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Why, In An Economic Downturn, Is the DC Bar Trying to Kill One Tool That Can Help Lawyers Find Clients and Jobs?

by Carolyn Elefant on February 17, 2009 · 26 comments

in Trends, Websites and Blogs

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The legal profession is on the skids like never before — though you’d scarcely realize it from visiting a bar association website.  As law firms shed attorneys at an unprecedented rate — 4376 layoffs since January 1, 2008, 2614 in calendar year 2009, and 700 on a single Black Thursday, one would think that the bar association websites would be on high alert, offering discounted CLEs and networking events and otherwise mobilizing to help unemployed lawyers find work.  Instead, it’s business as usual for the ABA and many other bar associations (stay tuned for my Bars, Reviewed release tomorrow!) with no mention of the burgeoning layoffs anywhere on their websites.

Still, to its credit, at least the ABA isn’t making the current financial crisis any worse for lawyers.  Would that I could say the same for one of my home bars, DC Bar. Not only is the DC Bar petitioning for a dues increase when its members are tightening their belts, but the Bar is trying to limit at least one resource that could help lawyers find work by launching an assault to shut down Avvo, a lawyer directory site that allows lawyers to post a robust, professional looking profile on-line for free.   The profile listings enable clients to find lawyers, but they also encourage lawyers to connect, but giving them opportunities to provide testimonials and endorsements to their colleagues.

So why does the DC Bar want to shut down Avvo? Well, from what I can tell from its explanation, the Bar is ticked off at Avvo for downloading public information on its website regarding member names, business addresses, membership status and disciplinary history.  So what?  Isn’t that information supposed to be free so that the public can learn about lawyers?  And if it’s already public, then companies like Avvo ought to be able to capture it and aggregate it.

Turns out, they probably can.  Which is why, according to the Washington Times, the DC Bar had to change the rules in the middle of the game by posting new terms of service for use of membership data on after Avvo had already downloaded the information.  In addition, the bar also says that violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – an anti-hacking law bolstered by the USA Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that many civil liberties groups (and presumably, many DC Bar members) opposed. Finally, the bar claims that members complained that received solicitations from Avvo – though until, I see proof, I don’t buy that argument.  Though I’m a member of the DC Bar, with my current address information listed on the site as well as a proud Avvo member, I don’t recall ever getting any mailings or email from Avvo.

The DC Bar’s timing couldn’t be any worse. Of all the times to lash out at Avvo, why now when it provides a service that lawyers can use to find work?  With unemployment in the legal profession on the rise, more and more lawyers, from new graduates to former biglaw associates are considering the option of starting a law firm.  Cash-strapped and debt-ridden, many lawyers will be forced to hang a shingle on a shoe-string, looking for the most economic ways to build a practice.  With a site like Avvo (and it’s not the only one; there’s also Justia and a myriad of other social networking tools for lawyers), lawyers can set up a robust professional profile, where they can list their law school, former places of employment, practice specialty, bar memberships, presentations and accomplishments at no charge! And by taking advantage of other tools on Avvo, like the questions features or Legal guides, lawyers can start to gain an online presence so that prospective clients can find them.

Avvo offers another unique feature that’s a feel-good palliative in these stressful times:  the ability to endorse colleagues.  I’ve endorsed several colleagues and friends, happily tooting their horns for them when they’ve been too modest to do it themselves.  And I can say that when I receive endorsements from colleagues, they always brighten my day.  Endorsements from colleagues are particularly helpful to those lawyers who may not be interested in starting a firm but who instead want to find employment.  Instead of carrying around a resume with phone numbers of references, lawyers can direct prospective employers to their Avvo profile – which will include both endorsements and the contact information for the lawyers who provided them.  In fact, one North Carolina lawyer recently blogged about how using tools like Avvo to hire a lawyer.

Now even though I rave about Avvo, at the same time,  I’m cognizant that Avvo has generated signifcant controversy among lawyers with its ratings system and legal guides.  But frankly that’s not the point.  Even if you can’t stand Avvo and find it utterly without value, the DC Bar’s protectionist actions should offend you as they constitute an affront to fair play.  Since when does the D.C. Bar get to shut down a system that a couple of people purportedly complained about, without asking other members for their views?  Since when does the Bar get to pick and choose who gets access to individual members’ information, information that is publicly available?  If individual lawyers don’t like Avvo, the can decline to register their profile.  But what gives a handful of lawyers the right to make that decision for those of us who get a benefit from the service, and to use our dues to bring legal action against a service that we support.

