Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Avvo's General Counsel Answers Some Questions

Avvo has been the subject of much conversation lately, especially on twitter.

The ABA's 2nd highest criminal blawger Scott Greenfield and I wrote some candid thoughts about Avvo in the last couple days. The result for me was that Joshua King, Avvo's Vice President of Business Development and General Counsel, elected to begin following my comments on twitter.

Uh Oh.

Not exactly. Josh turns out to be a lovely guy, and accepted my invitation to answer some questions about Avvo here on the blog.

Here you go, in its entirety and without edits:

How do you describe Avvo? Is it a “lawyer directory,” at its core?

Avvo is designed to provide consumers with more guidance than they’ve had before when handling their legal matters. While this includes general guidance (in the form of Avvo Answers and Avvo Legal Guides), the lawyer directory is the core feature.

Why would a consumer use Avvo instead of lawyers.com or any other lawyer directory?

Guidance and depth of content. The Avvo directory contains more lawyer profiles than any other directory. Importantly, it also provides far more guidance. Avvo profiles tell you at a glance how long an attorney has been licensed and whether an attorney has been sanctioned. It offers thousands of client reviews of lawyers, and deep content on attorney profiles – areas of practice, publications, work experience, etc.

Avvo also offers a consumer-friendly path to finding a lawyer by legal problem and geography, and integration between its general guidance products and the attorney directory. That way, a consumer looking for high-level info on how to handle a looming legal issue via Avvo Answers or a Legal Guide can click through to the profile of the attorney providing the information and start a conversation about legal representation.

Is Avvo intended for consumers, lawyers, or both?

Although Avvo is designed to make it easy for consumers to find a lawyer, it is equally amenable to attorneys looking to hire local counsel, refer a case or research opposing counsel or a potential hire. Obviously, to make it useful for consumers we also need to make it useful for attorneys as a means to market their practice. We do that by making the profiles entirely free for attorneys and firms, and we’re in the beginning stages of offering advertising opportunities to attorneys.

However, our touchstone is always the consumer. We don’t accede to attorney requests to delete profiles, sanctions records or negative client reviews that otherwise meet our guidelines.

What is the theory behind rating a lawyer based on what that lawyer enters into their own profile? Do you see opportunities for dishonesty by the lawyers?

You could lie on the Tannebaum Weiss website, right? While there is always the opportunity for dishonesty by lawyers, we think there is little risk of this:

• Most attorneys are very focused on the value of their reputation, particularly with respect to integrity and credibility (plus, your competitors will rat you out if you lie about your bona fides).
• Attorneys are subject to state bar rules that involve stiff penalties for making knowing misrepresentations.
• Finally, the Avvo system uses a mix of human review and an extensive database to ensure credibility. We’ll review any claimed organization, publication or award that isn’t in our database, and we audit – both via spot checks and reviews of scores that appear to be outliers – to stay on top of any potential problems.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the algorithm behind the Avvo Rating is highly sophisticated. It was developed with input from legal scholars, mathematicians, and hundreds of practicing lawyers. While attorneys can enter all sorts of information in their profiles, that doesn’t mean all of this information impacts the Avvo Rating. Completing a triathlon in record time might be interesting to potential clients, but it’s not going to raise your score.

How would you describe the Avvo Rating?

Imagine a friend of yours runs into legal trouble here in Seattle, and you don’t personally know any attorneys who can help them. So you do some research and look into the background of some potential choices – how long have they practiced, experience in the specialty, industry leadership, where did they go to school, etc. You can do that because you’re an experienced attorney.

The vast majority of consumers aren’t experienced attorneys. They don’t know any attorneys. The Avvo Rating is, in essence, an attempt to provide consumers with the benefit of that “resume evaluation” that you or I would do when examining the background of an attorney we didn’t know. Is the rating subjective? Of course – it’s our take on which items in an attorney’s background should “count,” and how much weight should be applied to those factors. You and I would probably weigh elements in attorney backgrounds differently, based on our different experiences. However, the Avvo Rating IS objectively applied to all attorneys. There’s not the element of “who you know” found in ratings based exclusively on peer review.

