Last week, I spoke at Avvocating 2012 (my deck will go up tomorrow; also, full disclosure- Avvo paid my travel to the conference) Much to my own surprise, I’d have to rank it as one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. Yes, Avvocating was a marketing conference and didn’t pretend to be anything other than that. But the conference was extremely informative, with a number of sessions on search that were quite technical in content so I learned a lot (far more than at the many of the techno-marketing sessions at ABA Techshow).  Plus, Avvo had a very low sleaze factor – the marketer/speakers downplayed any hard sell, and the lawyers I met were creative, engaging and hard-working – plus a bunch were dog lovers!

Here are some of my quick impressions about the event and why it worked so well:

1. Avvocating wasn’t attended by a band of losers. Contrary to Scott Greenfield’s assumption (which I must admit that I partly shared before my trip), Avvocating wasn’t at all comprised of desperate solos so lacking in work that they can afford to take two days from the office to spend at a marketing conference. Nor, from what I could tell, were there any virtual firms which probably could have benefited from the lessons on search. Instead, after polling the audience, I discovered that most of the attendees hailed from firms of 2-10; hardly any true solos at all. Moreover, during the breaks, I didn’t see much chit-chat, but lots of phone calls and emails back to the home office (again, more so than is typical for a TechShow or solo conference), so it appeared that many were working while on the road.

I think you know by now that you won’t find a stronger advocate for solo practice than me. But true-solo’ing is a tough road to hoe and even if it works for the short-term, what kind of returns do you get when you exit if you can’t pass your practice on? To the extent that being a true solo prevents you from attending conferences or going out to engage in real networking, then perhaps true solo’ing isn’t optimal for the long run. Lots of solos could have benefited from the Avvo conference; the fact that many didn’t attend isn’t necessarily something to celebrate, but rather, is also potentially troubling (in that solos may be too busy to attend but still not earning much or didn’t attend because they don’t earn enough to afford the price of admission)

2. There’s no such thing as legal tech. Let’s face it, most lawyers, even those who purport to be search experts, don’t know much when it comes to the technical side of search. Avvo gets that, and so it reached outside the legal community, gathering folks from tech companies like Google, Zillow and Microsoft to share insight. There’s so much data out there, and so many interesting insights that can be gleaned from it that can help lawyers strategize about practice areas to pursue or clients to target. Still, at the end of the day, at least some of the search gurus wind up agreeing with Scott: content’s the best way to be found (or, in my view, discovered) online.

3. Ethics take center stage. Ethics weren’t a post-script to the other talks; they played a central role with a full hour session on ethics issues presented by Josh King, Avvo’s GC. Josh really knows his stuff – he follows ethics cases in every jurisdiction (and you can tell that he’s actually read the cases as opposed to partial or inaccurate summaries) and discussed relevant issues in a concise and practical (read, non-academic, ivy-tower!) fashion. Josh also explained that some of Avvo’s less-popular features (like the inability for lawyers to remove their profiles if they receive a review that they don’t like) is what keeps the platform ethically compliant. Some state bars won’t allow lawyers to post, or even participate in a testimonial-system unless the lawyer has no control over it.   This kind of rule isn’t entirely over the top – although a client’ ability to review and opine on a lawyer is unequivocally protected First Amendment speech, when lawyers cherry-pick only those testimonials they wish to portray or force alter clients’ testimonials, that’s deceptive.  And lawyers have more of an ability to engage in that kind of conduct when they maintain control over testimonials as opposed to having a third-party provider like Avvo do so.

4. Avvo is loyal to its own. Avvo rewards its supporters, active users and its solo and small firm constituency. Avvo paid for lawyers who’ve used its system successfully to come to Seattle and participate in panel discussions or just to attend the conference. And various Avvo speakers, particularly Mark Britton, spotlighted the successes of lawyers who helped the company grow. That actually matters.

I know that Avvo may not be your cup of tea. Many lawyers don’t like the numerical ranking system, or would prefer the ability to take down a profile once they receive a negative review. From my perspective, Avvo has always been a no brainer; online rankings are an inevitability and I’d rather put my faith in a service that’s trying to do right by lawyers than one that’s not lawyer-specific.

Besides, what have big-kahunas like LEXIS or Westlaw ever done for solos? Can you remember a time that LEXIS or Westlaw reward loyal users or spotlighted their achievements? Or offered a free-version of their programs that’s nearly as robust as full fare (recall, Avvo doesn’t cost a dime and while paying may generate better results, or not, you can get much of what you want from Avvo for free).  These companies have the resources to help solo and small firm lawyers and they’ve never done anything but use technology to widen the playing field rather than narrow it.

Over the next few years, our profession will be hit with a stream of garbage start-ups, all purporting to disrupt the way law is practiced or expand access to justice. Most of them are little more than a platform built on cheap overseas labor, centered around an unoriginal or harmful idea (think legal auction sites) and are waiting for lawyers to sign up and use the site so that the money will start flowing.  By contrast, Avvo brought something to the table when it started (disciplinary records and profile creation), and Avvocating 2012 shows that Avvo continues to do so as it moves forward.