More importantly, what’s next?  Let’s say, hypothetically that a lawyer posts pleadings to JD Supra from a recent court victory which are publicly available on PACER.  But, uh, oh, the lawyer’s opposing counsel is a well-connected DC Bar member, and he’s ticked that he lost the motion and doesn’t want the document posted, so he contacts the DC Bar.  Will the Bar try to shut down JD Supra by banning postings of documents prepared by any DC Bar member?  Will it sanction the lawyer from putting the documents up to begin with?  Sounds crazy…but what the Bar is doing with regard to Avvo is the first step tdown a slippery slope owards regulation of the social media tools that many of us 21st  lawyers, particularly solos, now embrace.

If you’re a member of the DC Bar, please do not let the DC Bar’s action go unnoticed.  I urge you to email Katherine Mazzaferri, kmazzaferri@dcbar.org (Executive Director) or Timothy Webster, twebster@sidley.com (Counsel for the Bar) and let them know that you do not support the action against Avvo.   Let’s see what kind of response we receive.  In the meantime, stay tuned for Part II of this post later this week, where I announce the results of the Bars, Reviewed: What Is Your Bar Association Doing for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers?

  • NJ lawyer

    While I generally favor public listings of lawyers to serve as a verification tool against all the hacks out there, I do have an objection to Avvo’s business model. First, yes it is a commercial business using information obtained from public sources for a commercial purpose. But that in and of itself isn’t really different than the yellow pages. No, what I find distasteful is the fact that instead of a mere listing they then go ahead and create a profile for me, soliciting endorsements and the like in my name. I then have the “privilege” of “claiming” my own Avvo profile. This is totally different from other marketing tools like Martindale or LegalOnRamp or LinkedIn, where I have NO profile until I affirmatively join. If all Avvo did was list directory information without attempting to add any qualitative endorsements and the like, I think most lawyers would be fine with it. But I choose not to take part in Avvo and I don’t appreciate the prospect of potentially having to defend what is written about me on a site I have no intention of joining.

  • NJ lawyer

    While I generally favor public listings of lawyers to serve as a verification tool against all the hacks out there, I do have an objection to Avvo’s business model. First, yes it is a commercial business using information obtained from public sources for a commercial purpose. But that in and of itself isn’t really different than the yellow pages. No, what I find distasteful is the fact that instead of a mere listing they then go ahead and create a profile for me, soliciting endorsements and the like in my name. I then have the “privilege” of “claiming” my own Avvo profile. This is totally different from other marketing tools like Martindale or LegalOnRamp or LinkedIn, where I have NO profile until I affirmatively join. If all Avvo did was list directory information without attempting to add any qualitative endorsements and the like, I think most lawyers would be fine with it. But I choose not to take part in Avvo and I don’t appreciate the prospect of potentially having to defend what is written about me on a site I have no intention of joining.

  • Anonymous

    With all due respect, YOUR ARTICLE IS GARBAGE!! Many of us do not want our information hijacked by some random site for their own benefit. I am a female attorney who has taken great efforts to keep my personal address off of the web; I have opted to use the CONFIDENTIAL options offered by my THREE bar jurisdictions to keep my address off of the web and off of any online directories without first getting my permission. Not everyone wants to be listed and easily accessible on random social networking or “aggregate” websites. Thanks to AVVO, my ex-stalker has found me on the web and sent me a letter. AVVO is the only website that has ever published my information and it is the ONLY internet hit on my name. Police action and legal options are in progress. I’m glad to read about the DC Bar’s challenge to AVVO and THANKS for providing addresses for the Counsel for the Bar. I’m sure they can point me in the proper direction for my own legal action.

  • Anonymous

    With all due respect, YOUR ARTICLE IS GARBAGE!! Many of us do not want our information hijacked by some random site for their own benefit. I am a female attorney who has taken great efforts to keep my personal address off of the web; I have opted to use the CONFIDENTIAL options offered by my THREE bar jurisdictions to keep my address off of the web and off of any online directories without first getting my permission. Not everyone wants to be listed and easily accessible on random social networking or “aggregate” websites. Thanks to AVVO, my ex-stalker has found me on the web and sent me a letter. AVVO is the only website that has ever published my information and it is the ONLY internet hit on my name. Police action and legal options are in progress. I’m glad to read about the DC Bar’s challenge to AVVO and THANKS for providing addresses for the Counsel for the Bar. I’m sure they can point me in the proper direction for my own legal action.

