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December 24, 2007

Lawyer Rating System Endorsed by WSJ - Does This Make You Feel Better?

(UPDATE:  12/27/07 - Scott Greenfield pulls off the gloves at Simple Justice as he dukes it out with Paul Bloom of Avvo...see comments.)

(UPDATE: 12/26/07 - Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle takes up the discussion including my response to her considered opinion.  And take note, people can agree to disagree and still be personal and professional friends as Carolyn and I are.)

(UPDATE:  12/24/07 - Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice posted his view of Avvo...it's a must read as are the comments.  The discussion is very englightening, to say the least.)

Wow.  I can sleep a whole lot better knowing the WSJ endorses lawyer rating systems, particularly Avvo.  I feel as good as I do about any 'publication' ranking law schools. (Read  with 'dripping sarcasm.')

This idiocy that because other things have been ranked before from manicurists to dog food makes it OK is just beyond any rational thinking. 

At a time when the judicial system is under increasing scrutiny, the courtroom performances and verdicts of its practitioners would seem a reasonable object of public interest. For those shopping for legal counsel, an online rating service might at least provide some measure of transparency in an otherwise opaque profession.

The site, called Avvo, does for lawyers what any number of magazines and Web sites have been doing for other professions for years. Magazines regularly publish stories that rank an area's doctors and dentists. There are rating sites and blogs for the 'best' hairstylists, manicurists, restaurants and movie theaters. Almost any consumer product or service these days is sorted and ranked.

Professional ego aside, it's hard to see why lawyers or judges should be any different.

This is not about lawyers having egos.  This is about someone or some people deciding there is an incredible profit to be made by rankings and they are attempting to capture a previously otherwise not fully exploited segment of a profession.  Any one talented person or persons can put a public service spin on its benefits.  We've seen it time and time, again. 

Imagine if U.S. News and World Reports rankings did not exist anymore.  We might have law schools which followed their own mission within certain parameters of the ABA Accreditation Committee (which leaves much to be desired).  They would be working for the student's best interests, not a slave to USNWR.  Knowing what law schools know now about its impact 20 years later and students knowing now how manipulated and misleading the system is, they would have destroyed it at birth.  And don't be surprised if Avvo then gets involved with an aggregator of legal blogs (including yours) to incorporate into the ratings system and then they will have everyone by the ...well, you know what.  It's just ugly.

Today, we have an opportunity to not let it happen to the legal profession as a whole.  Super Lawyers, Martindale Hubbell has an elitist element to it which doesn't impact the profession or consumers in any meaningful way.  Avvo will be visited in every corner of the professional world because of its business objectives (follow the money) and it will impact every lawyer like Big Brother.  It WILL NOT.  I repeat  WILL NOT help the consumer as they claim it will.  The single most bogus claim they are making is it is for protection of the consumer.  It is for the protection and profit of their investors and those who decide to climb into bed with them, period.  And if anyone running it or advocating for it has pictured themselves as a knight in shining armor here to defend the unsuspecting, ignorant public they need serious deprogramming.

If consumers want to learn about their lawyers track record they can have free access to any lawyer's disciplinary history.  The same with judges.  If they want today to see if their lawyer has made news in a way that is favorable or unfavorable, they can google their name and it will reveal plenty. 

Do not participate in this system which has already shown how dangerous it is.  Read from other lawyers who have already been asked to game the system.  Read how their 'algorithm' gives convicted felons higher ratings then those who are known stellar attorneys. 

Don't buy into it even if you have a good 'score' because you will be sorry later when you get hit with a meritless grievance or another lawyer threatens you by stating they will start an anonymous Avvo commenting campaign to destroy your professional reputation .  Or a client threatens you in the same manner unless you refund their money or any other manner of professional intimidation.  Now there is something to ponder.  And then ask yourself, why would any reasonable attorney support this? Don't know? 'Follow the money.'

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Comments

Grant D. Griiffiths

Susan -- I could not have said it better myself. And you hit a key point. The ranking drivel starts with law schools and continues into the careers of those who attend those ranked schools.

And who really gives a care? Is it the public that is served by the rankings? I really don't think so. I have yet had a client ask me what the rank of my law school is. And I darn sure have not had a client ask me if I have a Avvo or M&H ranking.

