Sunday, July 01, 2007

On Second Thought, Let’s Just Rate All the Lawyers

By ADAM LIPTAK
Sidebar
The New York Times
July 2, 2007

John Henry Browne, a criminal defense lawyer in Seattle, was steamed. A new Web site that rates lawyers the way Zagat rates restaurants, with numbers, had assigned him a low score.

So Mr. Browne filed a class-action lawsuit last month.

“We want to shut the site down,” he said.

The site is called Avvo.com, and Mr. Browne’s first rating on its 10-point scale was 3.7, a score in a range that the site labels “caution.” After he complained, the rating was changed to 5.5, or “average.”

Mr. Browne said he deserved better. As evidence, he said a magazine had called him a “super lawyer.”

But it was Bernie Willard Potter’s initial score of 6.2, or “good,” that drove Mr. Browne out of his mind. Here Mr. Browne had a point. Mr. Potter, another Seattle lawyer, was in fact not likely to provide effective representation, on account of possessing neither a law license nor a pulse.

“I do take offense,” Mr. Browne said, “when I get rated lower than a dead, disbarred lawyer.”

Last week, Avvo was scrambling to respond to complaints about the site and to the lawsuit. It took many ratings off the site, though not Mr. Browne’s, and on Thursday it filed a vigorous motion to dismiss the suit.

The idea behind Avvo, short for avvocato, the Italian word for lawyer, is a sound one. Ordinary people have no good way to look for a lawyer. Faced with a life crisis — a divorce, an injury, a criminal charge — they rely on word-of-mouth recommendations, the Yellow Pages, billboards or subway ads.

On Avvo, potential clients can search by specialty and ZIP code, and they will be presented with a list of ranked possibilities. Nothing wrong with that.

But Avvo has a long way to go. It does not disclose how it generates its rankings, though it says that it relies on public records. It seems clear that disciplinary reports hurt and that experience, education and specialization help.

Lawyers who are willing to give Avvo a credit card number as proof of their identity can add information to their profiles that may raise their numbers. The site says that lawyers are unlikely to lie in the profiles because they “can lose their licenses for falsifying data.” It asks other users to report inaccurate information and says it will lower its rankings of lawyers who are caught lying.

But the suit is full of examples of curiosities and anomalies in the ratings. The dean of the Stanford Law School had a lower rating than a lawyer convicted of helping terrorists. One lawyer, the suit said, raised his rating by listing a softball award.

Avvo conceded that lawyers could temporarily raise their ratings with silly prizes but said its staff manually checked awards not already in its database. Any bump for a spelling bee championship will be short-lived, Avvo said.

My rating rose from 6.4 to 7.4, or “very good,” after I punched in a couple of degrees and a law review article, lifting me past not only the dead lawyer but also the initial rankings of Supreme Court Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, before the site stopped ranking them by number. It did not look hard to game the rankings.

But just because the site is a work in progress does not mean it should be suffocated in its infancy by thin-skinned lawyers. As it refines its methods and gathers more information, including critiques of lawyers by their clients, Avvo could well provide an important and valuable service.

“I realize there are some lawyers out there who don’t like us shining a flashlight in dark places,” said Mark Britton, an Avvo founder who used to be general counsel of Expedia.com. “But if you chill and censor our opinion, what does that mean for all the other sites that process information?”

Mr. Britton, whose Avvo rating was 8.2 , or “excellent,” said Mr. Browne’s number was low because the Washington State Bar Association had disciplined him. The bar’s Web site confirms that, showing that Mr. Browne was admonished in 2005 over a fee dispute.

Mr. Browne said the discipline was for a trivial matter. “One of my associates typed out a retainer agreement that I didn’t even know about,” he said, “and the money my client paid me was a little different.”

Mr. Browne said he had lost two potential clients thanks to his Avvo rating. He would not name the lost clients because, he said, “they have not been indicted yet.”

In the lawsuit, Avvo surely has the better of the legal argument. For starters, Mr. Browne has not sued for libel but has used Washington State’s consumer protection law. Under Mr. Browne’s theory, any publication, print or digital, that presumed to offer rankings of lawyers that were open to dispute could be shut down — in the cause of protecting consumers.

Legal publications these days are full of lists of supposedly stellar lawyers, which are a nice way to generate advertising and good feelings but perform no particular service. Avvo’s rankings at least take account of lawyers’ shortcomings.

A lawyer for Avvo, Bruce E. H. Johnson, was rated 10, or “superb,” which is a little suspicious. But he was making sense in discussing the suit the other day.

“Most ratings systems are very good at telling us who is super or who is best,” Mr. Johnson said. “But there are very few that tell us where there is a risk of substandard performance.”

“The First Amendment protects statements of opinion and evaluation,” he added. “And ratings are presumptively matters of opinion and judgment.”

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