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This Solo Has No Problem With Avvo

For a few days now, the blogosphere has been abuzz with news of the dismissal of a class action lawsuit against lawyer directory and rating service, Avvo and the subsequent Wall Street Journal's endorsement of Avvo. These events evoked an impassioned post by respected solo-centric blogger Susan Cartier Liebel, who argues that Avvo's rating system harms solos, does not help consumers and unfairly generates investor profits off the backs of lawyers who never asked for a ratings system. As such, Cartier Liebel urges lawyers not to participate in Avvo's system. Since then, commenters to Scott Greenfield's Avvo posthave launched a debate over Avvo's benefit to consumers and its impact on solos. Though I'm a little late to this party (having been away and off the grid for two days), I wanted to chime in to make clear that not all of us solos oppose Avvo, nor should we. Here's why.

First, the numerical ranking component of Avvo that accounts for most of the site's controversy, quite honestly, has the least significance. Generally speaking, numerical rankings have less meaning where there's other information available on which to base a decision. For example, consider decision making process for selecting a hotel online, at aggregator sites like Hotels.com or Travelocity. First, I'll narrow my choices based solely on location, price and amenities offered without any regard to ratings. Then, for those hotels that meet my initial criteria, I'll review visitors' comments, discounting those with different preferences from mine. Thus, even if a commenter criticizes a hotel room as overly shabby, I'd still choose it over the competition if it's right on the beach, because I value convenience more than decor. And even if the hotel received a numerical ranking of 1 out of 5, I'd assume that the ranking reflected the poor decor (which doesn't matter to me), so the low score wouldn't deter me. By contrast, the 1 out of 5 rating might drive a neat freak to another hotel - not because of the number itself, but the information behind it.

I don't think that my decision making methodology is particularly unique. Just as I choose my hotel room, when consumers choose a lawyer through a site like Avvo, most will look at the ratings number only after they've screened prospects to identify a lawyer with the appropriate specialty and and location. Thereafter, they'll look at comments and perhaps after that, they'll consider the numerical ranking. Moreover, as Avvo itself says here, the numerical ranking is merely one piece of information that may feed into a client's calculus in choosing a lawyer. But for most people, a ranking is not at all dispositive, and indeed, as I've already shown, in many cases, it's not even relevant. I'm willing to trust prospective clients to give ratings the weight that they do, or more accurately, don't deserve. Also, while some solos may fear the odd case a disgruntled clients could post negative information and lower a lawyer's score, the truth is, that clients can already do plenty of damage to a lawyer's reputation, in a far less controlled environment.

Where I see the value of Avvo to solos isn't so much in rankings (which again, most consumers disregard) but in serving as an aggregator of information about lawyers. Avvo lets lawyers upload links to their websites and articles they've authored and include favorable endorsements from colleagues and clients, without any charge. It's this information, far more than the ratings, that provides consumers with a tool to make decisions. (Incidentally, I'd object if Avvo forced lawyers to pay to enhance their profiles or upload additional information without allowing them to opt out of a listing entirely).

And because Avvo gives lawyers control over their entries, at no charge, it equalizes the playing field for solos. Right now, individual consumers who want to find lawyers (and who don't know anyone who can make a personal referral) have limited resources: Yellow Pages, search engine or online directories. For individual solos, Yellow Pages are prohibitively expensive, not to mention, increasingly less effective as more consumers turn to the Internet to find service providers. And search engines won't help solos "get found" unless they invest in costly SEO (search engine optimization) or develop a pervasive Internet presence through blogging - which quite simply, isn't for everyone. A robust online directory that doesn't charge solos an admission price provides a way for clients to find solos and small firms with the expertise they need who don't have Internet presence and can't afford the Yellow Pages. Seems to me that's a win-win for consumers and solos.

Finally, I don't understand the objection to Avvo's profit motive, particularly from solos, who are, after all, the most entrepreneurial of lawyers. As I see it, Avvo is stepping in and filling a need for an easily searchable and aggregated source of information about lawyers, a need that our bar associations could have satisfied, but didn't. How many bar associations publish as much as an online list of lawyers organized by specialty and links to their websites? Perhaps a handful at best, and those are local bar associations that charge a fee for the service. How many bar associations keep lawyers' articles and resumes on file, for distribution to prospective clients calling for referrals? Zero. The only reason that Avvo's business model has any viability at all is because our bar associations, who by all rights, had first dibs on the kind of information that could be used to establish a lawyer directory, didn't do it themselves. More power to Avvo for filling a gap, just like more power to those solos who identify niche markets and develop innovative services to satisfy them.

I don't much care whether Avvo succeeds or not; Avvo isn't the first venture to list and rank lawyers, nor will it be the last. But if Avvo fails, it should fail because consumers don't get value from the service, and not because lawyers don't like it.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 25, 2007 at 10:57 PM in Marketing & Making Money | Permalink

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Posted by: george | Jun 17, 2009 10:56:16 AM

After leaving a large San Francisco firm, I began as a solo many years ago (1984) and now have a boutique firm serving startups in Silicon Valley.