The only ones who care are most likely the ego driven lawyers who are ranked and attended the ranked school. Or the "big law" firm who recruits from the ranked school and usually misses out on some great lawyers from some not so highly "ranked" school.

And as you stated, those who are profiting from or wanting to profit from owning a ranking company care, too.

To you readers, don't allow yourself to get so caught up in the ranking game that you forget what really matters. Service to your clients. Rankings are not going to get you clients or referrals from existing clients. Service will.

Larry

I am not fond of "ranking" systems in general. This is especially so when ranking people. There is an innumerable number of variables to consider, and even then it is still very subjective.

I subscribe to the philosophy that the top 10% of students in "top" law schools have basically proved one thing, that they are great *law students*. But this does not necessarily translate into being great *lawyers*.

Adhering to the belief that one is second rate or sub-par because of average law-school performance or attendance at a sub-tier law school can be damaging to the psyche. I believe that great lawyering is a highly individual combination of traits of which legal knowledge is only one aspect. The *potential* of an individual cannot be adequately ranked by any system.

Public ranking systems not only artificially raise or lower the public's knowledge and confidence, but they also affect the lawyer's image of him/her self to some extent.

Choosing the right lawyer (and the right client) is an individual choice based upon criteria that cannot be adequately ranked, and systems attempting to rank them should not be relied upon in my opinion.

Michael Rice

I'm not going to defend Avvo, as they can clearly do that on their own. I do think they are quite right that the profession is very opaque. Relying solely on personal recommendations seems inadequate to me.

If you accept those propositions (not sure if you do), what would you do to make the profession less opaque? Or, do you think the market will take care of itself as clients demand things like blogs, etc...?

Susan Cartier Liebel

Michael, Thanks for entering the discussion.

First, I do not accept the proposition the legal industry is opaque. I think there was a time (pre-internet)when information was harder to gather but always available. With the advent of the internet, the information remains scattered and requires a few more key strokes, but definitely accessible.

I do not have any qualms with a company who wishes to create an aggregation of information, one source of profiles, commentary, publications on the internet so the consumer doesn't have to go through those extra key strokes. But I do not condone an algorithm which quantifies that which is not quantifiable.

You question referrals as inadequate. Regardless the advancement of technology, referrals will remain the number one basis (62%) of all business you will receive in most practice areas.

Technology doesn't alter the reality we work with people we know, like and trust.

What has changed is we now go to the internet and if we cannot do our own 'research' and there is no web presence which we can investigate, the person is starting in a down position because they were already favored with a referral. So an internet presence is a must.

And the same way we will go to the internet to do our own homework, an aggregator may help us to do it quicker.

But ratings only serve the organization providing the rating and do not benefit the public one iota. It is a marketing ploy and the internet and the heated discussions show it is a bad marketing ploy.

Had this aggregation been done correctly it would have been an asset. Now they have an uphill battle to fight and they are unfortunately very stubborn instead of taking the opportunities presented and repurposing their marketing and business plan.

Did you ever stop to wonder why American Idol is so wildly popular and why any reality show where the people get to play a role in the outcome has captivated the country?

Because there is encouraged and welcomed involvement where viewers feel vested in the outcome.

Instead AVVO came at it as lawyer's are the devil, attacked, offended and alienated the very group who would have helped shape it intelligently and responsibly. There is a reason we remain a self governing body. The majority of lawyers take their profession very seriously and have great pride. Instead, AVVO came along and slapped everyone in the face saying investors know better then more than 1 million lawyers. Talk about egos?

And then in order to protect this 'algorithm' they are worsening the situation showing their complete lack of understanding about how to cultivate the very audience they need to succeed, to serve their mission and profit. The best (and most moral) and longest lived and profitable businesses are those which provide a service or product which benefits all those involved. When you are dealing with human beings as the 'product' being sold (lawyers' reputations) there is an even greater moral imperative and need for cooperation. Right now AVVO is failing.

So, given your question...is their a need for aggregation? Need? I don't know. Would it be a convenience? Yes. Should lawyers sacrifice their independence and reputation with AVVO in its current state? Absolutely not. Do we need AVVO in its present arrogant, self-impressed state to provide the service? No. And if they don't figure out a way to fix the problem...some other group of investors populated with practicing lawyers will be reading all that has been written and sweep the profitable rug right out from under them.

