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.