Avvo: Legal Services Boon or Boondoggle?

If you haven’t heard of Avvo yet, just hang on. Once it expands into your state, no doubt you will. The recently launched service aims to provide “free ratings and profiles for every lawyer so you can choose the right lawyer.” And if you had heard of the service, and were wondering idly, perhaps, how long it would take for the first lawsuit to hit, the answer may be “less than one week.” After its June 5th launch, a Seattle criminal defense attorney (by all accounts a pretty good one) sent a demand letter two days later (June 7th) to the company, complaining about its “ridiculously low rating” of his abilities, and those of other attorneys.

The Launch of Avvo

Avvo operated in “stealth mode” for awhile  but it wasn’t enough to keep details from being leaked to the blogosphere. Rumored to have raised over $13 million in venture capital, the company headed by CEO Mark Britton had stoked some serious buzz about its plans to rate lawyers according to some proprietary formula. Even Kevin O’Keefe of LexBlog called it a “credible solution”, due in large part to the strength of its board and other officers, all relatively well known, but mostly with prior dot-com startup experience – not consumer-representing lawyers. The company earned some kudos from techie types who lauded the secrecy of the start-up’s pre-launch phase, and debuted to some not-insignificant press.

Avvo’s Rating System

Avvo claims it uses several sources to come up with a single numerical rating – from 1 (extreme caution) to 10 (Superb). From the company’s website:

The Avvo Rating is our assessment of how well a lawyer could handle your legal issue. It is based on data we have collected about hundreds of thousands of lawyers – including their number of years in practice, disciplinary sanctions, and professional achievements. The data comes from multiple sources, including state bar associations, court records, lawyer websites, and information lawyers provide to Avvo. We have created a mathematical model that considers this information and calculates a score on a ten-point scale. The result is called the Avvo Rating.

Emphasis in original, found here.

The Concerns

Almost as quickly as the site debuted, bloggers started raising the red flags. Recognizing the inherent problems were, among others, Robert Ambrogi, who wrote at his Lawsites blog the following, on the same day of the launch:

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.

And yes, the Lincoln profile is still up, which you can see for yourself by clicking on the link. However, I’m inclined to give Avvo a pass on this one as the portrait up on the page seems to clearly imply an homage (although the “Is This You? Click Here to Update Your Profile For Free” is a curious touch).

John Henry Browne’s Complaint

John Henry Browne is a Seattle-based criminal defense attorney. By his own admission, he’s a pretty good one:

“I have tried five serious felony cases in the last few months and received not guilty verdicts in four of those cases. Three of those cases were acquittals of sexual misconduct allegations that would have put my client in prison for 20 to 30 years. I have never lost a jury trial involving sexual misconduct (rape, child molestation, etc.)”

From Browne’s demand letter to Avvo, reprinted here (emphasis in original).

But Avvo rated Browne initially at a low “caution” of 3.7 (although it’s risen to an “average” 5.2 – note the drop of .3 points from the 5.5 reported in the Seattle PI article linked above). The “cautionary” flag seems to arise as a result of the sanction (“admonition”) reported on the site (dating from 2005). And in a five-point rating system on three factors – experience, industry recognition, and professional conduct – Avvo gives Browne four out of five points for experience and professional conduct (despite the admonition) but only two for industry recognition – despite Browne’s inclusion in the Best Lawyers in America list for the past eight years, an AV rating in Martindale Hubbell, and inclusion in the infamous Super Lawyers publication.

Curious? At the very least.

Browne has demanded the removal of his profile, and writes that he is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit against Avvo, possibly a class action. Avvo is listening – they’ve scheduled a conference call with Browne’s attorney; they’re not saying anything else publicly until that call is completed. But they’ve not removed the profile – it’s still up on Avvo, for all to see.

More thoughts on Avvo and how it might impact the Inspired Solos tomorrow.

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1 comment so far

  1. Susan Cartier Liebel on

    I think this type of system is suspect. My philosophy has always been follow the money. Let’s start with part of this formula…recognition. If recognition is dependent upon your participation in the state, local and national bar, those who choose to not belong feeling it provides little or no value to their practice, will they be penalized as ‘unrecognizable?” The inclusion of affiliations smacks of being profit driven. Who sits on their board of directors? Who was responsible for designing the formula? Most lawyers are now questioning the value of Martindale-Hubbell listings. Is this part of the formula? Do you have to spend money on things you deem not worthwhile or beneficial to your practice to get this artifical ranking, buy your way into a higher ranking which has not bearing on your performance as a professional? Someone practicing 4 years can be emminently more qualified then someone who has had their license for 15 years and which lays dormant ….but they renew their memberships in all the proper associations even though they contribute nothing.

    Anytime a groups tries to quantify, qualify and rank more than a million professionals, it is seriously suspect because…well, after all, how are these people getting funded and who is profiting from the enterprise. You have to ask yourself ‘what’s the real motivation’…and please, don’t tell me it is in the public’s best interest.

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