Avvo’s Turn for the Worst

When Avvo first came on the scene, its claim was to assist the consumers of legal services by providing ratings for lawyers, thus aiding intelligent decision-making and enlightening the legal consumer community.  The beef, at the time, was whether their rating system was valid.

As often happens with start-up high tech companies, there’s been a quiet shift in the business model.  The key to internet businesses that don’t sell a product is advertising, and the key to advertising is eyeballs.  It wasn’t too long before Avvo went into the free lawyer answer business to draw in people who wanted answers to their quasi-legal questions, but were too cheap to pay for a lawyer

It didn’t seem to matter that the answers were crap (as were the questions), as this was just a side-line, a come-on.  Avvo was a lawyer (and later doctor) rating service.  That was its claim to fame, its raison d’être.  More importantly, that was Avvo rationale for gaining access to lists of lawyers nationwide, and to overcome the issues concerning its rating service being used by lawyers to tout themselves.

When Avvo brought on its new VP of Marketing, Leigh McMillan, it gave me a reason to take a stroll over to Avvo and see what was happening.

SEATTLE, WA – July 21, 2011 – Avvo (www.avvo.com) the largest legal- and health-related Q&A website, where consumers get their questions answered by a community of rated lawyers and doctors,  welcomes Leigh McMillan as the company’s first Vice President of Marketing. McMillan will oversee Avvo’s marketing and business unit management, reporting to founder and CEO Mark Britton.

Whoa.  When did Avvo go from being a lawyer rating service to “the largest legal-related Q&A website?”  Not that Avvo Answers isn’t a part of the whole, or that Avvo’s not the largest (I couldn’t say, but wouldn’t be at all surprised that Avvo is the largest), but when did its focus shift from lawyer ratings, the justification for its existence, to a dubious (the words “utterly worthless” may be overstating the problem, though not by much) scheme to make the world more legally ignorant than when it began?

When Avvo opened its doors, I had a  long talk with one of its co-founders, Paul Bloom, who has since moved on to other ventures.  Since then, I spent time with CEO Mark Britton, where we argued over various foodstuffs the merits of Avvo ratings and its value to consumers.  I like Mark and Paul, and all the other Avvo guys as well, despite whatever misgivings I have about the service.  But at no time did I think of Avvo’s hallmark as being other than its lawyer ratings.  It appears that I’ve missed the shift.

So is Avvo a lawyer rating service that has its unbearably bad Avvo Answers as a loss-leader?  From the press release, no.  It’s not a matter of the tail wagging the dog, but that the tail is the dog.  Avvo’s primary function is to promote stupid answers to stupid questions.

In another press release, Avvo talks about its “weed-like growth.”  Weed-like indeed.  The internet has inundated society with monumentally poor legal thought and advice, leaving the public worse for having made the effort.  Avvo has chosen to dedicate itself to the creep of ignorance rather than to contribute to a better, more accurate, understanding of the law.

To the extent that Avvo’s claim to legitimacy relied upon the merit of its lawyer ratings, it’s given that away.  Avvo could have been part of the solution.  Instead, it’s taken the worst element of its business model and elevated it to its primary function.  No wonder Avvo’s growing like a weed.  Too bad it didn’t choose to bloom like a flower.

25 comments on “Avvo’s Turn for the Worst

  1. Mark Britton

    Scott – Thank you for your cranky Avvo post. I was getting worried. I thought we were doing something wrong. I know you have never liked our answers product, but it is a great way to help consumers and get lawyers business all at the same time. We remain committed to the Avvo Rating which is now one of the top lawyer ratings in the legal industry. Real answers from rated professionals. Even after reading your post, I’m not sure how you can take issue with that. Thanks for your thoughts though, and thanks for yesterday’s Twitter hug.

    Mark Britton
    CEO, Avvo
    http://www.avvo.com

  2. SHG

    You’re welcome for the cranky post and twitter hug.  I’m here for you, but I still loathe Avvo Answers, “a great way to help consumers and get lawyers business all at the same time.”

    I got a call via Avvo the other day.  The fellow (nice chap) told me he got a ticket for public urination, and asked me what he should do.  I told him to hold it in.  No charge. See, I’m a nice guy sometimes.

  3. David Shulman

    Mr, Britton,

    Can you explain why you allow lawyers to answer questions in jurisdictions where they are not licensed to practice law?

