Practicing Law is Not a Numbers Game

When lawyers start suing other lawyers over whether or not other lawyers are any good, you have to think that the legal profession might be taking itself just a bit too seriously. On June 5th, Avvo, Inc. launched a website (www.avvo.com) which the company touts is “designed to give consumers information and guidance to choose the right attorney.” It took a Seattle law firm nine days to sue the young company. Twenty-five page Class Action Petitions don’t exactly draft themselves overnight.

The site, according to Avvo’s CEO, Mark Britton (one of several lawyers on the company’s board of directors), provides guidance for legal consumers looking to pick the right attorney for the job. The company, as part of its effort to provide this guidance, has developed a proprietary rating system that generates a lawyer’s numerical score on a scale of 1 (“Extreme Caution”) to 10 (“Superb.”) Though the company keeps the exact method of determining this score a secret, users are informed that the number represents some amalgam of experience, peer endorsements, recognized achievements and client feedback. Consumers using the site to shop for legal help are encouraged to use the lawyer’s rating as a factor in their decision to retain a particular attorney.

Picking the right attorney is a tough enough task for anyone. Even if they know a little something about the legal ins and outs of their case, most clients are apprehensive from the very first day. The stress of their legal issue has probably already taken a heavy toll on them, and they’re about to hand the ball off to a total stranger on the faith that he or she is every bit the expert we claim to be. Reliable information or a quality referral on your prospective attorney is a premium commodity.

That said, the goal of Avvo may be as noble as they come. This goal appears to be the only noble part of Avvo’s business model, however. The initial data that Avvo collects in order to compile an attorney’s legal ranking is gathered from public records — straight from the Texas Bar Association in the case of lone star attorneys.

The Bar Association’s website includes, for every attorney licensed in Texas, updated contact information, bar admissions, listed specializations and historical disciplinary actions — all verified by the attorney. Attorneys can update or enhance their profile with a photograph and web address. Other than that, the Bar Association’s profiles are largely sterile, and do nothing to rank Texas lawyers by using some mystical system. As a source, the Bar Association is a great place for a company like Avvo to draw information. The straight facts don’t lie.

Avvo strays off course when it tries to distill and quantify factors that do anything but lend themselves to becoming numerical. Basically, every attorney seems to begin with the same middle-of-the-road average score of 5 out of 10. Your score is then raised or lowered by fractions depending upon your years of experience (because lawyers are like wine), authenticated (somehow) awards and achievements, peer endorsements (high-fives from the partners) and client reviews (high-fives from your poker buddies).

As if the math isn’t hazy enough, Avvo purports to list and rate hundreds of thousands of lawyers — whether they want to be included or not. An attorney can “claim” his or her profile to enhance it with the hope of raising the rating. All it takes is a credit card that the company never uses and never charges. The potential for misinformation simply outweighs the benefit that Avvo is selling to the public. Abuse from self-serving attorneys, vindication by unsatisfied clients — you can read the Petition yourself (www.hbsslaw.com) and decide how quickly the whole thing could go wrong.

In my opinion, legal consumers deserve every opportunity to learn more about a potential attorney before they hire them. Numbers, espcially arbitrary ones, don’t make an attorney any better, or more capable of representing his client, than the suit he wears. Whether or not this class action impacts the way that Avvo does business aside, let’s hope that the vast majority of the public finds some truth in this statement.