  • Anonymous 9:41 is a cow

    You really need to chill the hell out. Maybe it is time to get those meds refilled? And please stop with the all caps -it just makes you sound crazy.

  • Anonymous 9:41 is a cow

    You really need to chill the hell out. Maybe it is time to get those meds refilled? And please stop with the all caps -it just makes you sound crazy.

  • http://www.GreatLegalMarketing.com Ben Glass

    While I feel for “anonymous” it’s neither Avvo’s fault nor that of the DC bar that someone got her address. There are so many lists out there that are available for a fee that it would be hard to tell where Avvo got the info.. one can go to InfoUSA.com and buy up tons of all different types of lists, including lists of lawyers. So the fact that someone tells a bar “don’t publish my address” only eliminates one source of address info…do you subscribe to any magazines?? those lists are easy and cheap to get…. have a business license… easy… rented car recently… easy…
    Now, for the DC bar… it absolutely ridiculous to think that you can post at your website a list of members and their contact info and then think you can “protect” that list with a “notice” that says “don’t use this list.” If the DC bar really thought such a “disclaimer” or “terms of use” would be effective, man oh, man, time to get some new brains over there.

  • http://www.GreatLegalMarketing.com Ben Glass

    While I feel for “anonymous” it’s neither Avvo’s fault nor that of the DC bar that someone got her address. There are so many lists out there that are available for a fee that it would be hard to tell where Avvo got the info.. one can go to InfoUSA.com and buy up tons of all different types of lists, including lists of lawyers. So the fact that someone tells a bar “don’t publish my address” only eliminates one source of address info…do you subscribe to any magazines?? those lists are easy and cheap to get…. have a business license… easy… rented car recently… easy…
    Now, for the DC bar… it absolutely ridiculous to think that you can post at your website a list of members and their contact info and then think you can “protect” that list with a “notice” that says “don’t use this list.” If the DC bar really thought such a “disclaimer” or “terms of use” would be effective, man oh, man, time to get some new brains over there.

  • http://www.GreatLegalMarketing.com Ben Glass

    I just went and read the D.C. bar’s “terms of use” for its website. Its more ridiculous than I thought at first.
    First, they claim a copyright on everything. Oh??? What’s the creative in compiling a list?
    More stupid.. they attempt to prohibit linking to their site..So Carolyn, you are a BIG VIOLATOR of their terms of use. Watch out.. big brother is gonna be after you.
    The D.C. bar is either in the business of making its members known to the public or it isn’t. It could, if it wanted, require you (a member) to log on to get that info. In trying to be, I guess, a lawyer referral service…it should make it very easy for a lawyer to opt out of that whole process. Some lawyers don’t want their names appearing anywhere.
    I guess I’m just surprised that the D.C. bar is acting like it’s surprised that someone actually used info at its website.

  • http://www.GreatLegalMarketing.com Ben Glass

    I just went and read the D.C. bar’s “terms of use” for its website. Its more ridiculous than I thought at first.
    First, they claim a copyright on everything. Oh??? What’s the creative in compiling a list?
    More stupid.. they attempt to prohibit linking to their site..So Carolyn, you are a BIG VIOLATOR of their terms of use. Watch out.. big brother is gonna be after you.
    The D.C. bar is either in the business of making its members known to the public or it isn’t. It could, if it wanted, require you (a member) to log on to get that info. In trying to be, I guess, a lawyer referral service…it should make it very easy for a lawyer to opt out of that whole process. Some lawyers don’t want their names appearing anywhere.
    I guess I’m just surprised that the D.C. bar is acting like it’s surprised that someone actually used info at its website.

  • John Buchholz

    Regarding the D.C. bar raising dues, the MN bar is trying to do the same thing! At a time when the Mpls/St. Paul firms, like everywhere else, are laying off attorneys left and right and the majority of graduating law students have not been able to find work.
    Frustrating.