I hope this helps shed some light on my attitude.

Kevin O'Keefe

Why does just the mention of Avvo get lawyers all worked up? What's the danger in giving people more information? If people want to use Avvo, they'll use it. If people do not believe Avvo is worthwhile, they'll choose not to use it.

I choose not to drive a Yugo. I am not sure I would feel safe in such a small car next to a semi on the freeway. But I don't go around dissing Yugo telling the manufacturer their car is worthless and telling anyone who will listen to me that Yugo is just out to make money by selling worthless cars to the unknowing populous.

There are too many people in this country who believe people are too stupid to protect themselves. God forbid these poor souls who did not have the opportunity to go to law school decide to pick a lawyer in a method of their own liking. We lawyers know better and we need to protect you from yourself.

How much time have people criticizing Avvo spent on Avvo's website? Very little of the info provided in the completed lawyer profiles has to do with ratings. Much as to do with clients' and other lawyers' comments about their experience with the subject lawyer. That's good stuff. In a totally opaque industry, where else on the net do I get those types of third party comments about lawyers?

I didn't like Avvo at first. But the more I look at the profiles filling in on the site and the more I hear the shallow opinions as to why we must sink it to the bottom of the sea, the more I like Avvo.

I expected Martindale-Hubbell to table forever my proposal to have consumers and small business people comment on lawyers and rate them on certain services related factors, but I never expected people who should have consumers' interests in mind to fight such a system.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Kevin, why is your opinion considered deep and those who oppose you or AVVO shallow? Why are legitimate criticisms called 'bashing' and 'dissing' like a school yard fight? As far as your Yugo comparison, I have thousands of cars to choose from and numerous publications and websites to review. And, Kevin, it's just metal.

And the issue is and remains the algorithm used to rate lawyers. You claim those who are reviewing AVVO poorly feel the consumer is stupid? Not quite. That was AVVO's message..."We are going to shine a light into all the deep corners of the legal profession" because consumers are travelling blind in a deliberately opaque legal world confused and misled"...presuming they feel the way you do, that bus advertising is sleazy or a trusted friend's referral is inadequate. I think this message the legal profession is opaque is an incorrect or deliberately perpetuated marketing position. And AVVO is operating on a false premise.

AVVO did a great job of branding themselves as a threat to lawyers. I didn't bring a lawsuit that garnered AVVO and any system that would propose to rate lawyers as 'ludicrous.'

Let AVVO be the premium aggregation service with all its other features of public commentary, profiles, etc. Toss the algorithm. I suspect you get rid of that and they will have an actual chance of getting lawyers interested in their site. After all, if lawyers don't participate in it in any meaningful way they can't succeed. And everyone knows this.

But the longer it takes them to acknowledge they made a mistake in its calculations and marketing approach the harder it will be in the future to turn it around.

If you suggest criticism with valid points will make them work harder to prove their point and stick to their guns, that's not only not objective...it's bad business. If they want to ultimately win which is bringing a long-lived truly useful product to market and profit from it (no, profit is not a dirty word..I come from generations of entrepreneurs) they need to actually hear their critics, not just serve up the same tired dialogue.

Forget who is saying what they don't want to hear and ask yourself 'could there be something to what is being said?'

Rochelle

As a relatively new attorney, I must say that the advent of this "service" is deeply disturbing. Apparently, there are even more of those who would snap the wings of new solos, only to further isolate and stratify the legal profession based upon....what criteria? Or, a better question is...WHOSE criteria?

Now, regardless of what the company (Avvo) may say, these rankings do not come from outer space, but likely reflect the "traditional" notion of what a "good attorney" may be. Like Susan, I believe that having yet to establish a reputation is not the same as deserving of some cautionary rating. Moreover, however, I believe that these so-called variables in their "algorithm" will rely heavily on things (for the new solo) such as law school ranking and access to professional development opportunities that tend to favor "traditional" attorneys from "traditional" law schools.

It all makes me wonder why we even have "access" institutions, scholarships, and other programs that not only encourage but actually increase broader participation in the legal profession if we are going to brand such new graduates in a manner to suggest a "warning" in a systematic way that suggests to the typical consumer (who has access to a computer but has no access to a BigLaw attorney for his divorce, for example) some degree of legitimacy.