Back then, Martindale-Hubbell was king and solos were basically treated condescendingly, especially in the business law area (my field). The M-H rating system worked strongly against them. You were either in the club or you weren't, and solos suffered for this - much worse than from an isolated numerical rating system on Avvo that most people probably find more mystifying than damaging.

Worse yet, as a solo back then, you had limited options in overcoming the clubby system. You could advertise in the Yellow Pages. You could do conventional person-to-person networking. You could join business groups and give speeches if you had a good connection. As a whole, though, you were in your own world as a solo - the larger firms had capacities that you lacked and could never hope to obtain as a solo, no matter how excellent your skills as a lawyer. There were two worlds, and you were outside the one regarded by many as prestigious.

All this has radically changed today. With the web and with online directories galore, it is comparatively easy to market yourself as a solo today. Of course, this is an active process, and you have to work at it diligently. But the tools are there.

Avvo is one such tool, notwithstanding its numerical rating. So too LinkedIn. And many other similar resources. What power to be able to put your detailed resume out before the public in such easy fashion. I remember having to pay $2,500 per month to put out one one-hundredth of that information in Yellow Page ads that not one one-thousandth of your target client base was able to see.

These services are outstandingly empowering for solos when compared to old systems. Avvo might not be perfect and it might fail. But spare me from M-H with its stick-in-the-mud traditions that assume law firms are no different today than those of 50 years ago.

Let the market do what it will in disseminating lawyer-related information. There are dozens of channels apart from Avvo for a lawyer to reach out to prospective clients. Such channels are freely available to virtually all attorneys who have some measure of talent and drive to differentiate themselves from others. This is a world apart from the one that existed just 25 years ago - and all for the better.

I paid no attention to Avvo for the longest time and, when I found it, I saw that it gave me a 6.7 rating. It didn't matter to me. From looking at my minimal profile that they had assembled, it was obvious that the lawyer involved (me) had taken no interest in the site and it looked like the operators of the site were simply compiling minimal information to fill out their directory. I am certain from this that the types of business clients I represent would draw no adverse inference from this. It is kind of like looking at any one of hundreds of directories on the web where the organizers gather skimpy information just to fill out their lists. It the information is skimpy, the obvious inference is that the site is incomplete and inadequate and is not a reflection on the merchant involved.

I have done some things in my field over 25 years and, once I paid attention to the site, the ranking went up. Though no longer a solo, I can benefit from a site such as this.

Who can complain about a site that gives me a higher ranking than Lawrence W. Sonsini - check him out. He gets an 8.0, mainly for lack of "industry recognition" - and, if that isn't a laugh, I don't know what is. Is it an imperfect algorithm? Obviously, given that example. Is it a useful public service in spite of its flaws? Absolutely.

If a system can't get it right with a lawyer so prominent as Larry Sonsini, it may well fail. But let the consumers sort it out. They are rating the system as much as they are the lawyers. In the meantime, they can see everything you want to show them about what you can do as a service to them. Solos have never had such an advantage before. Opportunities abound for those who will capitalize on them.

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Posted by: SHG | Dec 26, 2007 11:16:09 AM

If everyone is starting to concur the ratings is the least important feature yet the most antagonistic...maybe it's time to just get rid of it. If they won't, they have to deal with the backlash. And Scott Greenfield (bless his prolific heart and fast typing fingers) has an earlier enlightening piece on his interview with 'salesman' Paul Bloom.

http://blog.simplejustice.us/2007/06/27/avvo-my-chat-with-paul.aspx

They admit they are not perfect, their ratings are not perfect with numerous disclaimers. But we also know the potential client is NOT going to see that and this rating will be digitzed in perpetuity branding lawyers.

So, again, if everyone is supposedly going to give this proprietary fatally flawed ranking little weight and it is not the thrust of the site, nice little bios are...toss the rating system.

Toss it, let lawyers opt out, put in place a system to verify comments and repudiate comments, do not harm new solos or young lawyers with language other than 'practicing less than two years, professional information is still being gathered'.....I might just be OK with that.

Maybe.

Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel | Dec 26, 2007 9:47:18 AM

Agree Carolyn that ratings is the least important feature of the site. Maybe that PR team of Avoo lead with ratings to garner publicity for the website, which onviously worked.

I'm a little surprised as well that solo and small firm lawyers would rally against. As a group, they are very pro empowering consumer which is at the heart of Avvo's mission.

I've been trough some of the lawyer profiles at Avvo. They're really rather nice, presenting in comforting manner the type of info I'd like to see if I needed a lawyer. That type of info has been absent at Martindale's lawyers.com site, bar sites (except for Columbus Bar Association), and lawyer websites themselves.

The market place abhores a vacuum. Avvo is filling it.

