Avvo’s Really Bad Answers

Here’s the moral right up front:  Don’t let incompetency or ethical challenges impair the desire for personal gain when it comes to a business model. 

Too strong?  Perhaps, but I’ll let you judge.

I’ve been critical of Avvo, my personal favorite lawyer website for providing the public with information about lawyers so that they can make a more intelligent decision about whom to retain (he writes with a sly smile on his face) from time to time, as well as complementary at others.  It’s got some legitimate benefits.  It’s also got some issues.  As much as I like the founders, Paul and Mark (though Mark rarely stops by here unless I post something really nice about Avvo, preferring to send Sam “the Hammer” instead), I try to keep my critique fair and balanced.  They probably aren’t going to like this post at all.

I never liked the concept of Avvo Answers, another ill-conceived effort to provide free legal advice online to consumers who want professional answers to their very serious questions without having to spend a dime.  But not until a skimmed through it the other day did I realize just how bad, how dangerous, Avvo Answers could be.

I happened onto a criminal law question posed by a Dallas mother concerned for her son.  Mothers tend to be that way.  She had a lawyer, but had doubts about his advice, and sought a second opinion.  Her post is long, so I’ll only excerpt the salient part:

My biggest question is, should I bond him out so he can get a job and do good while he is waiting on his trial? They say it could take 18-24 months. Or should he just sit in jail? He has a Court Appointed Lawyer, but I just don’t know, Why hasn’t he got the charges changed to not show BY FELON? The lawyer told my husband to leave him in there it looks better. I just don’t believe that. If he gets a job, does good, stays out of trouble, won’t that look better to a judge then sitting in jail? I feel like I should hire a lawyer, not just get a bail bondsman. I know I could just be throwing a lot of money away, but he told his wife this scared him so bad. He doesn’t want this life anymore.

If ever there was an appropriate question to ask on a freebie answer site, this is it.   She has a lawyer, but has doubts, and is looking for direction.  I don’t endorse the notion of asking questions in this fashion at all, but I understand completely why Dallas mom did so.

Then the ugliness of the concept rears its head.  The first lawyer to respond posts:

You need to get a new criminal attorney to replace the court-appointed attorney immediately.

Now this lawyer doesn’t practice criminal law.  But that didn’t stop her for an instant. And shockingly, she tells the poster to shed herself of this free lawyer and hire a new one immediately.  What could have influenced this advice.  Hmm.  Fortunately, there are paid advertisements for Texas criminal defense lawyers in a little box on the very same page!  How convenient!

Now, by way of explanation, by responding to questions, lawyers gain the benefit of increasing their “level” of contribution, which elevates their profile on Avvo and makes them appear to be more consumer friendly and helpful.  This is why a lawyer who practices “debt/’lending agreements” (whatever that means) with a rating of 6.3 would respond to a criminal law question.  But she’s a “level 7 contributor.”  Wow.

Then a second lawyer responds.  This lawyer, from Washington State practicing “family law” and “business law,” has this to add:

What is the likelihood that your son will get killed if he is out of jail? Seriously, are the people whom your son shot vengeful people who will harm your son if he is out of jail?

He’s a “level 8 contributor.”  That means he’s very, very lovable.

Finally, as it happens, the Texas Tornado, Mark Bennett, steps in to smack these absurd responses and provide some straight sound advice.

Here’s a suggestion: Non-criminal defense lawyers and non-Texas lawyers should not attempt to answer Texas criminal defense questions.

I generally believe that it’s better for an accused to be out pending trial. It makes the defense much easier for me, and allows him to show how well he can do.

But Ms. Treviño’s advice is terrible; possibly the worst advice I’ve ever seen in response to an Avvo question. You haven’t given nearly enough information for someone to advise you on changing lawyers.

If your son trusts his court-appointed lawyer, he should stick with him and follow his advice no matter how much it hurts. If your son does not trust his court-appointed lawyer, he needs to either find trust for him or change lawyers.

But what happens to these consumers who mistakenly believe that an answer from an attorney, lacking any qualifications, is reliable?  Avvo might respond that they have a disclaimer (though I didn’t see it on the page, but I bet it’s there somewhere) that no one should ever listen to anything any lawyer writes in response to their question. 

I wonder if Dallas mom read that disclaimer, or thought that an answer from a lawyer meant that it was an answer from a lawyer, the sort of thing from a professional that a person could rely upon?  I wonder if, upon reading the first response, she immediately fired her lawyer and found a new lawyer to retain?  I wonder what would have happened had Bennett not come across this question and straightened it out?

But hey, this isn’t about providing accurate response to people who need legal advice.  This is about business, about marketing, both for Avvo and for the “contributors” who are complicit in this travesty, ruining lives one by one.  At least Avvo makes no bones about being a business, and the business of business is business.  As for the lawyers, there’s no excuse.

And as for the consumers who believe that they can get a worthy, reliable and meaningful answer for free from Avvo lawyer contributors, you can’t rely on Bennett coming around to save you from every bad response. 

20 thoughts on “Avvo’s Really Bad Answers

  1. Gary Carson

    I don’t know what the rules are in Dallas (Mark Bennett probably does) but in Travis County Texas (Austin) if you bond out you don’t get a court appointed lawyer.

  2. Sam Leibowitz

    So true! What a great post! Thankfully we have SJ to expose the truly-disgusting features of market-driven websites purporting to give free legal advice.

    I wonder if incompetent lawyers answering questions on Avvo incur liability for the damage they might cause when providing answers to questions they should not even be attempting to answer. Or is Avvo going to reimburse them for the millions they’ll be forced to pay in the event a jury one day decides that giving terrible legal advice through answering questions on websites amounts to tortious conduct?

