December 30, 2007

Free Legal Education Through OpenCourseWare from T1 Law Schools? Wouldn't That Be Sweet!

Imagine really informing the public for FREE about the mysteries behind the study of law through OpenCourseWare such as being used by MIT, Yale, Harvard and more.  Great article

The world's top universities have come late to the world of online education, but they're arriving at last, creating an all-you-can eat online buffet of information.

And mostly, they are giving it away.

MIT's initiative is the largest, but the trend is spreading. More than 100 universities worldwide, including Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Notre Dame, have joined MIT in a consortium of schools promoting their own open courseware. You no longer need a Princeton ID to hear the prominent guests who speak regularly on campus, just an Internet connection. This month, Yale announced it would make material from seven popular courses available online, with 30 more to follow.

As with many technology trends, new services and platforms are driving change. Last spring marked the debut of "iTunes U," a section of Apple's popular music and video downloading service now publicly hosting free material from 28 colleges. Meanwhile, the University of California, Berkeley recently announced it would be the first to make full course lectures available on YouTube. Berkeley was already posting lectures, but YouTube has dramatically expanded their reach.

If there isn't yet something for everyone, it's only a matter of time. On iTunes, popular recent downloads include a climate change panel at Stanford, lectures on existentialism by Cal-Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus, and a performance of Mozart's requiem by the Duke Chapel Choir. Berkeley's offerings include 48 classes, from "Engineering Thermodynamics" to "Human Emotion."

"It's almost as good as being there," said Whelan, the Massachusetts retiree, of the MIT classes he has sampled. "The only thing that's lacking is the pressure." He says he usually doesn't do the homework assignments, but adds: "Now that I'm not in school I don't have to do that anymore."

YouTube, iTunes, OpenCourseWare — none are the full college experience. You can't raise your hand and ask a question. You can't get a letter of recommendation.

And most importantly, almost everywhere, you can't get credit or earn a degree.

That caveat, however, is what has made all this possible.

When the Internet emerged, experts predicted it would revolutionize higher education, cutting its tether to a college campus. Technology could help solve one of the fundamental challenges of the 21st century: providing a mass population with higher education at a time when a college degree was increasingly essential for economic success.

Today, the Internet has indeed transformed higher education. A multibillion-dollar industry, both for-profit and non-profit, has sprung up offering online training and degrees. Figures from the Sloan Consortium, an online learning group, report about 3.5 million students are signed up for at least one online course — or about 20% of all students at degree-granting institutions.

But it hasn't been as clear what role — if any — elite universities would play in what experts call the "massification" of higher education. Their finances are based on prestige, which means turning students away, not enrolling more. How could they teach the masses without diminishing the value of their degree?

But MIT's 2001 debut of OpenCourseWare epitomized a key insight: Elite universities can separate their credential from their teaching — and give at least parts of their teaching away as a public service. They aren't diminishing their reputations at all. In fact, they are expanding their reach and reputation.

Professors teaching for free beyond their campus, their state, their country and across the globe. Can you envision the possibilties for law schools?  Will it ever happen, though?  That is the question.  Or are we too protectionist?  Is a truly informed public dangerous to our livelihood, our egos?  Does this type of free education of the masses bring us further towards commoditization of legal services? Would it force the ABA to tighten their control over who may or may not take the bar? I don't know for sure, but I have an idea.  And you?

And as a parent, why not start introducing your high school aged kids to online educating from the supposed best and brightest to give them a heads up on their college experience? At the very least, I'm going back to school and maybe my husband will join me!

December 19, 2007

Judge Says It Best When He Calls Lawyer Rating Systems "Ludicrous."

(UPDATE: 1/3/07 - Larry Bodine brings you more information on my new favorite judge in the AVVO case with more language from this (in)famous 'lawyer's ratings case.' Aaaaah.  When people speak common sense it is music to my ears.)

Although the lawsuit against Avvo had to be dismissed on the grounds of Free Speech the Federal Judge in this case gave us all a dose of real wisdom in his decision:

....their (plaintiffs Browne and Wenokur) lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become.... more power to them.

Main Entry:
lu·di·crous
Pronunciation:
\ˈlü-də-krəs\
Function:
adjective
Etymology:
Latin ludicrus, from ludus play, sport; perhaps akin to Greek loidoros abusive
Date:
1712
1 : amusing or laughable through obvious absurdity, incongruity, exaggeration, or eccentricity
2 : meriting derisive laughter or scorn as absurdly inept, false, or foolish

Yes.  More power to all attorneys who state on their websites they do not support arbitrary, capricious and 'ludicrous' money-based ratings systems like Avvo that can, and unfortunately will, impact all lawyers...and disproportionately impact solos.  So, while Avvo can be temporarily happy the lawsuit was dismissed, remember their efforts have been publicly branded as 'ludicrous.'

Just because ratings systems can legally exist doesn't make them valuable for public consumption. Your active participation (or lack thereof) infers its value. And if you choose to participate in any of them professionally make sure you check your motivations and assess their short and long term impact not just upon you but the profession as a whole.  And as always, 'follow the money.'

You can read more about how I and others feel about Avvo and anyone like them here. Make sure to read the comments, too!

December 14, 2007

Why Are Lawyers So Damned Depressed? Well, You're A Lawyer. You Figure It Out.

