Can’t Stop This Train: Avvo Adds Doctor Reviews

Today, Avvo, a  lawyer-rating service introduced a new rating service for doctors. Though Avvo isn’t first to market with doctor review sites — more than a year ago, there were already several other players in the field — Avvo’s entrance shows one thing: whether we professionals like it or not, consumer ratings services are here to stay. Indeed, that’s an observation that Niki Black and I noted in this section of our book, Social Media for Lawyers , where we explained that a robust social media presence could serve as an antidote to negative reviews.

Like many lawyers, doctors aren’t necessarily embracing consumer reviews.  Some doctors have gone so far as to demand that patients sign waivers agreeing not to post online comments. Others, however, such as Dr. Kevin Pho, a primary care physician and USA Today contributor, argues that doctors should encourage patients to leave online reviews, since more data are needed to make the ratings useful. Pho points out a fact that lawyers should take to heart: almost 90 percent of online patient reviews were positive. But Pho also contends that online services should not allow anonymous reviews since accountability allows doctors to use the feedback to improve their practice. (As an aside, in my view, anonymity is a red herring, since anyone can post a negative screed about a provider online; they don’t need ratings sites to do it. Moreover, I’m confident that the market will sort out any anonymity issues; in other words, a site that contains too many crazy ramblings of anonymous reviewers will eventually lose credibility with users. So review sites will have no choice but to deal with the anonymity issues at some point to maintain quality).

To its credit, the ABA hasn’t cracked down on lawyer ratings sites (though how could it with MartindaleHubbell, the great granddaddy of ratings companies as a frequent ABA sponsor?). Still, the ABA’s recent probe regarding the transparency of lawyer rating sites as part of the Ethics 2020 Initiative seems a bit ominous. State disciplinary bodies are far worse, though. South Carolina has no problem with ratings, but has held that lawyers may violate ethics rules by failing to monitor their profiles at third party sites to ensure that client testimonials meet state ethics rules. And as I learned at last week’s MyLegal Conference, the Virginia Bar, sua sponte, is auditing third party sites and issuing take-down notices to lawyers with non-compliant testimonials at third-party sites, even if those testimonials were unsolicited.

Lawyer regulators claim to regulate ratings sites in the name of consumer protection. But to date, I am not aware of a single complaint by a consumer alleging that he or she was mislead or deceived about a lawyer’s quality due to customer rating sites.  More importantly, as Avvo’s recent venture into medical reviews demonstrates, customers are hungry for feedback and reviews about professional service providers; specifically, for information that comes from other consumers and focuses on characteristics that matter to them: returned phone calls, prompt service, taking time to explain a matter.  To try to quash ratings service and testimonials on third-party sites now that consumers are demanding them doesn’t serve the public interest, but runs counter to it.

How ironic that just as lawyer regulatory bodies are demanding transparency of ratings sites, they themselves are not transparent about their real interests: to return to a system where well-connected law firms dominate the profession, boxing out competition from smaller and equally qualified rivals.

Don’t forget to sign up for the briefing on ABA Ethics 2020 Commission rules on lawyer use of the web and cloud computing, set for November 4, 2010, here.