In a Shocking Development, Avvo Gets Sued

15 Jun ’07

What a shame that only a few days after launch lawyers have filed a class action suit (on behalf of lawyers, natch) against Avvo, the lawyer rating site (founded by my mesh partner Stuart’s former Expedia colleague, Mark Britton). The story is proceeding (predictably, alas) almost as a parody for now, with a defensive industry investing in protecting itself against criticism by attacking the critics rather than improving service or engaging in a dialogue with stakeholders about becoming more transparent. On the bright side, getting sued by lawyers is the single best way to get everyone other than lawyers on your side, and to generate a lot of attention. Best PR money can buy.

Prediction: we will see the legal industry spin out a lot of defensive, self-indulgent malarkey about Avvo in the weeks and months to come.

For my part I think Avvo is a sensational idea (so far) flawlessly executed, and I hope the team is up to the trench warfare that lies ahead. Lawyers need to be dragged kicking and screaming out in the sunlight and consumers need to be given a fair opportunity to inform themselves about their service providers. For every 1 story I hear from a client about a great lawyer, I hear 5 about the very-much-less-than-even-passable. Consumers must be given the means to make an informed choice, and the Internet is just the tool for the job.

Avvo’s response to the suit is here. Note the comments, especially the comment that begins “Speaking as a client of legal services, I find the attitude of the lawyers who have responded to this post (I know they are lawyers by the language they are using) simply shocking and somewhat offensive.” Kevin weighs in here. And for a smell of the profession’s fear, follow the comments in the WSJ’s Law Blog post.

Update: If you read Alarm: Clock’s post and were wondering whether you ought, as they were, to be “amazed” that the plantiffs filed suit in 10 days, I suppose the answer is only if you assume that plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t prepare it before the launch and have it on the shelf, waiting for D-Day (note the elaborate tale being told about how plaintiff’s counsel instead came to the rescue to right a terrible wrong). All that would have been needed after launch was a representative plaintiff to pretend injury and few more anecdotes to support that pretense. Oh, and yes, you’d be right to wonder whether plaintiff’s counsel told SeattlePI that “he does not plan to name the venture capital backers as co-defendants in the case” precisely because his goal is to create the fear that he might, and thus starve Avvo of access to further VC funding as it burns through its cash defending the case. See, eg, Napster, and this (as usual) prescient observation from Mike Masnick back in March about investor liability.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

glenn mack June 21, 2007 at 15:34

“getting what they deserve” sounds ominous as well as revelatory as does the suggestion regarding transparency. One suspects that your latest puffing for Avvo could just as easily have had the parties reversed – that two sides of every argument again.

A. Does the legal profession need more transparency? Absolutely.

B. Do consumers need a better way to inform themselves when choosing a lawyer? Absolutely

Unfortunately Avvo’s self serving submission that they address A & B does not mean, however, that Avvo’s solution is either sound or useful. One could posit that having the imprimatur of A & B that it is beneficial to consumers when the reverse could just as easily be the case. Having seen how ineffective and downright unreliable the feedback system on eBay one wonders how, when the stakes are much higher than a pair of ill-fitting blue jeans, Avvo’s system of client input will be monitored.

I have absolutely no love for the legal profession. But, I can savor the irony in that the hubris of one of its own – Britton – may engender warm feelings for one of the least likeable groups.

Reply

Rob Hyndman June 16, 2007 at 17:35

Thanks for the comment, R. Mullen – I appreciate the time you took to write it. I frankly don’t think it’s much of a news alert, though, to most people that lawyers by occupation take both sides. And while that’s certainly part of the reason people hold such ill will towards lawyers, I think at least an equal measure comes from getting poor service at excessive rates. That’s the only story I ever hear from the people who tell me about their complaints with other lawyers, anyway. I personally haven’t heard criticism about the profession’s mercenary nature since law school.

And I will also say that will I sympathize with your comment about empathy (‘some of my best friends’ are lawyers, after all), it’s a profession that IMO has been coddled and sheltered from the real world for far too long, and is pretty far down on my list of groups who get my sympathy.

And finally, I don’t think society is being hypocritical at all. Lawyers are getting what they deserve – every group / profession / occupation that’s been put under pressure by technology has gotten what it ‘deserved’. The profession could have avoided some of this – or at least retarded its advance – if it had been more transparent and made it easier for consumers to understand and compare the value of legal services. But (like pretty much everyone else – real estate agents being a great current example) the profession has resisted that at every turn, IMO. Services like Avvo are the necessary and just result, IMO. For many lawyers, fear is the correct attitude to hold, I think.

Reply

R. Mullen June 16, 2007 at 16:14

There’s a lot of good in what Avvo is doing, but the execution and the hype surrounding it cuts both ways.

Do I suspect the lawsuit was just waiting in the wings? Yup. In fact, I wonder whether there is a bit of hangover from Britton/Berman’s Expedia relationship (I hope I’m barking up the wrong tree here!), but certainly anyone with sense would know the lawsuit is coming. Avvo as well as the outraged attorneys. As you wrote, “Best PR money can buy.”

Yet, I bow to Berman’s experience and skill that allowed him to draft a sufficiently muddy, yet strangely enticing, complaint within the space of a few days. He probably did it in one sitting (because Avvo says he’s good like that), with the rest of the time was spent getting it typed up. :o))

It gets the point across, don’t you think, this “shining the light in dark places” thing, although it’s kinda roll-the-eyes melodramatic. “Here there be monsters”…only makes me wonder who is playing Captain Jack Sparrow.

On a serious note, however, this controversy demonstrates a terrific lack of empathy for lawyers as *people*, as if lawyers are magically transformed into demons because they undertake the task of representing every side of an argument.

News alert: that’s called democracy. The divorce lawyer on the other side would do the same *for* you. The prosecutor would do the same *to* you. It kinda falls apart when lawyers become legislators, but then how does one get to be a legislator without campaign promises? How many of *those* are kept?? At least when you buy yourself a lawyer, you buy a lawyer for yourself.

Lawyers are sharks…lawyers are greedy…blah, blah, blah. What lawyers need are for the marketers and the business people to step up to their own elevated sense of honor and trustworthiness. I’ve seen at least one survey in which marketers rate just as poorly,–and for good reason.

So, this whole demonizing the profession for representing the wishes, hopes and aspirations of the same people who then turn about and stab them in the back is so utterly incredible that as a lawyer, I can’t take it that seriously.

What I DO take incredibly seriously is the idea that lawyers are somehow transformed into fair game by people who thrill to the image of blood gushing from our professional pores. I dare say that there isn’t another high paying “profession” out there that doesn’t suffer from the same issues. Been to the doctor’s lately? Had to get your car fixed lately? Been to a government office…*lately*? Had a police officer stop you for a bogus ticket…**lately**??

Professional civility is something everyone needs, from McDonalds to the Supreme Court (yeah, I said it!). There’s no question but that lawyers need to have better “user interface” skills,–but they are not alone.

And, there is a thin line between what you might interpret as “fear” and the testosterone (laced with a healthy dose of estrogen) that normally appears when a hypocritical society attacks. Client-Lawyer Smackdown. Now THAT would be a great TV show!

:o))

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