,995 client payment, $400 marketing fee.

The terms of the service require attorneys to contact a new client within one business day for a 30-minute introductory call. If the attorney determines the client is not the right fit, the attorney can decline the representation.

There is no cost for attorneys to participate except for the per-case marketing fee.

More information about the service can be found here.

 

A Florida lawyer has lost her bid in a defamation action to force the legal directory site Avvo to reveal the identify of an anonymous poster who wrote a negative review of her.

The Washington state Court of Appeals ruled against the lawyer, Deborah Thomson of The Women’s Law Group, Tampa, after determining that the First Amendment required her to provide evidence that she was defamed.

“Considering the speech at issue here, we agree that supporting evidence should be required before the speaker is unmasked,” the court said.

The opinion, Thomson v. Doe, was released on July 6.

At issue was a comment posted on Avvo by someone identified only as “Divorce client.” It said:

I am still in court five years after Ms. Thomson represented me during my divorce proceedings. Her lack of basic business skills and detachment from her fiduciary responsibilities has cost me everything. She failed to show up for a nine hour mediation because she had vacation days. She failed to subpoena documents that are critical to the division of assets in any divorce proceeding. In fact, she did not subpoena any documents at all. My interests were simply not protected in any meaningful way.

Thomson filed suit against the anonymous Jane Doe, alleging that she was not a client and that the post defamed her. In a Washington trial court, she subpoenaed Avvo seeking the identity of the poster. When Avvo refused to provide the name, Thomson moved to force Avvo to comply. The trial court denied the motion and she appealed.

The question of the showing that a defamation plaintiff must make on a motion to unmask an anonymous defendant had not been decided in Washington. After reviewing cases on the issue from other jurisdictions, the court concluded that the evidentiary standard must match the First Amendment interest at play, and therefore the nature of the speech at issue. Commercial speech, for example, would be subject to a lesser standard than political speech.

The court conclude that Doe’s speech fell between commercial and political and was therefore entitled to an intermediate level of protection. Having determined that, it then held that the plaintiff was required to make at least a prima facie showing of circumstances that would support her claim.

“In fairness to Thomson,” the court said in a footnote, “when she filed her motion, the requisite showing was unclear. And, Avvo brought no motion challenging the adequacy of Thomson’s pleadings. But, because Thomson did not produce any supporting evidence, her claim fails whether we review it as a direct appeal or discretionary review, de novo or for abuse of discretion.”