Avvo: My chat with Paul

Paul Bloom, a founder and VP of marketing of Avvo.com, spend about an hour and a half on the phone with me today.  He’s a good guy.  He’s a good salesman.  He knows how to stick with his talking points.  But one thing he isn’t, and that’s foolish. 

There were a few mantras repeated throughout our conversation.  Avvo isn’t perfect.  Avvo never will be perfect.  Who was I to argue?  But the theory behind Avvo was to provide as much information about lawyers to the public as possible, and give them more than they have now.

Paul’s not a lawyer.  He’s an engineer who spent his wayward youth at Stanford “B” school.  So I had to talk slowly (only kidding, Paul).  We talked about the changes Avvo has made since it launched.  They aren’t insignificant.  They’ve removed ratings from people about whom they have no information.  They’ve changed “trustworthiness” to “professional conduct,” whatever the hell that means.  At least it doesn’t make the lawyer sound like a total scoundrel.  Just a little less professional than the other guy.

His point is that they are listening to the complaints, and the ideas that come from a healthy dialogue, and are trying to tweak things to make it better.  You’ve got to give them some credit for not going into knee-jerk resistance mode to everything. 

One of the most interesting points he makes is that a lawyer’s Avvo profile is, in essence, a free website.  There are many lawyers, particularly small and solos, who don’t have an internet presence.  The profile gives it to them, and for free!  When asked why they didn’t lead with that benefit, Paul told me they tried but it got lost in the sauce.  Too many complaints about the ratings to talk about the tangential benefits. 

We talked at length about the opportunity for abuse.  Lawyers lying about their “awards” to bolster their rating.  Disgruntled clients libeling lawyers for a bad outcome (never mind they were holding the murder weapon on camera when the police took his confession), or puffery by lawyer friends about other lawyer friends, scoundrels all.  Paul noted that each profile has a link to report false information.  Are lawyers rats?  We’ll have to see.

I learned that they have a system that flags claims of awards and publications that don’t fit into a known paradigm, and there is a team that will check it out and remove false information.  As for the client and lawyer endorsement issues, they are hoping that people are good, kind and honest.  Clearly, this remains an open issue.

But down to the hard questions:  As Paul repeated the “we’re not perfect” mantra, I queried about how their presentation of information that is, oh, less than complete or accurate, was a fair way to rate a lawyer.  He explained that they rely on publicly available information, and if that information is not accurate or complete, then Avvo’s will be similarly flawed.  Fighting the urge to scream expressio unius est excludio alterius, I calmly tried to explain how consumers will be mislead by information presented as if accurate.  I then learned about the 47 caveats that appear in the fine print.   Not really helpful, and not particularly convincing.

By the way, the Abe Lincoln and Dick Nixon profiles are in there for a little fun.  They know they’re both dead.  Computer guys are a bunch of cards.

We finally got down to brass tacks.  The profile takes the type of info that lawyer’s typically put into their websites.  If we put that stuff in there, why shouldn’t Avvo?  If we think it worthy of presentation to clients, why shouldn’t Avvo?  Avvo’s just helping us out and doing a little bit of it for us.  This is where Paul and I parted company.

I put that stuff into my website, I suggested, because I can’t write that I cross-examine cops better than anyone else.  But if you’re going to trial, don’t you want to know that I can cross a cop?  Or do you want to know that I’m a member of the criminal bar association?  Which one matters?

Paul offered an interesting response.  If you’re not a member of the criminal bar association, but claim you practice criminal law, don’t you think that says something about you?  Well, he’s got a point.  And if you claim to be an expert in 27 different areas of law, don’t you think a client’s going to pick up on that detail?  The Avvo rating for lawyers places a lower value on the jack of all trades type over the specialist, acknowledging that no lawyer does it all. 

But the root of the problem is the number.  I may never have tried a case, but if I got involved in all the bureaucratic nonsense of bar associations, made a few friends and wrote an article, I would still get a perfect 10.  Paul’s answer is the Avvo does not promote the blind use of the rating number, but says that the rating is just the first step in the consumer’s search for a lawyer.  There’s a link to the 3 things to do to select a lawyer.  You probably missed the link, as did I.  Will anybody read this stuff or just stop at the rating number?  What do you think?

Here’s where the Avvo position gets a little tougher to accept.  If they have all this fine print and 3 step plans that qualify and explain the significance of the big number on the front page of a profile, why have the big number at all?  Boiling complex information into a single number, especially when they admit that they have no way to quantify intangibles that are at the core of what makes a lawyer competent, or better than another lawyer, creates the simplistic impression that one number tells it all.  That was the intention; The interface didn’t happen by accident.

Of course, the reason Avvo does this is quite simple.  If they didn’t, nobody would come.  They know that people wants a quick, easy, simple answer.  Unfortunately, as H.L. Menken admonished, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” 

Is Avvo better than nothing?  The jury is still out.

8 comments on “Avvo: My chat with Paul

  1. Mark Bennett

    Good post, Scott. Kudos to Avvo for going on the record, and for being responsive to the negative feedback they’ve received.

    I’m still not buying it, but as long as I’m the only 100% criminal-defense lawyer in Houston with a 10.0 rating, I may just STFU and let the market do what it’s going to do.

  2. Paul Bloom

    Scott,

    I enjoyed the conversation today. Just wanted to clarify the following from your post:

    “The Avvo rating for lawyers places a lower value on the jack of all trades type over the specialist, acknowledging that no lawyer does it all.”

    The Avvo Rating does not take into account the pratice areas, but the search results algorithm (i.e. which profile is listed first, second, etc) does consider the % practice area, as well as other factors. Just wanted to make sure this was clear.

    Also, with regard to the client ratings, we see every client rating before it gets posted on the site. And, consistent with what we found in consumer surveys, the vast majority of client ratings are positive.

    Paul

  3. SHG

    Thanks for the clarifications, Paul.  With the client ratings, you see them first to clean up the language, but won’t vet them to remove scandalous false claims.  While the current crop tends to be positive, who knows what the future may bring and how the client ratings may become a forum for the disgruntled client (or next door neighbor of your competition) to smear the lawyer.

    On the other hand, if this facet of the Avvo process really gets rolling (unlikely for criminal guys like me, but quite possible for civil lawyers), the weight of legitimate comments may balance out the potential for abuse.  To a large extent, we have to see what happens and, in the long run, whether it really matters.  It may play out as Avvo hopes.  Then again, the people most inclined to take affirmative action (by reaching out and posting) are the ones with strong feelings. 

    SHG

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