Jim Calloway, author of Law Practice Tips, writes a compelling commentary on the recent Wall Street Journal piece regarding the high rate of depression amongst lawyers.  He quotes several articles which then reference several studies.  It appears the top three drivers are:

  • the adversarial process;
  • non-stop deadlines; and
  • pressure to meet billable hour requirements.

You should read the commentary and the articles because I believe most lawyers can relate on some level.

I would like to see a study of depression amongst solos specifically to see if the percentages are the same in this sector as the profession taken as a whole.  There are different issues solos face, for sure.  But they can control the quantity and quality of client they take on which in turn controls deadlines and billables. They can even determine to get rid of the billable hour which many are doing.

However, I would like to proffer another perspective on challenges facing all lawyers which are unique to our profession.  I see it quite often with my clients and we address it.  It's not depression but my guess is it can cause depression.  It is the knowledge that we have chosen a profession which turns problem-solving into an art form in order to be professionally and financially successful.  This very same problem-solving skill which is highly regarded makes you a magnet for EVERYONE's problems, not just paying clients. Everyone includes family, spouses, kids, friends.  Lawyer's hear it all the time, "Well, you're a lawyer. You're smart. Can't you figure it out." Or, my favorite, "It's easier for you to do it."  Lawyers are always in problem-solving mode and they can't turn it off.  And if they try, others try to flip the switch back on and you feel obliged.  Everyone's seeming inability to resolve problems or just plain laziness somehow magically becomes your responsibility and you allow it because on some level you feel, well, you are a lawyer, you should do it.

But the worst is when you create your own stress. Sometimes you trap yourself and believe you have to solve your own problems, understand all things, figure everything out because YOU have determined you are the only one who can resolve a matter.  You shouldn't have to pay another to address a 'weakness,'  whether it be business, marketing, technology, accounting, management, etc. because, well, lawyers shouldn't have weaknesses, vulnerabilities, inefficiencies, right?  G-d forbid it gets out to the legal community that you aren't superhuman. So, when you do hire others you promote it as efficiency because you are growing.  And sometimes it is.  But sometimes it isn't.  You just can't admit you are not good at something because, after all, you are a paid problem-solving warrior. You feel compelled by yourself and others to be able to solve ALL problems, learn all tasks, or you are somehow a failure.  And it is rooted in the experiences in law school starting with where you are accepted and the unforgiving Tier system.

So, while there are many reasons for depression in lawyers, I venture to say this could very well be another stressor which relates to the depression statistic.  This particular graduate degree and professional status comes with some pretty heavy extra baggage seldom discussed.  Give yourself a break.  You don't have to solve everyone's problems or even take the time to figure them out...unless they've paid you handsomely to do so.

November 28, 2007

Solo With An Eye For Detail Helps 200 Stay in Their Homes for the Holidays

This is simply a great story.  This would have been a great story whether the lawyer was a solo or not. But I find it interesting the reporter makes a point of saying the attorney was a solo...as if solos are, well, less detail-oriented?

Regardless, this alert solo caught a miscalculation by the clerks office which would have put 200 families out of their homes on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because of his eye for important details, these families were saved from removal from their homes during the holiday season.

Is there an unconscious bias working here or is it simply a professional description, defining lawyers as either with BigLaw or small firm or solo?  I'm not sure.  But my first gut reaction was it was a prejudice. "Look!  A solo actually caught an important detail!"  I could be wrong, let's hope so.  But I'd like your opinion as sometimes my glasses get a little foggy on these matters.

November 06, 2007

Will Lawyers As We Know Them Exist in 100 Years?

Hat tip to Stephanie West Allen at Idealawg for presenting this Times Online Article, " Legal Profession is on the Brink of Fundamental Change." the introduction to this new book. This is not a tabloid piece but a provocative and serious examination of the legal industry from Richard Susskind, Emeritus Professor of Law at Gresham College, IT advisor to the Lord Chief Justice and consultant to leading law firms. This first article is one in a series of six excerpts to be presented by Times Online.

This is neither a lawyer-bashing polemic nor a gratuitous assault on the legal profession. Instead, it is a collection of predictions and observations about a generally honourable profession that is, I argue, on the brink of fundamental transformation.

That said, I do admit, if I may give away the ending, that these articles will point to a future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today and, in some walks of life, will have no visibility at all. This, I believe, is where we will be taken by two forces: by a market pull towards commoditisation and by pervasive development and uptake of information technology. Commoditisation and IT will shape and characterise 21st century legal service.

Against this backdrop, I should be honest about one issue from the outset. I do not believe lawyers are self-evidently entitled to profit from the law. As I have said before, the law is not there to provide a livelihood for lawyers any more than ill-health exists to offer a living for doctors. Successful legal business may be a bi-product of law in society, but it is not the purpose of law. And, just as numerous other industries and sectors are having to adapt to broader change, so too should lawyers.

This series calls for the growth and the development of a legal profession not by ring-fencing certain categories of work as the exclusive preserve of lawyers; nor by encouraging cartel-like activity which discourages all but lawyers from engaging. Rather, it calls for lawyers, their professional bodies, their policy-makers, and their clients, to think more creatively, imaginatively, and entrepreneurially about the way in which lawyers can and should contribute to our rapidly changing economy and society.

