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

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?