June 11, 2007 in Business

Your rating, counselor

By The Spokesman-Review
 
STX photo illustration photo

A Seattle company called Avvo.com has developed a numerical ranking system for attorneys.
(Full-size photo)

People now use the Web to find flowers, funeral parlors and long-lost friends. Are they ready to rely on the Net to hire an attorney?

Avvo, a Seattle company that launched its free services last week, is betting people will turn to a Web ratings service to find the best lawyer for their needs.

Founder and CEO Mark Britton says Avvo.com will give users an accurate numerical ranking for every attorney in the country, eventually.

Britton, a business-degree graduate of Gonzaga University, believes the site will fill an important consumer need.

“It’s extremely stressful for people to choose an attorney. There is no one established brand for finding the best lawyers,” he said.

Avvo will fill the gap, he believes, by tracking attorney accomplishments, gathering up disciplinary records and asking clients of lawyers to leave accurate feedback on the services they got.

Using a formula to track that data, Avvo generates a numerical “ranking” for nearly every attorney in nine states and the District of Columbia. Currently included are Washington, Texas and California. Idaho and other states will be added over time.

Like Google’s own nondisclosed system of assigning ranks to Web sites, Avvo’s founders won’t reveal the system it uses for establishing each attorney’s Avvo ranking.

That rating goes from 1 to 10. When searching for every attorney in Spokane, Avvo produced 1,500 names. The highest-ranked in the group was John Ray Nelson, with a score of 10 out of 10, as of press time.

At the opposite end, seven Spokane attorneys came in with a 1.0 score. Each ranking includes the phrase “extreme caution” below those seven attorneys’ names.

In those seven cases, Avvo notes that each has faced a professional disciplinary action. By clicking the profile of an attorney, you can read Avvo’s summary of the background for that action; however, it doesn’t yet provide the exact details of why an attorney was suspended or reprimanded.

“That extra information (on the details of suspensions or other actions) is something we intend to add later,” said Britton.

Britton defends Avvo’s system, which doesn’t carefully screen out bogus posters who might be tempted or incited to file comments. In the end, he is convinced a democratic system of relying on the “wisdom of the crowd” and a winnowing out of flawed responses will produce useful user comments.

Britton, who got his law degree at George Washington University, worked for Expedia for five years before deciding to launch Avvo. His own Avvo rating the day of the site’s beta release last week was an 8.0, or “excellent.”

Britton said he’s found no other legal site offering Avvo’s detailed professional scorekeeping. Lawyers.com (operated by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell) does something similar, but that system is based on peer review by other lawyers. It doesn’t offer a sliding scale with a numerical ranking of attorneys.

Avvo’s other major value is helping find specific attorneys who practice in specialized areas. Searching for attorneys who practice estate law in Spokane will lead to about 50 names. A search will then help find those in that group who focus on guardianship, probate or elder law.

The Avvo ratings can also show which attorneys in that group score higher or lower, at least based on Avvo’s general formula.

Former Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue took a quick run through the Avvo site and found some features that he thought were commendable.

“If they can get accurate information about current bar members, control the problem with ‘popularity contest’ ratings sources, and be open about their sources and how ratings are determined, the service might be worthwhile to consumers of legal services. The disciplinary information, once it is complete and accurate, is something not easily found elsewhere and could benefit consumers,” said Donohue, replying by e-mail.

Avvo has drawn about $13 million in backing from several venture capital firms, including Seattle’s Ignition Partners. Ignition investor Brad Silverberg, a successful Microsoft executive, thinks other companies will eventually challenge Avvo once they see it in operation.

“I fully expect this to be a competitive area and that Avvo will establish itself as the place consumers turn to with confidence. We think we can be the leaders in this field,” Silverberg said by e-mail.


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