This pressure to change has never been more evident then with solo practitioners, always, in my opinion, the first to see the subtle shifts in the mood of clients and capable of responding before others with creativity and innovation.  There are heated debates about breaking free from the billable hour, a market pressure from clients to have both value and limits built into the fee structure.  Solos respond by capitalizing on information technologies to streamline their businesses, reduce overhead to meet this changing demand.  Sometimes this is camouflaged in an argument for work/life balance because in making these changes we are freeing ourselves, too, from being captive to the standard trappings of a second wave law firm and mentality.  We further recognize the shift by responding to an increased workload by outsourcing or using non-lawyers to fulfill the needs.   

The legal community as a whole, however, does seek to circle the wagons, protecting against perceived attacks to their livelihood, doing exactly what Susskind says, "ring-fencing certain categories as the exclusive preserve of lawyers; ....encouraging cartel-like activity which discourages all but lawyers from engaging."   This can be seen in the push for specialization certification, an act to protect some lawyers from other lawyers as more and more lawyers enter the legal market or, as in the case of real estate law, requiring all closings to have a lawyer for each side. 

Professionals will do whatever they can to keep the collective dollars they believe they are entitled to by virtue of their education or status and the rebellion by the 'consumer' is underfoot.  And sometimes this does significant harm to the very public they are sworn to serve.

One example comes to mind within my own family and it has to do with the medical profession.  My father has suffered for years with heart ailments.  Years of surgeries, the newest technologies and so on has prolonged his life, thankfully.  However, in his more advanced years there are no more surgeries which can be done.  He visited his lifelong highly regarded cardiologist who flat out told him there is nothing left to do to address the frequency of his angina attacks.  He subsequently went to a younger cardiologist who says there is a new and promising treatment which is basically a physical therapy, a machine which massages the legs in rhythm with the pumping of the heart pushing more blood through at timed intervals.  After six weeks of treatments five days a week it has been shown to actually create the growth of new blood vessels, the effects lasting up to three years, the angina attacks minimized if not gone.  My father asked why his renowned cardiologist didn't tell him about this treatment?  The younger cardiologist said, "He probably didn't even learn about it. It's not profitable for his business model.  He didn't go to medical school and become an elite cardiologist to recommend physical therapy to be performed by a lower paying professional.  My business model is different.  It incorporates alternative therapies....and my patients are demanding alternative treatments."

In my opinion this is analagus to changes Susskind envisions.  In protecting your turf and the right to profit, you end up not serving your client or yourself in the long run.  By embracing changes, outsourcing to better the experience of your client you will build your business and reputation.  The law is not there to preserve our perceived entitlement to $1,000.00 per hour. And clinging to the notion that it is will be the undoing of many.  New solos and prescient current solos will not have that problem.  They already are in the forefront of the change revamping their fee structures, changing their office procedures, downsizing, outsourcing, creating collaboratives and living better lives for it.  It is exhausting holding onto a framework of operation which has you swimming upstream, the majority destined to perish. 

Does this mean the lawyer will cease to exist?  No.  There will always be a need for intelligent counsel and expertise in matters that are beyond the abilities of the average consumer especially in areas of the law which are highly complex.  Will we be highly paid and revered for this expertise?  I don't know. Do you?  The tide has shifted against many other types of professionals when it was perceived profit was the main motivation; the market couldn't and wouldn't sustain their outdated business model any longer.

Excerpt #2 - A Decade On: Much Changed, Much Still To Unfold

Excerpt #3 - How the Traditional Role of Lawyers Will Change

Related Links of Interest:

June 27, 2007

Connecticut's New Advertising Rules Go Into Effect on July 1 and Legal Blogs ARE 'Advertising'.

Monday I attended the Statewide Grievance Committee's free seminar on the new Advertising Rules and the new trust account rules for attorneys practicing in Connecticut. This meeting was not a discussion about what is advertising...it was how to comply with the new commandments.  Pretty slick. Why is this slick?  Because in their FAQs in the booklet handed out to attendess it states:

What is attorney advertising?

Attorney advertising is any communication made by a lawyer or law firm about the lawyer or law firm or about the legal services offered by the lawyer or law firm.

Why I find this interesting is because nowhere in the any of the rules or explanatory literature do we find the word(s) 'weblog', 'blog' or the like.  All that is found is the word website (yes, a blog is a website.  However, the word "blog" is used enough in the lexicon to be differentiated and those who constructed the rules know the difference as you will see).  In the presentation all websites were referred to as 'static' implying 'not blogs.'  However, later in the presentation the presenter referenced a question received one week prior asking, "what about RSS feeds and blogs?"  He responded, "I didn't know what they were until asked but if they have a URL and your professional designation is on it, it's covered."  Therefore, without ever mentioning blogs or differentiating them, they were categorized as advertising and/or solicitation and subject to the new rules of advertising.

Then, at the break I asked him about, again, about blogs, that in New York there was a lawsuit pending regarding blogging and first ammendment rights. He responded (and I'm paraphrasing) "Advertising is just one part of solicitation.  Solicitation comes in all forms. If it has the lawyer's name on it, it's covered by the rules.  It is well established in Connecticut that with the privileges of being lawyer comes certain responsbilities.  You are an attorney twenty four/seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year."  And after distracting from the issue of blogs in his initial presentation, acting as if he didn't know what they were, he stated to me he has been watching New York and the blogging issue and first ammendment rights very closely.  I find his presentation to the audience, therefore, a little disingenuous if not outright misleading.  The attitude seems to be that if Connecticut doesn't call it a blog, it doesn't have to explain its rules unless someone pushes the envelope. If it has a URL, it's covered.  If they have been watching New York very closely it seems to me they recognized NY opened up the can of worms when they differentiated blogs in their language.  Connecticut was not going to make the same mistake.

