Commentary: Questionable Class Action Suit Commenced Against Avvo Attorney Rating Website

Important events occurred last week in the development of technology to assist the public in selecting legal services, and unfortunately speaks volumes as to the arrogance of lawyers in their belief that consumers should not have access to information to help them select an attorney.

How do most people select their attorney? Probably by word of mouth. Or maybe they have a family member or friend who practices law. This may be a good method in some instances. But what if you don’t know anyone who has used a lawyer, and can you really have confidence in the qualifications of your cousin Vinnie? What if there was a rating system that gave lawyers a numerical rating computed on various factors? Well on June 5th a company just launched a website service that does just that. The company is called Avvo and their service compiles data from state bar associations and other sources and tries to compute a numeric score between 1 and 10 for nearly every attorney in the country. Avvo was co-founded by Mark Britton, an attorney for 15 years and formerly the top lawyer at Expedia.com. He partnered with Paul Bloom, a veteran of Microsoft’s Consumer Division, and they assembled a team with expertise in law, consumer products, and technology to develop their product.

From the Avvo website, the company’s principles are set forth as follows:

At Avvo, our mission is to help people navigate the complex and confusing legal industry. Choosing a lawyer is an incredibly important decision—yet most people have no idea how to go about doing it, and resources to guide them are scarce.

Avvo is guided by two basic principles:

  1. Focus on the needs of regular people.

Many of the resources available today were developed for people who are already legal industry “insiders”—but Avvo was created specifically to help people who know very little about the law and may have no experience choosing a lawyer.

  1. Provide information, as well as guidance. 

We believe that providing open access to information about lawyers, coupled with guidance on how to use that information, is the best way to help people choose the right lawyer. Information is empowering: the more people learn more about attorneys and how to select an attorney, the more comfortable and confident they’ll feel seeking legal help—and we think this will benefit both clients and lawyers.

I find these principles to be laudable. Just how does Avvo compute its 10 point rating assessment? That information is proprietary and not disclosed. Their website simply explains:

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.

What has been lawyers’ reaction to the Avvo rating system? Well, you might have guessed it – a class action suit. Last Thursday a Seattle attorney by the name of Steve W. Berman, a managing partner at Hagens, Berman, Sobol, Shapiro in Seattle, filed a class action lawsuit challenging the Avvo rating system. Apparently some lawyers have complained that their Avvo rating is arbitrary, and that the Avvo system in some instances gave convicted felons higher numeric scores than law school deans (see story at News.com). Berman’s firm has a history of filing class action lawsuits against technology companies. It’s gone after Apple for its iPod (allegedly too loud), eBay (allegedly a monopoly), Expedia (allegedly too expensive), and Apple, again, for the iPod Nano (allegedly too scratch-prone).

The mathematical model used to compute the Avvo rating may or may not be flawed. And in some instances some lawyers may object to their rating. But I can’t think for the life of me what the plaintiffs’ theory of recovery in the class action would be. I suppose it would be something along the following:

I am a lawyer, and because I am a lawyer I and am not allowed to be rated by any service whether that service is based on a mathematical model of available data or otherwise. Lawyers cannot be rated on a numerical basis, and consumers are incapable in evaluating whether a particular rating system provides them with meaningful information. Such a rating system inherently provides consumers with misleading information, and since I am a lawyer, if I don’t like my rating I am irreparably harmed, and I can recovery monetary damages from whomever created the rating.

It’s an interesting theory of recovery. But nearly every category of product or service that I can think of I receives ratings in one form or another. Should Zagat’s be careful when it provides numerical ratings for a restaurant’s food, service and decor? Should movie critics be concerned when they give a movie 1 and half stars rather than 5 stars? Should the Automobile Association of America – AAA – worry about a class action suit when it gives a group of lodgings two diamonds as opposed to three. Rating systems give consumers valuable information in comparing two different products or services when they lack first hand information about those products or services. Rating services also provide an incentive for firms to provide the highest quality of services possibly. Do lawyers honestly believe that they are so unique, so different, that the services they provide are so different, that they simply cannot be evaluated on a numerical basis? If they do, they are probably not concerned with providing their clients with quality services in the first place. Wouldn’t a good lawyer want to be rated?

I believe that what is needed is not less services which rate lawyers, but more. What if there were four or five numerical systems which rated attorneys. Then consumers who don’t have a great lawyer in the family would be able to take information from the variety such services, as well as other information, and make the best possible choice. In addition, rating services are particularly important for legal services because lawyers have a monopoly in providing legal services. There is not a totally free market in legal services as the number of those who can provide legal services is restricted by the licensing requirement for lawyers. Only when there is a completely free market are consumers presented with all the information needed to make rational decisions as competing firms have the most incentive to provide that information.

Again, Avvo’s rating system may not be perfect, but they should be commended in attempting to provide consumers with an additional method in selecting an attorney. And Mr. Berman’s class action suit should be condemned by all lawyers. It should be noted that Mr. Berman’s personal rating on the Avvo system achieved a 9.2. I wonder if in the eyes of the public Mr. Berman’s rating will increase or decrease by commencing this questionable class action suit.

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