New Lawyer-Rating Site Avvo Already Under Fire

Advertising “Free ratings and profiles for every lawyer so you can choose the right lawyer,” Avvo promises to guide consumers to the “right lawyer” like Consumer Reports guides consumers to the right shampoo. Avvo was controversial from the get-go, and called a flat-out scam by Seattle class-action lawyer Steve Berman, who is now suing Avvo for deceptive practices and violations of Washington’s consumer protection laws.

It is an interesting idea: that lawyers can be rated like vaccuum cleaners or wine. Many many lawyers have long survived on referrals from satisfied clients and other attorneys, but Avvo take the approach that a lawyers public record is enough. Avvo suggests the following “fundamental” requirements:

  • Good standing with the state bar association: In other words, the bar association–which licenses attorneys in your state–believes this lawyer is fit to practice law.
  • No disciplinary sanctions: A sanction is a disciplinary action taken against a lawyer by the state regulatory agency. A sanction can be a minor reprimand, or it can be a very serious punishment like suspension or disbarment from practicing law. If you see a sanction on an attorney’s record, proceed with caution.
  • Experience with cases like yours: Most lawyers concentrate in a few areas of the law. Once you know what these areas are, it’s easier to find lawyers with the experience and skills that are relevant to your situation.
  • Good communication skills: Regardless of your legal issue, you want someone who keeps you informed and stays in touch, every step of the way. Legal matters can be confusing and your attorney is your advocate and guide. Don’t settle for anything less.

All seem like good requirements. It makes lawyers nervous to include disciplinary sanctions as a “fundamental,” but assuming the state professional responsibility board is doing its job well, I don’t see any problem with that. Just know that a disciplinary “sanction” may be due to something like a trust accounting or recordkeeping error, so a “sanction” doesn’t necessarily mean a lawyer is unethical or even sloppy. Nobody’s perfect.

Avvo also recomments you consider:

  • Is this lawyer’s office convenient to your home or office?
  • How much does the lawyer charge?
  • Is this lawyer recommended by former clients?
  • Do you care where your lawyer went to law school or how many years they’ve been practicing law?

All these are also good things to consider. So why all the fuss? The complaint just filed in federal district court (read the complaint at WSJ Law Blog) in Washington gives a few examples:

  • After lawyer Enrico Salvatore Leo added to his profile two softball awards he won, his rating increased .6 points.
  • Deborah Rhode, an Avvo board member and Stanford Law professor, scored a perfect 10, while Larry Kramer, the dean of the Stanford Law, scored a 5.7.
  • Justice Ginsburg and Justice Alito received the same rating as Lynne Stewart, the government lawyer currently serving a prison term relating to her conduct in a recent terrorism trial.

Umm, maybe the system needs a bit of work. There are also features allowing clients to rate lawyers, which leads one to wonder whether vote spamming to lower competitors’ ratings will become a problem. And, fundamentally, lawyers really aren’t like vacuum cleaners. Sure, you can check for the fundamentals, but you won’t know whether you can work with a lawyer or have confidence in their work from a ratings web site. You can try, but whether this will actually serve legal consumers in a meaningful way remains to be seen.

It will be interesting to see how the lawsuit comes out, especially since Super Lawyers, another lawyer-rating service, is under attack, as well. SAM GLOVER

[via WSJ Law Blog]