    I’ve found this to be particularly egregious in the area of wills and probate – although I haven’t really checked other areas of law.

    There are a handful of serial question answerers who answer dozens of questions a day in every possible state. These answers are not just stupid as Scott says, but often dangerously incorrect.

    The advice is worth exactly what the consumers are paying for it, but how does this system benefit AVVO, the people asking the question, or the California attorney giving wrong answers to Florida based questions?

    I guess it helps AVVO because you get more page views and more ads, but it destroys your credibility.

  4. SHG

    Well, since you’re going the serious, thoughtful (as opposed to just cranky) route, what of the lawyers who answer questions in areas where they don’t practice, or in dozens of practice areas?

    But my calling the whole megillah stupid has to do with the questions as well, since they are almost invariably poorly framed, replete with self-serving statements intended to seek a desired response to validate whatever it is that they questioner has already done, lacking in sufficient specificity to provide an even half-baked viable response, etc.

    The concept is fundamentally flawed, and David is quite right that the answers are not merely stupid, but often dangerously incorrect.  And then, of course, there’s the disclaimer of the Avvo aficionados so they can’t be held accountable for screwing up some cheapskate’s life.

  5. Jeena Belil

    I brought this exact issue up to AVVO’s former Marketing Guru, Conrad Saam last year. He advised me that something was being done about lawyers answering questions outside of their jurisdiction, but he wouldn’t tell me what. And, of course, I haven’t seen any of those changes yet. Admittedly, I used to be a fan, but I have come to realize the site has nothing to do with real ratings or appropriate answers, and no one at AVVO seems to give a crap.

  6. David Shulman

    I’ve been trying to figure out why a lawyer would spend all day answering all questions in areas they don’t practice as well as states they don’t practice.

    They are the internet equivalent of the talking head lawyers on TV – who opine on everything.

    My favorite question answerer currently has (of this posting) 1,854 answered questions.

    http://www.avvo.com/search/questions_answered_by_search/94526-ca-eliz-johnson-383512?professional_id=383512

    [Ed. Note: Thanks a lot for following my "no links in comments" policy.  Cool hat, though.]

  7. Jeena Belil

    My follow up question is, what does she get to do with all of those points? Does she get a coupon for a free meal at Subway? I do like her hat.

  8. Marilou

    I’ve said this before. In fact, my signature block used to say it for me. Don’t ever claim your profile on Avvo. Ever. Unless you’re prepared to be in bed with Avvo forever, and feed it regularly, lest your meaningless rating drop as a result of your neglecting Avvo. You have time for only one jealous mistress. Let her be the law, not Avvo.

  9. Norman G. Fernandez

    I met Mark earlier this year when we gave a presentation at the Sandra Day O’Conner School of Law in Tempe, Arizona.

    I asked him about why lawyers from other jurisdictions were allowed to post answers to questions outside of their jurisdiction. His short answer was that a lawyer from another jurisdiction may be able to provide a good generic response that would be helpful, and that we have to ability to object to answers given, etc.

    My bottom line is that on almost every California question in my practice areas, by the time the question gets to me by email, it has already been answered by a bunch of out of state lawyers telling the questioner to contact a California lawyer, and there are no points left.

    For all intents and purposes, I no longer answer questions on Avvo. It has become a worthless system for questions and answers, at least on questions in my practice areas. The out of state lawyers have ruined it.

    I do not know how these other lawyers make a living. I do not see how they can answer questions from all jurisdictions when the question has not even been mailed out yet. Are they just on Avvo all day?

  10. SHG

    Are they just on Avvo all day?

    What’s a lawyer to do when they have nothing but time on their hands?

  11. Mitchell Goldstein

    I answer questions on Avvo as a way of educating the public (and yes, hopefully to get clients; I have gotten a few good ones).

    My rule is to answer questions that I know something about. I answer questions on topics that I do not regularly practice, but I know if they are in my state. Lastly, I answer questions where I know the answer is just plain wrong or to warn the readers that the answer is off base.

    I see nothing wrong with Avvo as long as people stick to what they know. The generic crap that gives no information needs to stop.

    Now, I worry that if I stop, what will happen to the rating I have? Will it drop?

  12. Eric L. Mayer

    I love Avvo.

    I started at just 6.7. Then, magically, I grew to 6.8. It was great.

