Lawyer Sues Lawyer For Online Rating System

    June 18, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

Filing lawsuits is as routine for lawyers as grabbing a Starbucks on the way to the office. And they’re kind of (to stereotype an entire profession) sensitive about things. So who could have predicted that a consumer website dedicated to rating lawyers would get sued?

Anybody that’s paid any attention at all, that’s who. The length of time it took to get slapped with a class action lawyer-crafted nasty gram?  

About eight business days.

Avvo launched in beta on June 5, coming out of stealth mode, with the stated intention of helping consumers choose better lawyers. The main problem was that there were two main ways of finding an attorney: via recommendation and via the Yellow Pages.

Both versions are fraught with bias, or at the least, lacking in objective information. That’s where Avvo CEO Mark Britton comes in with an algorithmic based, allegedly (you have to use "allegedly" right?) objective rating system.

Before we get into how many of us might have predicted that some lawyer(s) out there wouldn’t be pleased with their rating, and thus might have the inclination and sure-footedness to sue, let’s look at the Top 10 Things I Will Never Ever Do to see where creating a lawyer rating website ranks: 

Top 10 Things I Will Never Ever Do

10. Think rock climbing, running, or math are "fun"
9. Answer the door for two young guys in short sleeve white button-ups
8. Trust Whitey
7. Get a tattoo on my forehead
6. Create a lawyer rating website
5. Put my head in a lion’s mouth
4. Wrestle a crocodile
3. Play leapfrog with a unicorn
2. Invest in a "Prince Albert"
1. Ask a woman if this is her PMS week

Number 6, it looks like, just above putting my head in a lion’s mouth.

My guess is that Britton has attempted at least two of these other bad ideas, most likely out of brazen disregard for his own well-being, and not out of stupidity. In fact, the website seems like it would be a great resource for us clueless consumers in the event that we need (and we all do, eventually) legal services.

So I’m guessing there’s an element of altruism here, if indeed we can use that word and "lawyer" in the same sentence.

Avvo’s rating system is based on a 10-point scale, according to the plaintiffs (John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro):

9.0-10.0  Superb
8.0-8.9    Excellent
7.0-7.9    Very good
6.0-6.9    Good
5.0-5.9    Average
4.0-4.9    Concern
3.0-3.9    Caution
2.0-2.9    Strong caution
1.0-1.9    Extreme caution

Eric Goldman, who teaches Cyberlaw and Intellectual Property at Santa Clara University School of Law, notes this was probably a bad idea:

The distillation of attorneys into a single numerical rating is inherently fraught with peril, and the media has picked up on numerous examples where the ratings are out of sync with common sense.

There could be a number of reasons for this, including insufficient data to make accurate ratings or miscalibrated components of the rating algorithm.

Either way, the numerical ratings look much more like a work-in-progress than a finished product, and I sure hope consumers aren’t actually relying on the numerical ratings….

Goldman continues at his blog about the philosophical and transparency issues, as well as what this means to interactive websites and rankings by search engines.

Plaintiffs say the ranking system is flawed, ranking highly respected veterans below disbarred and even jailed attorneys. They write:

Avvo’s fallible system for rating and promoting attorneys has produced wild discrepancies in ratings rather than the reliable consumer benchmarks for making decisions about legal representation that Avvo claims.

For example, the Dean of Stanford Law School, Larry Kramer (Avvo Rating 5.7 of "Average"), is rated lower than Lynne Stewart, a disbarred New York lawyer who was convicted of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists, who received a 6.5 or "very good" rating.

The Avvo founder and CEO, Mark Britton, who was been a member of the Washington State Bar for just nine years received an 8 or "Excellent Rating," higher than the Dean Kramer.

Ouch. On the Avvo blog, Britton defends his website saying the plaintiffs are looking to squelch freedom of speech.

Britton writes:

This lawsuit is an effort to censor and to chill Avvo’s analysis, commentary and opinion in order to protect attorneys who have disciplinary actions in their backgrounds. It seems to reflect a belief, on behalf of the lawyers bringing this lawsuit, that the First Amendment doesn’t apply to the dissemination of opinions and information about them.

Whatever the outcome, this Lawyer vs. Lawyer case will be interesting to watch – in the same way "Crocodile Hunter" and "Jackass" were always cringingly fun to suffer through.