  • John Buchholz

    Regarding the D.C. bar raising dues, the MN bar is trying to do the same thing! At a time when the Mpls/St. Paul firms, like everywhere else, are laying off attorneys left and right and the majority of graduating law students have not been able to find work.
    Frustrating.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    “Anonymous,” when it comes to contact information, Avvo only uses information obtained from the state licensing authority or a lawyer’s own website. If an attorney has an issue with the address we publish, we’ll delete it on request.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    “Anonymous,” when it comes to contact information, Avvo only uses information obtained from the state licensing authority or a lawyer’s own website. If an attorney has an issue with the address we publish, we’ll delete it on request.

  • Attorney, DC

    Regarding the comment left on “February 18, 2009 1:17 PM”, perhaps you should refrain from commenting on a page about someone else’s ordeal by sounding crazy yourself. Calling someone a “cow” makes you sound ignorant. Regardless, since it’s obvious Carolyn and Josh King have a financial stake in Avvo’s promotion, it’s not really worth the time to bother with either.

  • Attorney, DC

    Regarding the comment left on “February 18, 2009 1:17 PM”, perhaps you should refrain from commenting on a page about someone else’s ordeal by sounding crazy yourself. Calling someone a “cow” makes you sound ignorant. Regardless, since it’s obvious Carolyn and Josh King have a financial stake in Avvo’s promotion, it’s not really worth the time to bother with either.

  • http://SirkinLaw.com Mina Sirkin

    Carolyn,
    I generally have no problem with any directory advertising but I do see these ethical problems with Avvo’s system:
    1. They use your name and likeness to promote their site and offer ads, be it now, or in the future. They do this without your permission.
    2. They ask lawyers to endorse lawyers who do not know each other. This is deceptive advertising and unethical. CA has very specific rules about endorsements which are completely ignored by Avvo.
    The site gives the public the false impression that the endorsements are real or that they have been investigated by other lawyers. That is untrue.
    Would you want to be endorsed by just anyone or by any lawyer? How about by a lawyer who had disciplinary actions against him or by one who has committed tax fraud?
    Would you consider endorsing a product you did not believe in or that you had never tried?
    I also don’t agree with joining or endorsing any organization which tells its members to write blanket endorsements on other members’ web sites where those members have NOTHING in common other than the momthly fee they pay the organization.
    I can’t tell you why the DC Bar took the position it did, but I can tell you that ethics counts in advertising, at least in my book.