So, starting July 1, 2007 all forms of communication with limited exception must be submitted electronically to the statewide grievance committee.  All URLs have to be submitted every quarter 'regardless if they are updated 1000 times or none during that time period" (they don't know what a blog is???) and they are subject to random review.  Blogs are not exempted.  What I have not been able to tease out of the new rules, however, is whether or not all websites, including blogs, must state that it is advertising. Maybe upon closer inspection I'll see some hidden language or nuance.

And now for the coupe de gras.  I canvassed some attorneys present and asked them if they understood blogs were covered and how this could affect their first amendment privileges.  The response, 'well we sort of know what blogs are....but not really."  And, "I never really thought about it." So, there is very little clue about the power of blogging and the rights they may be sacrificing because of lack of knowledge. (Yes, they can still blog.  The rights I am discussing are the restrictions that come with governance.)

What was even more telling was the discussion about what we can and cannot list in our advertising.  If you are a former judge or prosecutor or police officer you have to be careful.  (This references back to the discussion on LegalEase about rules making it harder to differentiate yourself, an essential element of marketing your practice.) Providing this information in your advertising could trigger a grievance because it might give a 'reasonable person' the impression you have an 'inside track.'  This may mislead the potential client into believing he will get better results through your connections if he hires you.

Yet in the same breadth they are saying advertising should, 'just state the facts."  Is it just certain facts?

What I did hear muttered often and with seriousness, however, was "I'm probably going to stop advertising."  Was this the intent all along?  I did hook up with opposing counsel from years before who said, "I've never advertised, don't have a website, it's a non-issue for me as all my work for twenty years has come from word of mouth.  But, I wouldn't want to be starting out with these ridiculous rules."

As for the trust accounts I was a little stunned.  Prior to the new rules the only two times the statewide grievance committee had the opportunity to review your business' financial records, specifically the IOLTA (trust) account was 1) if there was an automatically triggered violation like a negative balance regardless the cause, or 2), it was upon complaint and subsequent review at a hearing.

Now, all trust accounts are subject to random audits and lawyers need to be prepared to produce at minimum six months of records.  This struck me as permissible search (without the seizure) without probable cause.  As lawyers 24/7, 365 days a year, when did we waive our rights to running our business? (Yes, I know, other industries are regulated and subject to audits. But we are 'private' practitioners.  Maybe I'm naive on this point but isn't that supposed to mean something?)

One solo canvassed expressed positive sentiments about the new rules. "I don't think this is neccessarily a bad thing.  It will force me to get my accounts more organized and keep me on my toes.  Maybe even hire an accountant." He followed up with, "it's because of the recent embezzling cases that have brought more attention to the issue and the media has hyped it up to the public, even if it wasn't the lawyer but the bookkeeper who embezzled."  He has a point but I'm still not ready to concede random audits without cause. I'd rather see mandatory CLE classes on IOLTA accounts for new attorneys then random audits without cause.

Yes, what disturbed me most, I have to admit, is the laissez-faire attitude lawyers had about more and more intrusion and governance in our ability to practice our chosen profession.

One attorney I had the pleasure to talk with at length (whose name I will not reveal for reasons you will understand in a moment) was very concerned about the advertising.  Everything that has the lawyer's name on it with the exception of certain listings in directories and yellow pages and communications between lawyers and a few more, must be reduced to a PDF and electronically filed including letterhead, business envelopes and other documentation.  When I e-mailed him that same evening inviting him to introduce himself on this blog I mentioned that his website link wasn't working.  Well, he told me the advertising presentation made him so nervous he took his website down and just left his contact information.

Understand, the average solo practitioner is not necessarily fully invested in technology to the degree they probabaly should be. (Some lawyers asked what a PDF file was.) Therefore, these new rules scared many lawyers (mostly solos) potentially back to the advertising stone ages like spending thousands on the Yellow Pages. Others just said they will give it to their assistants to handle but they would be less likely to market aggressively or creatively.

The only thing I was somewhat relieved about was the randomness of the review process.  In theory, so as to avoid the appearance of certain groups being targeted unfairly, each attorney is assigned a file number for their IOLTA account(s) and Advertising.  A computer randomly selects a certain number of files for review each quarter based upon the new submissions.

I left this seminar very disturbed about where things are going in our self-governing professional world.  I think bounds have been overstepped in a major way.  They let us peak under their skirts and we saw their 'intentions' and "prejudices" and it was, in my opinion, an obscenity.

June 12, 2007

"FICO" Scores for Lawyers - I Didn't Ask For Avvo. Did You?

(UPDATE: 7/16/08 - Illinois to AVVO - Drop Dead)  Home of the ABA says no access to master list of state's 85,000 attorneys.

(UPDATE: 12/19/07) - Judge Says It Best When He Calls Lawyer Ratings Systems ' Ludicrous'

(UPDATE: 7/1/07) - Avvo going to get rid of credit card requirement?)

(UPDATE: 6/29/07) - Avvo fighting back BUT making changes simultaneously like not including ratings on those lawyers with limited information.  Therefore, if you don't participate and put a disclaimer on your site that you do not participate....you can effectively opt out.)