Posted by: Kevin | Dec 26, 2007 9:15:16 AM

Apparently AVVO plans to make its money by serving pay-per-click ads for tax attorney Roni Deutch...the same Roni Deutch that advertises nationally on late night television. Yuck. And I doubt those ads are converting very well.

I give AVVO 12-18 months before it joins the TechCrunch Deadpool.

ps. Roni Deutch looks like Medusa in her pay-per-click ad photo.

Posted by: Dave C. | Dec 26, 2007 6:51:52 AM

Susan,
Thanks for your comment. Of course, you are not unreasonable, I think this is one of those topics where reasonable minds differ.

I guess, I like others, I am resigned to the fact that there will always be rankings systems, and in an information age, there will always be companies that aggregate information for profit (after all, look at Google!) because that's a service that many people desire. We solos have survived and thrived nonetheless, even as services like "mylawyer.com" and other early ventures did not. Maybe Avvo will help consumers choose lawyers, maybe it won't - but if we do our job educating clients, I'm confident that they'll accord services like Avvo the weight they do (or don't) deserve.

Posted by: Carolyn Elefant | Dec 26, 2007 6:41:10 AM

Carolyn,

You make some very important points. The issue lies in the 'mathematical proprietary algorithm' at the core of Avvo. You and I and others both know this is a very dangerous tool, it is what prompted the law suit, whether people thought it was a 'silly' lawsuit or had merit or not. Under free speech the judge had little choice but to dismiss but this was not about lawyers' egos as much as it would have suited the public relations people at AVVO to believe. When the judge called rating lawyers and judges 'ludicrous' it was not ego speaking. It was understanding legal representation cannot be quantified the way AVVO proposes to do and has already failed to do, but not without harm.

You state very clearly you don't pay attention to ratings. You also compare ratings to hotel choices. The average client of a lawyer is creating a relationship with that lawyer. We don't create relationships with clean linen or the number of steps to a beach. (I'm not being sarcastic, truly.)

And when a new solo who is not yet published, who does not have a significant web presence or the ability to pay for a significant web presence in the beginning and/or has only been practicing for a year, who is already fighting professional prejudice and limited knowledge of marketing is now numerically ranked lower and even branded 'use extreme caution' through a 'secret' numerical ratings system, it simply is not the same comparison. It is professionally damaging, creates unfair hurdles and simply is not truthful in the impression it gives to potential clients. All it means is they haven't learned to 'game the system' or have the money yet to invest in marketing strategies. It doesn't mean they are not good lawyers.

A new associate in a firm, large or small, will not face this prejudice because there is a numerical ranking for the firm who has already taken advantage of being published, come to agreement with other lawyers to 'game' the system (which we all know has been happening) and everything. For you to say the ratings are irrelevant for you, is fair. To say the ratings are irrelevant or of minimal value for the potential client is not. If it had no value, Avvo would not be doing it. As a matter of fact they think it has so much value investors have put up multi-millions to support it. It is their 'selling' feature, what they propose separates them and gives them value above anyone else trying to do the same. It is why the consumer should come to them over any other aggregator of free legal information. It also begs the question, how are they making their money? Lawyer advertising? We still don't know how their investors are going to profit for their investment. At least the average person doesn't know. Maybe you do?

And whether it is Avvo or the next group of non-lawyer boardmembers with histories at computer behemoths like Microsoft whose sole purpose is to dominate the internet, and most likely what sold investors on its profitability, (and if the investors were not sold on this they would not be investing) we will be held captive.

I'm not against free enterprise. After all, this is what I help lawyers do. I am against a very flawed system that will do irreparable harm. And in all fairness, maybe AVVO really doesn't see the harm because maybe that isn't their motivation.

But when you make statements such as 'shining a light in the dark corners of the legal profession' as if we are a closed brethren of crooks, liars and thieves, it certainly makes you wonder.

But then, again, they are not lawyers or know the struggles of lawyers to build reputation, build a practice based upon knowing, liking and trusting, don't know the prejudices faced by solos and small firms. But ignorance is no excuse.

We've already seen the disaster of their launch since June 5th, stories solos and all lawyers are telling.

If they just want to keep it a free service to all lawyers where they can aggregate information as submitted by other lawyers and commenters WITHOUT this patented mathematical algorithm and ratings, which you believe are irrelevant, and lawyers can opt out limiting AVVO's ability to learn of a lawyer just through public records and internet searches and all lawyers can indicate on their website, through freedom of speech and without penalty, they do not participate in lawyer rating systems such as AVVO because they do not believe the nature of a client/attorney relationship can be reduced to a rating that is meaningful or valuable to the client, then I have no problem with AVVO either.

I'm not unreasonable...but I do see the writing on the wall.

And until AVVO themselves starts becoming transparent to the profession and the public about their mission, they should not tout their ability to offer transparency to an otherwise opaque profession. It's hypocritical at best.

Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel | Dec 26, 2007 5:42:22 AM

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