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.