(UPDATE: 6/22/07) - Avvo's ratings called a 'crock' and you can hear more discussion on LegalTalk.

(UPDATE: 6/16/07)  Thanks to Kevin O'Keefe at Lexblog you can read the Class Action.

(UPDATE: 6/15/07) - More grist for the mill which should encourage those sitting on the fence to no longer consider participating in this dangerous farce.  Supposedly, this exercise in rating lawyers was meant to shine a flashlight in those dark places consumers need to know about.  It looks like the flashlight has been turned back on this company and what we are seeing is less than pretty:

http://tech.msn.com/news/articlecnet.aspx?cp-documentid=4976995

From the article:

According to Avvo's profiles of "licensed attorneys," president Abraham Lincoln, once a lawyer who traveled on horseback between county courthouses, and Scopes defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who died in 1938, have no disciplinary sanctions pending and are encouraged to update their profiles by personalizing them with "professional experience" and achievements. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito each receive hardly flattering "experience" and "trustworthiness" ratings of three out of five stars.

U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, the magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School who has argued more than 25 cases before the Supreme Court, receives a mere 6.1 overall score out of 10. Barry Scheck, the famous member of O.J. Simpson's "dream team" (6.3), and Stanford Law professor Larry Lessig (6.3) don't fare much better.

But lawyers who have been convicted of serious crimes--including disbarred attorney Lynne Stewart, currently in prison for conspiracy to defraud the federal government--boast 6.5 ratings. Atlanta attorney Ulysses Ware, convicted of securities fraud in April, gets a 6.3 rating and is listed as an "active member in good standing" of the Georgia bar.



(UPDATE: 6/12) - The first lawyers are rising to the challenge.  They are posting the AVVO disclaimer on their site.  See comments. (There are others who have notified me privately.)  This bogus and horrific rating system will not be abided by hard working lawyers.  Thank you.

(UPDATE 6/12) : AVVO asks to swipe your credit card to verify you are who you are when you go to update your profile.  They even tell you you will not be charged.  Then you get charged $1.00 immediately.  1.1 million lawyers....$1.00 everytime you want to update...nice little scam.  Especially when they tell you it will be free.  See the comments below.

(UPDATE:  The lawsuit has been filed.  Read more here.)

I tried to not weigh in on this new Avvo rating system because I knew I would explode.  If you read my posts I am all about limited interference in my right to practice law.  But this new company, their purported mission and this top secret algorithim for rating lawyers is patently ridiculous...but most importantly is dangerous to your professional livelihood.  Now I am ready to declare war!  And by you not voicing your concerns at being rated by an unknown (certainly not a laweyr amongst them with any qualifications or knowledge about the legal industry) you are giving them permission to indirectly impact your professional life which in turn impacts your total life.

You should be actively questioning what is really going on here and why because it will impact your professional existence as it forces your profits away from your pockets and into unneccesary marketing/advertising/memberships to countermand your score or be drawn in to participate with this company.  Most importantly, you should demand the opportunity to opt out of this dangerous rating system. 

You are only mandated to answer to two voices, those of your clients who determine whether you succeed at your chosen profession by referring more business to you, and the state body that governs your good standing where you practice.  That's it. And my track record in the state in which I practice is available on-line. 

Any other false, profit driven beauty contest should be at your discretion to participate, period.

Who are these people at Avvo and why are they doing this?  $$$$$s. Did I have any vote in who is going to judge me as a professional and my worthiness as a lawyer?  Certainly not. They claim it is to provide one-stop shopping for lawyers as there is nothing like it in the legal industry...and the dreaded catch-all wolf-in-sheeps clothing phrase - for the 'needs of the consumer' or the 'public interest.'  Maybe there is a reason there is nothing like it.  It's unadulterated bullshit, that's why.  You cannot rate intangible services that are unique to the individual client/attorney relationship. I'd like to see information on the surveys and focus groups they did to determine the consumer needs this.  But, no.  This whole enterprise was conducted in 'stealth' mode so we don't know what research they did. My understanding is the leader of the brain trust came up with the idea while biking in Italy...Avvo being short for Avvocato, 'lawyer' in Italian.  That gives me confidence he understands lawyers...yeah, right!

And when bullshit is allowed to fester and attract maggots and horseflies it stinks and must be removed before it becomes hazardous to your health.  You need to ask yourself the question, "who profits."

Well, let's see.  The 'credit' score you get is based upon the following:

The Avvo Rating is our assessment of how well a lawyer could handle your legal issue. It is based on data we have collected about hundreds of thousands of lawyers - including their number of years in practice, disciplinary sanctions, and professional achievements. The data comes from multiple sources, including state bar associations, court records, lawyer websites, and information lawyers provide to Avvo. We have created a mathematical model that considers this information and calculates a score on a ten-point scale. The result is called the Avvo Rating.

In order to get a high 'credit' score are you going to be compelled to join associations that have generally been voluntary whether or not they benefit you or your practice?  Will you be forced to have a web presence or blog or tank in ranking? (Follow the money.) Will those who network extensively but are poor lawyers rank better than you?  Will those who have one foot in the grave but haven't practiced in thirty years have a higher ranking than a two year solo who has done stellar legal work? (rumor has it Lincoln is ranked and has held his license for 171 years...is this a joke or are they just letting you know that anyone who has passed the bar will be included whether they are alive or dead, practicing or not, or willing to participate?)

