Amongst lawyers, there isn’t much talk of Avvo anymore. Way back when, Avvo was not merely an upstart challenging the hegemony of Martindale-Hubbell’s lawyer ratings, which were utterly meaningless to anyone outside of the profession (what the heck does “AV Preeminent” mean to a normal person?), but an opportunity for lawyers to lay claim to a numerical rating they could promote to consumers that would be understandable and, assuming the consumer naïve enough, persuasive.
Yeah, it was nonsensical, but that’s not a bug in the internet age. The problem for Avvo, of course, is that there is no money to be made in handing out free ratings. So in the dark of night, Avvo morphed from a lawyer rating service to a lawyer marketing. And much to my surprise and chagrin, Avvo has made a go of it.
Avvo has attracted $37.5 million in fresh capital, a huge capital infusion that the Seattle company will use to grow its marketplace for matching attorneys and clients. Total funding in Avvo — founded seven years ago by former Expedia general counsel Mark Britton — now stands at $60.5 million.
Avvo didn’t necessarily need the money, since the 150-person company was solidly profitable last year. But Britton said that they’ve got big plans in store, including the possibility of international expansion as well as some undisclosed products in the works.
When was the last time you attracted $37.5 million in fresh capital? From the old days, I got to know Mark, as well as one of the other original founders, Paul Bloom, who was originally VP of marketing until he disappeared, also in the middle of the night. It seems a lot of stuff happens in the middle of the night in Seattle. To be totally honest, I really like these guys. Avvo, not so much.
Yet it not only lives, but thrives.
Avvo is attracting six million visits per month, some of whom come to the site to find a lawyer or research a legal question. About 160,000 attorneys participate on the site, with 99 percent of the legal questions answered. Britton calls that an “unbelievable number,” noting that no one else “has ever had that number of lawyers using a single platform.”
While the 160,000 attorneys “participate” claim doesn’t bear up to scrutiny, as “claiming” a profile once means you participate forever, and there is no mechanism for unclaiming an Avvo profile should a lawyer decide he wants nothing to do with the place, I would assume the 6M visits per month is real, and that’s a lot of visits. It’s unclear what that number means, or what it does for either lawyers or people who ask idiotic questions, reveal confidential information or get such insightful response as “you should retain a lawyer, and lucky for you, I’m available !!!”
Some lawyers spend as little as $100 per month on Avvo, while others spend into the ten of thousands, Britton said. From the beginning, Britton said they’ve focused on building a high-quality and trusted community.
And the vast majority don’t spend a dime, and never will. On the bright side, the ones who spend “tens of thousands” on Avvo (and I use the word “ones” to suggest that the number of fools who part with their money is limited) are critically important, as they provide the resources that allow Mark Britton to pay for lunch when we see each other (thanks again, Mark!).
“So many sites just make the consumer feel like a piece of meat, rather than providing a meaningful marketplace where they can interact and understand their situation,” said Britton. “The legal profession does not need to be complicated, and to the extent that we can create equations where someone with a legal problem or a legal question gets the legal help they need … and great lawyers are getting more business. That’s the Avvo equation we are looking for in all of the different products.”
This is great news, which I interpret as meaning that Avvo will shut down its really, dangerously awful “Avvo Anwers” and create a new product, called “Avvo’s Correct Answers,” where potential clients will engage in meaningful discussions, that includes salient information, with competent lawyers from the proper jurisdiction who will then conduct some research, perhaps put in a bit of actual thought, and provide worthwhile and, for the most part, accurate advice. And get paid for it. Woo hoo!
I don’t begrudge Avvo’s success. In fact, it’s enormously impressive that Avvo, under Mark’s leadership, has gone not merely profitable, but held its attraction to venture capital. Avvo is a business, and this is what businesses strive to do. There is no shortage of wannabes in the lawyer marketing space, but none hold a candle to Avvo.
Yet, the next step beyond profitable is credible. The lawyer ratings piece has been left in the dust as a joke, Avvo Answers is downright dangerous, and some of its new ideas were, well, just plain bad. While Avvo may never be the source of business that would interest me, that doesn’t mean the damage it does in creating a mindset that lawyers work for free isn’t damaging to the profession as a whole. Nor does the vapid blog nonsense it promotes do much to illuminate. But Avvo’s still standing, and making money.
Maybe the next phase of Avvo’s growth will involve enhancing the thoughtfulness and dignity of the profession? Maybe Avvo can come up with an “exciting new product” that will both illuminate and help both lawyers and clients without involvement of hot pants?
It could happen. So too could that long-awaited call from Mark asking me to give the keynote address to their Lawyernomics or Avvocating conference. When you’re ready to shoot for credibility, rather than just profitability, I’ll be there for you, Mark.