More than considering what the "algorithm" does include as variables, there is also the question of what doesn't it include. Does the ranking look at bar passage? I would bet that a student who graduated from a second tier school who failed the bar four times is ranked higher than one from a fourth tier school who passed the bar the first time, all other things being "equal." I don't know their "algorithm," but this is my suspicion.

All of this makes me wonder...Why do we even have law schools other than the top tier? Really. It must be the money. (And, I don't mean the actual salaries that lower-tiered graduates receive upon graduation!)

My point is simple. I think that there will be other consequences of using some "algorithm" to assign a "grade" to an attorney who did not ask to be graded, particularly new "non-traditional" solos who may be providing access to legal services in underserved communities or to underserved segments of our population. Not only may the attorney's ego and reputation take a hit, but segments of the population whose only access to legal services is by virtue of graduates of "access" institutions may get the impression that they have the damaged goods, inferior to those available outside of their communities and their neighborhoods.

Am I stretching it? I don't think so. Let me put it to you this way: would you want a surgeon who was branded with the word CAUTION...even if she were the only surgeon at your neighborhood hospital? Now, suppose the branding of CAUTION primarily reflects the fact that she went to the local HBCU. You probably don't know that (and would likely be outraged at that fact), but you likely suspect that the surgeons at the "other" hospital have some other branding.

THIS is not good for our profession. It is one thing for us to have our own nasty little way of stratifying ourselves based upon law school tiering. It is another thing for the public to be invited and encouraged to participate in that "tradition." This is especially true when our legal system relies on graduates of "lower tiered" law schools and "non-traditional" attorneys to service some of our communities who might not otherwise have adequate access to legal services.

We have the bar exam for a reason: to set a standard for competency. Any suggestion that criteria that are not only a part of a profit-generating mechanism but also invite and encourage the most subjective of evaluation ("peer" review) should supplement, augment, or otherwise accompany an attorney's official record with the bar invites abuse and manipulation and will only serve to damage those who refuse to participate in this scheme, as a "high" rating only exists in contrast to a "lower" rating.

Joyce Woods

.If lawyers want to cork the bubbling ferment on the quality of legal services, the first thing they can do is report their incompetent, unethical colleagues to disciplinary authorities, as they pretend is "required" by ethical guidelines.
It's time someone started consumer reports on lawyers.
Yes, the rankings/ratings should be accurate and there are lots of subjective factors. However, the damage being done to the public by not having such a site is so severe that minor degrees of ranking inaccuracy are trivial.

The bad-lawyer problem I know best exists in smaller, politically infested counties where middle- or lower income clients are critically damaged by the lazy and cynical. Divorce, custody, probate cases are the worst. So-called good lawyers serve only themselves by not tattling.
Have the competent, good lawyers complaining about rating fairness ever reported an incompetent (or lazy, or drunk, or drug-addicted, and/or bipolar) colleague? Or judge, for that matter.
By not complaining, good lawyers are "rating" these fools as "competent to practice law" by default. Is this accurate? Or fair?
They stay in the yellow pages! More people call them! Three years and 30 clients can go by until they are finally disbarred.
There's a tsunami of consumer outrage. People will want to use sites like this for disaster prevention, as well as, Do I choose this lawyer or that one?

Better than suing Avvo:

Help perfect it.
Or,start a competing web site and let market forces take over.
Or, get a university to develop the ranking or rating system, fairly.
(This will be slow)

I think people are MUCH less interested in the web site's rankings than they are in what other clients have to say. Potential clients can put other client's comments in the mix of other factors according to what's important to them.

I also think that people care very little about what other lawyers have to say about yet another lawyer's skill -- too much favor trading.

Specialization, seminars, teaching CLE would seem to be important.

All inventions get better with time and use. Fix it, don't sue it.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Joyce, a lot of your points are well considered. And I have a real issue with trading favors by peers for gaming the rankings. This is proliferating faster than rabbits in heat.

However, you also say the consumer is most interested in consumer commentary. Then why not toss the rankings which are suspect (VERY suspect) and just have a site devoted to peer commentary...a forum to discuss attorneys.

Everyone says the ratings are irrelevant, other attorneys, the consumer who it is supposed to help. Then simply get rid of it.

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