  3. Mark Bennett

    Gary, it’s off-topic, but . . .

    A person can make bail (or have family who make bail) and still be indigent. Making bail doesn’t disprove indigency.

    I don’t know about Dallas, but one problem in Harris County is that nobody has an interest in forcing the judges to keep appointed lawyers on the job when their clients bail out.

    Another is that most judges are content with any warm body with a law license. If a defendant bails out and can pay a lawyer $150 per court appearance, he’s got a “lawyer.” This is the problem of the working poor.

  4. Popehat

    On Getting What You Pay For

    The vast array of tubes is choked with sites where citizens can post vague, ambiguously worded, fatally-incomplete legal inquiries and lawyers — or people pretending to be lawyers, or people who like law shows on the TV — can post “an…

  5. Greybear

    Seems to me there is (potentially, at least) an issue of unauthorized practice of law. After all, how do you know what state the person asking the question is dealing with? And if it’s not a state in which you’re licensed, you aren’t a “lawyer.”

  6. SHG

    I think that’s a very real concern.  Apparently, not as much of a concern to those lawyers trolling the questions to get their 2 cents in and promote themselves as to you and me.

  7. Josh Maher

    although… for simple questions like…

    “Is there a law that has to do with ‘X’ situation?”

    This tool is incredibly valuable. The benefit here is that search engines can’t do this, they are not smart enough to interpret the various codes and determine what area’s the law may apply to. An Avvo answers solution (if used correctly by BOTH the lawyers and people asking questions) can do this, there is a lot of value there.

    You can’t blame Avvo for crappy lawyers – you need to blame the law system for that. I would much rather figure out a lawyer is bad before I pay them a dime then find out after $10k…

  8. SHG

    Within certain parameters, the concept could work well.  But it would require perfect (and very limited) questions and intelligent answers.  If it worked that way, great.  But it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t the concept fails.  Sometimes badly.  Sometimes disastrously.

    I can’t blame questioners for asking bad questions.  They don’t know better, and they aren’t in a position where a lawyer was flesh out the details needed to provide a meaningful answer.  On the other side, who is there to stop inappropriate lawyers from providing wrong answers, which the questioners properly believe to be valid?  And consider, who are these lawyers and why are they trolling Avvo to give free advice?  Some may be well intended, and some, as here, just to promote themselves.  The questioner doesn’t know which lawyer he will get.

    The concept is inherently problematic.  It’s good marketing and bad law.  At the end of the day, has the questioner been helped or harmed?

  9. Marc J. Randazza

    Yeah, I used to think that Avvo was going to be a good idea. I even started answering questions on Avvo. But, it didn’t take long for me to start seeing some of the idiocy on there, and I didn’t want to be part of it.

    However, the first sign that the whole site is of questionable value is that I have something like a 9.7 rating, but lawyers with decades more experience than me, with skills far above mine, are hovering in the 6 range? The ratings are more about how many questions you answer about yourself than any real data. I feel dirty for even participating in it now.

  10. SHG

    While these new comments are to an older post, I’ve watched Avvo fairly closely since its inception.  It’s business model has apparently not been nearly as “robust” as hoped, and they’ve had to take some extreme measures to draw eyeballs to the site and generate cashflow. 

    At the moment, Avvo is deep in denial/spin mode that some of its later schemes are just horrible.  Avvo answers is a competency disaster, bordering on unethical, even criminal.  But since so many lawyers will happily do anything to ingratiate themselves with potential clients, they are likely to have at least a few lawyers providing incompetent responses to ridiculous questions to keep this mutt on life support. 

    The last straw was the paid attorney advertising, which put the final nail in the coffin of its feigned reason to exist.  They tried spinning as hard as they could that this was always the plan, but every lawyer knows it’s total nonsense.  They’ve slit their own throats on credibility and have reduced Avvo to another lawyer joke.  Like we needed more.

  11. Larry Bodine Law Marketing Blog

    AVVO Has Lost its Credibility

    From Scott H. Greenfield’s Simple Justice: Avvo made a big splash with its numerical ratings, but was subject to severe criticism from within the bar for its secret algorithmic methodology that burned younger lawyers and experienced lawyers who couldn’t be…

  12. SHG

    Because the law, like medicine, is not the same as “every possible topic.” Is there a do-it-yourself sugery answer site?  What about a prescribe your own medications website?  These sites can be helpful at times, but incredibly dangerous at other time.  For those who are seriously harmed by them, there is your answer.

  13. Randy

    Good analogy SHG. However, I find that most of the answers usually recommend that the questioner ask a lawyer and make suggestions on lawyers they have dealt with or where to find the right lawyer.

  14. SHG

    I haven’t read through many of the Avvo Answers, so I will defer to you.  If that’s the case, then it’s appropriate while simultaneously showing the uselessness of Avvo Answers.  But the few I have seen where lawyers provide substantive answers, they’ve been a disaster.  The funniest part is that some of these lawyers are such sluts that they are answering questions way outside their field and even their state.  It’s just goofy, but for the fact that someone will think they know what they are talking about and follow their “advice”.

  15. Stephen

    I’d have to say that, as a law student who gets asked these questions sometimes (I say IANALIJTTBO – I am not a lawyer, I’m just training to be one), that the last thing the asker wants is a general backdrop and really just wants a very specific “the law says you’re in the right” / “the law says you’re in the wrong.” No one pays a lawyer to teach them law, and I doubt they’re looking for that for free. I think it’s worth looking at it like any other piece of professional advice – if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day and sometimes that’s all someone wants. I believe that there is a general perception outside of pretty much all the professions that the answer is written down in a book somewhere and that laws are written like the Ten Commandment forms and it’s just that there’s more of them nowadays.

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