I was honored today to present a talk for the Big Bend Chapter of the Florida Paralegal Association on the topic of “Protecting Our Clients From Identity Theft” at their annual conference. The Big Bend Chapter of the Florida Paralegal Association is a great group and I always enjoy the opportunity to be guest speaker for them. The presentation I gave is below:
Getting Off The Avvo Merry-Go-Round – Can You Trust Online Attorney Ratings?
The current dominant website for attorney referrals and ratings is Avvo and I’ve decided not to participate. I don’t believe the Avvo online reviews and rating systems are a reliable method of determining whether or not to hire an attorney. I actually think the systems developed by Avvo and other similar companies are misleading to consumers and that they use poor methodology to determine their rankings of lawyers.
My Avvo rating as of the date of this writing is 7.7 out of 10, which, according to Avvo, makes me a “very good” attorney. My rating was higher before I removed all the information I could from Avvo, which I will discuss shortly. The absurdity of the Avvo rating system becomes readily apparent when you compare my rating to the rating they give to Lewis Killian, Jr., which is currently 6.7 out of 10, which equals a “good” lawyer. A non-lawyer looking at this rating system is likely to think that I’m a stronger and more experienced attorney than Lewis Killian, Jr. This is hardly the case. Lewis Killian, Jr. is a retired US Bankruptcy Judge, now in private practice, who served for more than 25 years as the Chief Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Florida. In the world of bankruptcy law, he is a virtual superstar. While I consider myself to be a competent bankruptcy lawyer, Lewis Killian, Jr. has probably forgotten more bankruptcy law than I currently possess. The complexity of cases and issues he has dealt with far exceed my experience. He has been licensed to practice law for 39 years, compared to my 13 years. He is a West Point graduate, and retired military JAG officer. What he hasn’t done is claim his Avvo profile, provide material for the Avvo website, or seek out endorsements from other lawyers or clients. Therefore, Avvo doesn’t rank him very highly.
Next consider the online reviews. I have a number of positive reviews from lawyers; this is one of the tricks of the Avvo rating system. The idea is that in order to get a higher ranking we’re supposed to invite our friends to the Avvo platform to endorse us and in exchange we do the same for them. Basically, the more a lawyer feeds the Avvo system, the higher the rating. The more questions you answer, the more you get your clients and peers to interact with the Avvo website through endorsements, the higher your rating.
The website allows anonymous “reviews” by “clients”, but doesn’t really have what I consider a meaningful quality control system for this aspect. I currently have one glowing review and two negative reviews. All the reviews are anonymous, so there’s no way to know if they were left by actual clients, a competitor, or a disgruntled defendant in a lawsuit I have filed for a client. One review that calls me worthless doesn’t connect with any work I’ve done over the past few years. The other doesn’t even claim to come from a client, but someone who says I refused to take their case following a consultation. I’ve contested both with Avvo, but they say there’s no way for me to find out who left the review or to provide me with evidence that the anonymous reviewers were even clients of mine. Avvo says my solution is to encourage more of my clients to go to their website and leave reviews. However, I questioned the Florida Bar’s attorney ethics hotline about asking my clients for reviews and I don’t see asking for reviews as an option. According to the Florida Bar’s rules that govern attorney advertising, when I ask a client for a review, I am responsible for ensuring that anything my clients write about me complies with the rules for attorney advertising. Given that I have no ability to edit what is written or to even identify the author, the likelihood of an ethical violation is enormous.
The lawyers who are hurt the most by Avvo are those who have committed some form of minor bar infraction. Avvo flags these lawyers with a warning at the top of their profile regardless of the severity of their mistake. The reality is that good lawyers sometimes make mistakes and find themselves subject to bar discipline. This doesn’t make them unsafe or incompetent to practice law.
It seems to me that Avvo’s solution for an attorney seeking to protect or build his or her reputation is always the same, create more content for the Avvo website and drive more people to use it. In other words, in order to preserve our reputations, we’re compelled to constantly feed the Avvo website content and user interactions. In my mind, this makes Avvo useless as a measure of attorney quality. For me, I’ve decided to jump off the Avvo train. I’ve dismantled my profile as much as possible. I no longer am willing to give or seek endorsements from other lawyers. I don’t link my website to or from Avvo. To the extent that I am able, I am dropping out of the Avvo game. My job is helping my clients by practicing law, not feeding someone else’s website. So far, I don’t notice any difference in my practice. My phone rings just as much as it ever did. I will leave it up to others to decide whether or not to continue their relationship with Avvo, but as for me, I’m getting off the merry-go-round.