And new solos, you will get slammed as you try to build your business. You will not have years of practice. You will not have name recognition (as they purport to define). You will not be spending your limited resources on joining every organization out there.  You will be ranked at 1 - extreme caution.  Who are they to tell your potential clients to 'use extreme caution.'  Who are they to dictate your marketing efforts and how you spend your start-up money and profits?  This is dangerous territory, people, and it is time to slay the dragon while it is young.

Many lawyers who have incredible reputations in their communities for servicing their clients are getting low 'credit' scores...based upon what, an erroneous grievance that ultimately is dismissed? Not belonging to the ABA or their State Bar Association?  Now, there will be a boon to these organizations who have been seeing defections and lost income.

The value of you as a professional is being determined by an alien body who doesn't understand the attorney/client relationship yet purports to understand that it is difficult to find a good lawyer.  Tell us how you know this. Good lawyers have been found for centuries without Avvo.  And when someone wants a good lawyer, they will do what they have always done, talk to other people and get the professional buzz locally. And based upon the attorney's reputation for helping others, that attorney will get referred business.

I don't care how much money Avvo has raised in venture capital...supposedly 13 million.. (That should tell you something right there...profits for investors at your professional expense)...I did not give them permission to rate me and neither should you.

Even if this virus has infected your state already, yet you received a high 'credit' score, demand the ability to opt out of this beauty contest.  And let it be stated in a way that is not prejudicial to you.

Lawsuit are starting.  If there is a class action, participate.  Talk about this on the blogosphere.  Contact Avvo and tell them you demand the right to opt out as you did not give your permission.  They may claim it is all public data.  That's fine.  Decline to be rated.  We've all been personally impacted by FICO scores.  Let's not be professionally impacted by AVVO ratings.  Some may say there is Martindale-Hubbell and they include all lawyers. They are harmless.  This company represents a danger because of their technological savvyiness.  That's the HUGE difference.

If we let this dragon scorch our professional landscape with this profit-driven idiocy then we are fools.  If we can't advocate for ourselves, how do we dare advocate for others.

TAKE THE CHALLENGE: And now I issue each and everyone you a challenge to take action.  Put a disclaimer on your website or blog that says:

"I do not voluntarily participate in the AVVO rating system as I do not believe any group or entity is qualified to rank lawyers in a way that is meaningful to you, the client. "  (or something to that effect.)

I've thrown down the gauntlet. Let the revolution begin.

(For the record, this virus is not in Connecticut yet so my rating is not impacting my opinion about this...and neither should yours.)

I'm stepping down from my soap box now.  Please feel free to comment away.

April 30, 2007

Cyber-Stalking A Threat to Solo Female Lawyers?

The Washington Post just did a piece on the impact of cyberstalking on women engaged in business on the internet, primarily bloggers.  They highlighted the following:

A female freelance writer who blogged about the pornography industry was threatened with rape. A single mother who blogged about "the daily ins and outs of being a mom" was threatened by a cyber-stalker who claimed that she beat her son and that he had her under surveillance. Kathy Sierra, who won a large following by blogging about designing software that makes people happy, became a target of anonymous online attacks that included photos of her with a noose around her neck and a muzzle over her mouth.

As women gain visibility in the blogosphere, they are targets of sexual harassment and threats. Men are harassed too, and lack of civility is an abiding problem on the Web. But women, who make up about half the online community, are singled out in more starkly sexually threatening terms -- a trend that was first evident in chat rooms in the early 1990s and is now moving to the blogosphere, experts and bloggers said".

Sierra, whose recent case has attracted international attention, has suspended blogging. Other women have censored themselves, turned to private forums or closed comments on blogs. Many use gender-neutral pseudonyms. Some just gut it out. But the effect of repeated harassment, bloggers and experts interviewed said, is to make women reluctant to participate online -- undercutting the promise of the Internet as an egalitarian forum.

While this is a gender based issue and cuts across the entire blogosphere, how does it impact the female solo attorney, in general, who blogs and even more disconcerting, the solo attorney who blogs and has a home based office.

In developing a practice-area based blog to build business we are actively seeking to create relationships by establishing a more approachable presence, presenting a demeanor that invites commentary and active discussion and debate.  We want to encourage prospective clients to come to our site and learn.  But we don't know everyone who is coming to our site and we certainly don't know their intentions or proclivities.  That's the absolute truth. 

There was a recent discussion on a listserv entitled 'creepy clients' which then evolved into a discussion about safety.  You have to take precautions that work for you and still permit you to develop the business you need to while remaining competitive.

If you've noticed, I don't include an address or phone number on my blog.  It's a personal choice for many reasons.  Maybe it has impacted some business I would have received, I don't know.  But given I consult, those who want to reach me have no problem sending an e-mail to show their interest.  This is a choice I make for my safety and the safety of my family.  I have comment moderation.  I don't share too many intimacies that invite unwanted guests but enough that it has enabled me to cultivate and enjoy a bounty of new relationships throughout the internet world as I choose.  I don't publish this information, either, on listservs.  Instead, I direct them to my website where I can be e-mailed.  I'm very careful how I give out my information.