    With further Avvo use, I think I can grow even more–especially if I get more “Industry Recognition.” If you know what I mean…

  13. Mark Britton

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts. I appreciate the passion around Avvo and all of the (constructive?) criticism. I especially appreciate Mitchell’s measured and supportive tone. I think it is too easy to bash someone or much harder to step into the ring and support someone.

    And this is a nice segue into why we have not yet made changes to our Q&A product relating to out-of-state answerers: Not everyone agrees with the negative commentary here. Jeena, I was especially surprised to see your negative commentary considering all of our positive interaction, but I’m sure Conrad did tell you we were working on changes to Q&A. The problem is that lawyers are very split on whether out-of-state question are appropriate. To adopt the changes we designed, many made it clear that they would be upset with us, and not adopting the changes makes all of you upset with us.

    I will go on record and say that I believe we need changes to our Q&A product vis-à-vis out-of-state answers. However, it is not the biggest fire we currently need to put out at Avvo. We have tens of thousands of lawyers actively engaged and happy with our Q&A which allows us to have a 97% response rate. Yes, even I can quibble with an answer here and there, but it remains one of the most useful tools out there for orienting consumers regarding their legal issues.

    I will also go on record to say (again) that your Avvo Rating has nothing to do with your activity in our Q&A forums or anywhere else on the site. It will help your contributor rating and free placement throughout the site, but it will not help your rating. Yes, the info we know about your professional experience and quality of work will help your score (just like in the offline world), but we have tens of thousands of professionals on the site who are perfect 10s and don’t even know we exist.

    I agree that law is a jealous mistress, but it is often so because lawyers have no idea how to do anything but sell their time. With a little bit of business-building, including online marketing, a legal practice can be a wonderful thing. I meet successful, happy lawyers every day — most of them in small firms and riding Avvo for everything its worth.

    Thanks for listening. I look forward to any further comments – I will try to answer them in a timely fashion. However, for all of you active commenters here, I would like to quote your vociferous leader Scott Greenfield when I say, “What’s a lawyer to do when they have nothing but time on their hands?” ;-)

    Mark Britton
    CEO, Avvo
    http://www.avvo.com

  14. SHG

    I think I speak for everyone else when I say we would be much more constructive if Avvo took us on as highly paid consultants.  As for me, I’m happy with the occasional lunch and a hug.

    More substantively, of course the lawyers who are busily responding to questions are going to be upset if you prevent them from doing so at will.  So what if they don’t practice in that niche, or that state, or are blithering idiots which is why they spend all day responding to freebie questions with ignorant answers. 

    But how do you square this with helping consumers when answers are wrong, even dangerous?  That it makes  desperate lawyers who are harming people happy?  Is that enough of a justification?  What of the disclaimers from your “contributors” that their legal advice isn’t legal advice and shouldn’t be relief upon?  Why answer questions, on the one hand, then deny they’re answering questions on the others?

    Mark, this reflects a very real division between those who have too much time on their hands and will do anything (read harm anyone) to make a buck, and the rest of us, who care about clients and don’t find harming people and instilling ignorance acceptable.  Which horse do you back?

  15. Jeena Belil

    Spot on. This is exactly the concern I raised to Conrad. I’m curious to hear the reasons given by the lawyers who are pro answering across jurisdictions. I can’t imagine anything more compelling than the possibility of needlessly harming someone who is relying on the site for information.

  16. SHG

    And let’s not forget why this post was generated.  It’s not another gratuitous slam of Avvo Answers, but because Avvo, in its own press release, chose to promote itself as the largest legal-related Q&A Website rather than the largest (insert adjective of your choice) lawyer rating website.

    If this is the new core of Avvo’s business model, then it’s subject to increased scrutiny.

  17. Donald Petersen

    AVVO never established any qualifications for answering a question. So, out of state lawyers who do not even practice in the field which is being discussed attempt to answer questions involving state law without the required information. It’s a terrible formula for the people who ask the questions because they probably do not understand how unqualified the “lawyer” is to answer their question. There are obvious solutions to this problem but I do not wish to assist a Q & A site which competes with legitimate lawyer’s sites. When AVVO began selling advertising to competitors on lawyer’s profile pages, it became obvious what there “model” was. Why develop content for your AVVO to use to attract advertisers who will solicit your potential clients?

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