I haven’t written before now about Avvo, the online lawyer rating system that generated so much controversy when it was first launched last year. Most of what you need to know about the site can be found in this collection of articles at Legal Blog Watch, but in a nutshell: Avvo provides a numerical rating for lawyers based on a number of factors drawn from state bar records, court records, peer reviews and lawyers themselves. Avvo can rate lawyers with or without their permission, and does not reveal the nature of the mathematical model used to calculate the ratings.
Avvo got off to a rough start, publishing ratings for dead lawyers and ranking convicted felons above law school deans. These beta-launch problems helped support Avvo’s many critics and formed the basis for a class-action lawsuit. But the lawsuit was dismissed (although the judge was hardly complimentary of the defendant), Avvo continued to expand its reach and work on refining its system, and the company has now apparently made enough progress to start winning over previous skeptics like Robert Ambrogi and Kevin O’Keefe.
I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Avvo one way or the other. On the one hand, I’m supportive of virtually any initiative that tries to provide more information about lawyers to the legal services consumer — reliable third-party assessments would be much more helpful than narrow, one-way lawyer advertising campaigns. And I instinctively rally to the side of anything that shakes up the profession’s status quo and makes lawyers a little uncomfortable.
That said, there are clear and obvious limitations to how useful a numerical rating system can be for lawyers. I like Amazon reviews and Consumer Reports rankings as much as the next person, and I’m the first to say that lawyers would benefit from more exposure to the pressures of the consumer marketplace. But hiring a lawyer is not the same as buying a car or a plasma TV — you can’t reduce all that a lawyer brings to the table to a simple ten-point rating. Partly that’s because people aren’t objects and shouldn’t be treated as such, but also because every person’s interaction with a lawyer will be different, based on personality mix, the nature of the case, the timing of the relationship, and a host of other factors.
And this leads me to what I think is the most important thing about Avvo ratings: they’re not client-based. Avvo’s mathematical model crunches information only from public records and lawyer submissions; client ratings aren’t poured into the mix, though they are provided as additional data points. But such ratings and reviews are still relatively few and far between at Avvo, so what the site really provides is an undisclosed mathematical model’s estimation of how highly a lawyer should be regarded. That’s better than no information at all, or relying on what the lawyer alone feels like telling you, but not better enough to win me over.
Client input is essential for any meaningful rating, ranking or recommendation of a lawyer. But the key element of any client-based rating system is knowing the client who’s giving the review. Most of the client reviews at Avvo are written by anonymous posters who might be real people, complete fictions, or somewhere in between — there’s no mechanism in place that I can see to establish a client reviewer’s identity, contact info or bona fides.
And even if the client is a real, identifiable person, who’s to say that person has the same approach and attitudes as you do? He or she might be an extremely difficult client whom no lawyer can please, or a complete pushover who naively accepts mediocre service as a gift from on high. Really, client-based ratings of lawyers tell you as much about the client as about the lawyer, sometimes more — and if you don’t know the client, how are you any further ahead?
The best illustration of this fact is that when choosing a lawyer, most potential clients rely heavily on a recommendation from someone they trust. If a given lawyer did a good job for a potential client’s family member, friend or colleague, that lawyer holds a tremendous advantage over his competitors for that client’s services. A personal recommendation from someone reliable is gold — but how to get one, other than phoning or e-mailing your friends and family? Is there a better Web 2.0 answer than Avvo?
I think there could be. What I’d like to see, and I don’t think it’s beyond reasonable contemplation, is a social networking model of lawyer reviews: combine the good idea of third-party lawyer ratings with the power of a familiar and trusted contact base that social networks provide. I don’t think Facebook is the long-term answer here — the open social networking movement is poised to dissolve FB’s grip on this nascent technology — but let’s use Facebook as an example for illustration purposes.
Suppose someone wrote a Facebook application called “Rate This Lawyer.” A user who had retained a lawyer for a given task would add the app to his or her home page to let everyone know that, say, Lionel Hutz did a great job (or, knowing Lionel’s track record, a less than stellar job) on their house sale or divorce or DUI defence or whatever. Other Facebook users, looking for a lawyer for a given task, would run a search of their FB friends to see which of them had added this application and whether they had any positive or negative recommendations on a lawyer.
The advantage of a system like this is that every lawyer review would be attached to a real, verifiable person whom you, searching for a lawyer, would know in some capacity and (presumably) would trust. You could contact Lionel’s former client to get more information, good or bad, about the relationship, and you could filter what your friend says through your own knowledge of his or her personality, strengths and quirks. Moreover, every review of Lionel by his former clients would link to other reviews by people whom you don’t know, but whose insights could offer valuable complementary information that supports or differentiates from what your Friend says.
Now, if you’re a LinkedIn user, you’re probably already protesting that LinkedIn provides a recommendation service for numerous professionals, including lawyers. So it does, and that alone makes it, to my mind, a useful alternative to Avvo or similar services. There’s a lot to like about LinkedIn recommendations for lawyers, especially for purchasers of business law services.
But there’s still a couple of things about LinkedIn’s system that give me pause. One is that LinkedIn is, like Facebook, a closed network, with a much smaller user base, so the pool of recommendations is necessarily much shallower. Another is that it’s a professional rather than a personal network, and the relationships between contacts aren’t always particularly close or deep. And one always has to be aware of the potential Logrolling In Our Time element of mutual advantage in exchanged recommendations. A system grounded in a personal network, where trust is deeper and there’s no particular advantage to be gained through lawyer reviews, would feel more legitimate.
There are other potential obstacles even to a social-network review system, of course. You’d need a large critical mass of lawyer ratings to make this work, and many people’s Facebook friends live in different cities or countries whose lawyers you can’t retain and who hired lawyers for tasks you don’t need. But LinkedIn’s model of “degrees of separation” could be usefully adopted here, letting you know that, say, two of your FB friends have posted lawyer reviews, but among your FB friends’ much wider collection of contacts, dozens of such reviews have been published, including five in your city. You could then go through your mutual friend to get more information about both the lawyer and the reviewer.
No question, there would be many challenges to getting a true social network-based lawyer review system off the ground, and no system will be perfect. But when open social networks really get rolling and these webs of connection become ubiquitous and easily inter-navigated — which I don’t think is terribly far away — then I can see the adoption of personal service provider recommendations as a standard feature of the social networked world, and lawyer reviews could lead the way.
The best thing about that development will be that clients will finally be given a full-throated voice to tell everyone they know what a great, or not-so-great, job their lawyer did. That will benefit good lawyers and all clients, and would make the legal services marketplace that much more transparent, competitive and client-friendly.