It's fair to say anytime you voice an opinion or participate in a discussion there can be issues, especially for women. Unfortunately, the reality (of which I don't approve) is the understood disclaimer in fine print on the ticket for admission to the conversation.  You are inviting unknown people into your world and not all will recognize natural or ethical boundaries. You have to be willing to take the necessary steps to protect yourself.  As much as we would like to extinguish violence, uncivilized behaviors, and stupidity the best we can do short term is to take responsible, self-protective actions that still allow us to run our practices competitively and as we see fit.

I invite you to share your thoughts and any precautions you have taken to make this very real concern less stressful for you.

April 04, 2007

Chubb Answers Attorneys' Concerns Regarding Insurability of Lawyer Bloggers - I'll Use It To Fertilize My Garden

Kevin O'Keefe of Lexblog posted the response he received in the form of a press release from Chubb after the blogosphere exploded with posts and commentary regarding Chubb's denial of insurance for those lawyers who blog.  You can read the press release here:

News from Chubb 

Chubb Group of Insurance Companies

15 Mountain View Road

P.O. Box 1615

Warren, New Jersey 07059

Contact: Jodi Dorman

(908) 903-2608

Email:

jdorman@chubb.com

Chubb’s Position on Law Firm Blogs

WARREN, NJ, April 4, 2007—"

Chubb Group of Insurance Companies was recently the subject of some confusing media reports about the company’s willingness to insure blogs. As a leading insurer of law firms across the country, we make it a priority to be on top of emerging trends that affect law firms," said James L. Rhyner, worldwide lawyers professional manager for Chubb Specialty Insurance. "Today, more and more law firms are establishing blogs. Chubb does insure this new form of communication—and will continue to do so within select parameters."

Depending on the way law firms use technology, a blog can create a minimal to significant level of added risk. "In that regard, managing risk associated with a blog is an appropriate part of the underwriting function—and Chubb takes its underwriting responsibilities seriously," said Rhyner.

Chubb has found that law firm blogs fall into two general classes: informational and advisory.

An informational blog presents information or offers a forum for discussing issues in a neutral, unbiased way. This type of blog offers information similar to that found in an article or presented by an individual in a seminar—informational blogs do not provide advice to a specific individual on a unique matter. Typically, these blogs pose a minimal level of risk from Chubb’s underwriting perspective.

In an advisory blog, however, a law firm offers advice. By its nature, then, it increases the risk of a malpractice lawsuit against the firm. An advisory blog can potentially establish an attorney-client relationship, possibly bypassing such safeguards as determining the suitability of a potential client and checking for possible conflicts of interest. As always, Chubb’s underwriters will evaluate each submission on its own merits.

Chubb provides insurance coverage for 90% of the law firms listed in The American Lawyer’s AM Law 200. It also offers brokers and law firm customers free loss management guidance, including A Lawyer’s Guide to Managing E-Lawyering Risks and Managing Legal Malpractice.

The member insurers of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies form a multi-billion dollar organization providing property and casualty insurance for personal and commercial customers worldwide through 8,500 independent agents and brokers. Chubb's global network includes branches and affiliates throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

###

I find their response extremely interesting. I have never heard of an 'advisory blog.'

What it seems to me is that Chubb is creating their own definition of the blog they fear versus the reality of what a blog is and does. Any practice-area based blog is informational and I have yet to see a blog which advises unknown clients. There are blogs which can have a forum component providing give and take with the author but I have yet to see an author give 'advice' that establishes an attorney client relationship.

But my best guess is the all important language in their letter which gives them the opportunity to review each blog on a case-by-case basis to determine insurability.  This language allows them to determine where each blog falls on their pendulum of risk, minimal to maximum, and as to whether or not the blog author is complying with the current rules governing 'advertising' within their state such as including the much disputed disclaimers as well as where blogs fall within overall marketing strategies, which have inspired recent court challenges, specifically as to whether blogs are traditional advertising, such as in New York.

If attorneys are victorious in New York, can the insurance companies go in the back door and dictate compliance based upon their own nonsensical criteria or withhold insurance? Imagine the insurance companies dictating where and how big your disclaimer must be positioned on your blog?  Insurance companies dictating the content and tone of your blog?

Quite frankly, it is the worst kind of fabrication to manipulate the legal professions' use of this new medium. It is a blatant attack against free speech in the name of 'risk' and insurance companies are at the helm. And then take it a step further. You rebel, drop your insurance, but wait...you are in an state that requires malpractice insurance? What next...who you are permitted to take on as a client?

The lawyer injured the most by this type of behavior, if it is permitted, is the solo.  Blogs give solos a leg up in the competitive legal world because they can react the quickest to new technologies and capitalize on their advantages when targeting their potential audience.  It is a tool that permits solos to zoom forward at warp speed leaving the larger firms in the dust.  Threatening a large law firm's insurability is not intimidating to large firms because, in my opinion, I don't think large firms really profit from having blogs in the same way a solo does.  If they lose this tool, big deal.  However, it can be the lifeblood for a solo and this type of intrusion by insurance companies cannot be abided especially when the answer shows blatant manipulation and fabrication and a deliberate total lack of understanding of the medium.

April 02, 2007

Schools Paid Off To Steer Student Loan Applications To Preferred Lenders?!

(UPDATE: January 25, 2008 - Class Action filed claiming students face race bias in loan rates implicating Sallie Mae.)

(UPDATE: April 19 - U.S. News World Report compilation of all articles referencing Student Loan Scandal

(UPDATE: April 19)  Department of Education contaminated with the Bush Virus.

