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Class action suit to be brought against Avvo

The Seattle P-I’s John Cook reports Steve Berman, a leading class-action attorney, is going to file a lawsuit as early as this week against Avvo, the just launched online attorney directory and rating service. “Berman called the controversial site, which tries to rate lawyers on a scale of one to 10, a ‘flat-out scam’ that does not serve the interest of consumers.”

Berman first found out about Avvo through a public relations representative last week, who noted that the attorney’s 9.1 score on Avvo was among the highest in the state. Because of that ‘superb’ ranking, Berman first thought nothing more than, ‘no big deal, good for me.’ One of his partners then started sending him e-mails from lawyers who were upset about Avvo, with Berman initially dismissing the complaints as ‘sour grapes.’ As more e-mails and phone calls arrived, Berman became more interested in the case and started poking around the site. When Berman discovered that some prominent attorneys ranked lower than lesser-known attorneys, he started questioning the validity of the system.

When I spoke with Justia’s Tim Stanley on the day Avvo launched, I said I was surprised no one was bringing a class action suit to close the site. I did not see the ratings themselves (long overdue) being the issue but that that the data being used to provide ratings to consumers was not sufficient. Avvo got the data it could and then put the onus on lawyers to put in more data to correct any profile information and improve their rating – after the lawyer put in their credit card to verify who they were.

Berman’s position from the P-I:

  • You have consumers who are going to be making decisions about whether or not to hire a lawyer based on a rating system that is completely deceptive. It is not reliable. It is not based on any valid criteria. And, in fact, the publisher of this site should know there is something wrong.
  • If you are going to have a service out there, it should be reliable and it should be trustworthy, and this site is neither.
  • Suspicious that some attorneys affiliated with Avvo rank high, while others who have made a point of boosting their rating over the past few days have successfully done so by submitting information to the site.
  • Primary claim in the suit will be a violation the state’s (presumably Washington) Consumer Protection Act because those people thinking about hiring a lawyer are typically in difficult situations.
  • Does not plan to name the venture capital backers as co-defendants in the case.
  • Goal is to have the case resolved quickly either by having the site shut down or having it introduce a new rating system. As to the second option, has doubts that Avvo is capable of ‘coming up with an honest site.

And from Mark Britton, Avvo’s CEO:

  • Stands by the attorney ratings and suggested that a potential lawsuit is being driven by ‘a small vocal minority’ of lawyers who don’t like negative information being publicly aired.
  • In regard to attorney discipline, Avvo is shining a flashlight in some dark places, and this was information that was very hard for a consumer to find.
  • Avvo’s rating is applied consistently to all lawyers based on publicly available information.
  • Ratings are changed as more information becomes available.
  • Avvo encourages attorneys to upload additional information to their profile pages in order to boost their ratings.
  • Litigation could be expensive, but will wait to see the complaint in order to know the ramifications.
  • Going to take some time for some lawyers to get their arms around the benefit that Avvo is bringing to consumers.
  • Consumers who now find themselves in legal quandaries have nowhere to go other than picking out the lawyer with the ‘biggest ads in the yellow pages.

Lawyer ratings with input from consumers is long overdue. This lawsuit should not get painted as lawyers not wanting ratings. It should be resolved on whether Avvo’s methodology and the data they use mislead consumers.

I talked with Mark Britton for an hour last week. Came away with a lot of respect for him in calling me and listening to my more than blunt challenges of Avvo. Don’t know whether he’ll be successful in defending the suit but he successfully addressed a number of my concerns.

More to come from my conversation with Mark Britton in a following post.

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