  • http://SirkinLaw.com Mina Sirkin

    Carolyn,
    I generally have no problem with any directory advertising but I do see these ethical problems with Avvo’s system:
    1. They use your name and likeness to promote their site and offer ads, be it now, or in the future. They do this without your permission.
    2. They ask lawyers to endorse lawyers who do not know each other. This is deceptive advertising and unethical. CA has very specific rules about endorsements which are completely ignored by Avvo.
    The site gives the public the false impression that the endorsements are real or that they have been investigated by other lawyers. That is untrue.
    Would you want to be endorsed by just anyone or by any lawyer? How about by a lawyer who had disciplinary actions against him or by one who has committed tax fraud?
    Would you consider endorsing a product you did not believe in or that you had never tried?
    I also don’t agree with joining or endorsing any organization which tells its members to write blanket endorsements on other members’ web sites where those members have NOTHING in common other than the momthly fee they pay the organization.
    I can’t tell you why the DC Bar took the position it did, but I can tell you that ethics counts in advertising, at least in my book.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Mina,
    You make an excellent point – we must always be cognizant of ethis rules. I did not realize that Avvo asked lawyers to endorse lawyers whom they didn’t know and if that’s the case, I certainly do not support that behavior. At the same time, lawyers should realize that’s unethical and shouldn’t give an endorsement to someone they don’t know regardless of whether a service endorses it or not. I also thought that the system allowed you to accept or reject an endorsement (so that you could reject an endorsement from a lawyer who committed tax fraud). But again, if that is an issue, it should be changed.
    If the DC Bar had gone after Avvo for “ethics” breaches, and listed the DC ethics rules and the ones that Avvo purportedly violated, it would be a different case (though here in DC, I do not believe that Avvo violates any of our ethics rules). But DC brought its action based on rules that it changed after the fact and that’s simply not fair. And it never disclosed who filed the complaint against Avvo which also isn’t fair.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Mina,
    You make an excellent point – we must always be cognizant of ethis rules. I did not realize that Avvo asked lawyers to endorse lawyers whom they didn’t know and if that’s the case, I certainly do not support that behavior. At the same time, lawyers should realize that’s unethical and shouldn’t give an endorsement to someone they don’t know regardless of whether a service endorses it or not. I also thought that the system allowed you to accept or reject an endorsement (so that you could reject an endorsement from a lawyer who committed tax fraud). But again, if that is an issue, it should be changed.
    If the DC Bar had gone after Avvo for “ethics” breaches, and listed the DC ethics rules and the ones that Avvo purportedly violated, it would be a different case (though here in DC, I do not believe that Avvo violates any of our ethics rules). But DC brought its action based on rules that it changed after the fact and that’s simply not fair. And it never disclosed who filed the complaint against Avvo which also isn’t fair.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    Mina, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Avvo asks lawyers to endorse lawyers who they don’t know. We encourage lawyers to endorse, and seek endorsement from, only those lawyers that are familiar with their work. Endorsements exist to help consumers (and other lawyers) evaluate a lawyers’ background. An honest, first-hand endorsement of a lawyer’s work is invaluable to someone in their time of legal need. So, of course, we want lawyers to “keep it real.�
    Keep in mind that consumers are not stupid. They’ll be spooked by any lawyer with dozens of “empty� endorsements (e.g., repeated “I endorse this lawyer’s work�) rather than a smaller number of thoughtful, well-written ones. This spooking factor increases ten-fold when it is one lawyer researching another.
    And yes, attorneys can reject endorsements from attorneys they do not know or have concerns about being “linked” to.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    Mina, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Avvo asks lawyers to endorse lawyers who they don’t know. We encourage lawyers to endorse, and seek endorsement from, only those lawyers that are familiar with their work. Endorsements exist to help consumers (and other lawyers) evaluate a lawyers’ background. An honest, first-hand endorsement of a lawyer’s work is invaluable to someone in their time of legal need. So, of course, we want lawyers to “keep it real.�
    Keep in mind that consumers are not stupid. They’ll be spooked by any lawyer with dozens of “empty� endorsements (e.g., repeated “I endorse this lawyer’s work�) rather than a smaller number of thoughtful, well-written ones. This spooking factor increases ten-fold when it is one lawyer researching another.
    And yes, attorneys can reject endorsements from attorneys they do not know or have concerns about being “linked” to.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    Mina, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Avvo asks lawyers to endorse lawyers who they don’t know. We encourage lawyers to endorse, and seek endorsement from, only those lawyers that are familiar with their work. Endorsements exist to help consumers (and other lawyers) evaluate a lawyers’ background. An honest, first-hand endorsement of a lawyer’s work is invaluable to someone in their time of legal need. So, of course, we want lawyers to “keep it real.”
    Keep in mind that consumers are not stupid. They’ll be spooked by any lawyer with dozens of “empty” endorsements (e.g., repeated “I endorse this lawyer’s work”) rather than a smaller number of thoughtful, well-written ones. This spooking factor increases ten-fold when it is one lawyer researching another.
    And yes, attorneys can reject endorsements on Avvo that come from attorneys they they have ethical concerns with or don’t know.

  • http://www.avvo.com Josh King

    Mina, I’m not sure where you get the idea that Avvo asks lawyers to endorse lawyers who they don’t know. We encourage lawyers to endorse, and seek endorsement from, only those lawyers that are familiar with their work. Endorsements exist to help consumers (and other lawyers) evaluate a lawyers’ background. An honest, first-hand endorsement of a lawyer’s work is invaluable to someone in their time of legal need. So, of course, we want lawyers to “keep it real.”
    Keep in mind that consumers are not stupid. They’ll be spooked by any lawyer with dozens of “empty” endorsements (e.g., repeated “I endorse this lawyer’s work”) rather than a smaller number of thoughtful, well-written ones. This spooking factor increases ten-fold when it is one lawyer researching another.
    And yes, attorneys can reject endorsements on Avvo that come from attorneys they they have ethical concerns with or don’t know.

  • http://www.getalawyer.com.au Melbourne Lawyers

    I really liked your article! Lawyers are doing it tough in the western world and your are right the associations aren’t doing enough.
    Some say the legal services product cycle has run it course. I don’t know but am hoping to help clients and lawyers connect.
    Please look at my site and send me your views.

  • http://www.getalawyer.com.au Melbourne Lawyers

    I really liked your article! Lawyers are doing it tough in the western world and your are right the associations aren’t doing enough.
    Some say the legal services product cycle has run it course. I don’t know but am hoping to help clients and lawyers connect.
    Please look at my site and send me your views.

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