"The Bush administration rewarded lenders with prominent positions throughout the department." 

(UPDATE: Wednesday, April 11 U.S. News & World Reports: Sallie Mae kicking in $2 million to settle claims they steered business their way.

(UPDATE: Monday, April 9 CIT Chief Executive Officer and others on leave pending investigation.)

(UPDATE: Saturday, April 7 Washington Post.  The termites have infested the wooden structure of higher education's student financial aid.  Calling in congressional pest control.)

(UPDATE: Friday April 6, 2007.  This story is getting worse.  NY Times today Federal Official caught up in scandal surrounding students loans. One person in charge of overseeing the lenders was a shareholder in the lending companies the student loan officers were steering students to borrow from!)

(UPDATE:  The plot thickens.  Student Loan Officers holding shares in the lending companies they are steering their students to borrow from? Columbia, University of Texas and University of Southern California.  This abstract from an article published in October 2006:

Private student loans have become big and increasingly competitive business; with rising tuition and lagging government aid, students took out nearly $13.8 billion in private loans in 2004-5, more than 10 times amount borrowed decade ago; key to this business is university financial aid offices, which compile lists of 'preferred' lenders; students rarely comparison shop and rely on those lists; financial aid administrators claim they pick lenders with most competitive terms, but some question whether students are getting best deals; note incentives and giveaways offered to college and university officials by private loan companies; cite possible conflict of interest; it is hard to determine how widespread incentives are, because neither universities nor lenders dislcose arrangements; law making it illegal for lenders to use inducements to get applicants for federally backed students loans does not apply to private loans.)

Why doesn't this surprise me?  Disgust me, yes.  Well, then you have one of this country's largest lenders involved in yet more raping and pillaging of the masses.  Why?  It's good business for them.  Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Schools benefit because they can guarantee their students will get student loans and eventually Citibank is pulling the strings. (But apparently there are many others.)

But now universities such as University of Pennsylvania, St. Johns, Syracuse are complicit?  Mind you, they have admitted to no wrongdoing.  And will give back the money the banks paid them as well as the students.  In their world, I guess this makes it OK. Got caught with their hand in the piggy bank of struggling middle class families. In my world, it is just another mob-style loan sharking activity.

"Citibank, which provides loans at more than 3,000 colleges nationwide, agreed to pay $2 million into a fund to educate students and parents about the student loan industry. New York University, Syracuse, St. John’s, Fordham and the University of Pennsylvania will together repay more than $3.2 million to students who borrowed from companies that paid the academic institutions to steer students their way.

The universities also agreed to adopt a code of conduct governing their relations with student-loan providers. Neither the universities nor the bank admitted any wrongdoing."

“With one agreement, millions of dollars will be returned to thousands of students,” Mr. Cuomo said at a news conference today in Manhattan.

The deal follows an investigation of the relationships, often undisclosed, between universities and the student loan companies that help students raise the money to pay for college.

In some instances, loan companies made payments to the institutions linked to the number of students who borrowed. One lender invited university officials to an all-expenses-paid Caribbean retreat. At several institutions, students’ questions about financial aid were fielded by call centers that, unknown to the students, were set up and operated by loan companies. Each arrangement, critics say, embodies a conflict of interest.

Lawyers in Mr. Cuomo’s office are in various stages of negotiations with scores more colleges and universities, and with other lenders, seeking compensation to students and signatures on the code of conduct, according to officials in Mr. Cuomo’s office.

Under today’s agreement, N.Y.U. will distribute to students nearly $1.4 million that it received from Citibank over five years. The University of Pennsylvania will distribute $1.6 million that it received over two years. The amounts for the other three universities are much smaller: $164,084 over two years at Syracuse, $80,553 over one year at St. John’s University, and $13,840 at Fordham.

Three more universities have agreed to adopt the code of conduct, but are not making any payments under the agreement: the State University of New York system, St. Lawrence University and Long Island University.

Relationships between loan companies and universities are under increasing scrutiny. Lawmakers in Washington have asked for information from loan companies about their ties to academic institutions. Lori Swanson, the Minnesota attorney general, has sought similar information and has called on colleges and universities to disclose payments or other benefits received from student loan companies.

Mr. Cuomo has announced his intention to file a civil lawsuit against one loan company, Education Finance Partners of San Francisco, for paying institutions a fraction of the amount borrowed by students.

The federal Education Department is weighing new regulations that would govern how colleges assemble and present their lists of recommended, or “preferred,” lenders. College students usually rely on the lists, rather than shopping around more widely; the payments and other benefits that lenders provide to universities are in exchange for inclusion on the lists.

You can read the rest of this New York Times article here. 

I remember when I attended University of Bridgeport (eventually Quinnipiac University School of Law) one semester my financial aid officer told me they needed to be paid by a certain date.  I knew my Stafford Loans would not come in until about two weeks after the due date.  She told me then I would have to get private loans or I would have to withdraw from the semester. Well if you haven't figured out my personality by now....I told her very politely, "you will either wait an additional two weeks for your money coming from the lender of my choice or I will withdraw myself right now."  They relented and I got to borrow my financial aid and incur debt on my terms.  I refused to be pushed into private loans.

Financial aid officers are there to protect the school's interest as a creditor.  You are a debtor.  This relationship has a natural tension.  Financial Aid Officers can be very informative, helpful and nice.  But they work for and are loyal to the creditor and it would serve you well to never forget this.