Ultimately, a lot of the criticism of the Avvo Rating seems directed at the idea that the Avvo Rating is some sort of be-all, end-all evaluation of an attorney’s competence. It’s not. It’s simply our evaluation, based on the factors that we feel are important, of the likelihood that an attorney will be able to help a consumer out. We’ve put a lot of thought into the rating, and we feel it provides consumers with a terrific piece of guidance that they’ve never had access to before. However, as we point out repeatedly on the site, it’s only one element in choosing a lawyer, and no substitute for sitting down and making sure you are comfortable with an attorney’s competence, communication and approach before hiring them.

How much time is invested by Avvo into the disciplinary database? Have issues arisen where a lawyer is incorrectly listed as having discipline or vice versa and how is that handled?

This is an area that isn’t always well-understood by lawyers, so I’m happy to have the chance to describe it in more detail. While some would have us report any bad (or alleged bad) acts, we’ve chosen not to substitute our judgment for that of the state bar regulators:

• Whenever we launch a state or update that state’s information, we include information on bar sanctions.
• We don’t include complaints or most non-final discipline.
• We don’t include criminal allegations or convictions, except to the extent such result in final bar discipline.
• We only include sanctions we can confirm with the bar or court.

Now, here’s the problematic part: Bar discipline is imposed all the time, but we only do a full update of a state’s records a couple of times a year. We’d love to update more frequently, but as I’ve blogged about in some detail, obtaining attorney licensing records from the states is no mean feat. I had to petition the New Jersey Supreme Court to gain access to that state’s records, and it’s still like pulling teeth to get updates on individual lawyers (the court recently told our data team that they wanted us to only check on one attorney disciplinary record per day!) Incidentally, Florida is probably the most notable exception – they are very easy to work with, and will send us updates on disc, on request.

So, what to do? We update attorney profiles when we learn of discipline, either from the regular sources we review (e.g., monthly bar magazines), news stories or when attorneys or consumers notify us of new bar discipline. It’s not perfect, and there is going to be a lag in some cases. I encourage anybody to notify us of bar discipline that they don’t see on Avvo, and if we can confirm it, we will update it.

With respect to bar discipline being reported incorrectly, this is a rare occurrence. In some states we obtain licensing and disciplinary records from two different authorities and integrate the records; that creates the possibility for mistakes, particularly when a non-sanctioned attorney shares the same name as a sanctioned attorney. We’ll fix these issues immediately when we find them or they are brought to our attention.

Where does Avvo see itself in 5 years?

We want to be the #1 consumer source for legal guidance. We launched about 18 months ago, and we’re already the second-most-trafficked online legal directory, with over one million visits per month. And we haven’t even started marketing to consumers . . .

More specifically, there are a number of things we’re doing or would like to do to make the site more useful to both consumers and lawyers:

• Advertising Opportunities: We’re testing lawyer ads, and we’ll be launching our ad platform next month. We’ve seen a lot of interest from lawyers, and some criticism that ads will hurt our credibility. To that I say: Hold your judgment. We will simply provide attorneys a way to promote themselves at the top of the list – much as Google serves up “sponsored listings” at the top of search query results – while still providing the full sortable search results list we provide today. And of course, the Avvo Rating will not be influenced by advertising.
• More States: Avvo currently covers 22 states, plus D.C., representing about 85% of all lawyers. One problem is that the ability to access bar records from states is, if anything, inversely proportionate to a state’s size. It can actually be harder and more costly to get and integrate these records, and we continue to have protracted discussions with several of the larger states currently missing from our database. As we have more resources, we will look at undertaking the work to get these records.
• Better Integration With Bar Data: I’m still waiting for a licensing authority to give us a real-time feed of licensing and disciplinary data, or at least a regular e-mail update. That would solve a lot of the concerns about lagging disciplinary data and new admittees.

Avvo participates in social media. For example, you are active on twitter. What has the benefit been from Avvo’s perspective?

I was a Twitter naysayer initially – figured it was all a bunch of navel gazing: “just got back from the grocery store;” “making dinner;” “bored – maybe TV tonite?” – that sort of thing. But I’ve become a convert. For a business, it’s a terrific way to keep on top of what people are saying about you – good, bad or indifferent. We can listen to concerns and address issues in real time. It also helps build community for lawyers using Avvo or thinking about using it. I’ve also found it tremendously helpful in alerting me to news and analysis I would not have easily found otherwise.

And the thing is, I’ve found that I like a certain amount of the navel-gazing stuff – it adds an element of personality and fun. Just don’t send out five messages in a row detailing your shopping list . . .

Thanks Josh, appreciate the information.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Please visit www.tannebaumweiss.com


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