For reasons that oftentimes eludes me, I get pitched by new legal tech start-ups, seeking to gain my approval of their business and, gasp, write something nice about them. Enthusiastic young people, sometimes lawyers, explain to me in glowing terms the fabulous benefits their concept offers, usually in terms of transparency, availability or time-savings. Sometimes, it’s just shiny.
Rarely does it go as well as they hope. There tends to be a few reasons that keep getting in their way. First, they have no clue how lawyers work and what lawyers need. Many of these start-ups claim to solve problems that don’t exist.
Others address practice needs that are contrary to how lawyers practice. The pitch in theory kinda makes sense, except that’s not how it happens. They argue that lawyers should do it their way, but it’s flawed. You see, if there isn’t any real substantive benefit to change, then there is no reason for it to happen. Worse yet, the change would cost money and produce no hard benefit, other than to the company selling the change.
But the overarching problem is ethics. Entrepreneurs don’t get ethics. They don’t understand that lawyers can’t split fees with them, that good for the lawyer but bad for the client isn’t acceptable. That deception is unethical. In business, deception is life. Any line of malarkey that sells is good, puffery is cool, fudging truth is what sweetens their money coffee. Why can’t lawyers just get with the program?
Which brings me to the latest traunch in Seattle, where Avvo just picked up a cool $71.5 million dollars. Avvo is almost ten years old now, and it’s demonstrated staying power where dozens of others came, announced themselves to be the coolest thing ever, and burned through their funding until their owners had to go back to gainful employment at Dairy Queen. But not Avvo.
My pal Carolyn Elefant (whom I welcome back to the blawgosphere with open arms) takes up its defense at My Shingle:
News of Avvo’s expansion brought the usual grumblings on some of the lawyer list-serves where I participate – ranging from valid criticisms of Avvo’s various services (such as whether Avvo’s for fee PRO listings yield a favorable return on investment)to rants about how Avvo serves no valid purpose but to take advantage of desperate lawyers and line its own corporate pockets.
No valid purpose? Really? Take a look around.
And I did. And I have. I’ve watched Avvo from the start. I like its people, Mark Britton, Josh King and Dan Lear. And I’m open to persuasion.
In the nine years since Avvo was founded, sites like Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor have grown steadily, affording consumers access to a rich database of reviews on books, restaurants, hotels, and a vast array of technology and household products. Consumers crave this kind of feedback – the chart below from Google Trends shows the increase in searches for “lawyer reviews.”
And yet, Avvo – and perhaps a few other directories – remain the only game in town to obtain feedback on lawyers. Meanwhile, as best as I can discern, the bar associations — now teetering on the brink of extinction-by-irrelevance – do not even offer a searchable lawyer database that would allow consumers to search for attorneys based on their area of specialization.
I have no doubt that Carolyn is right that “consumers” want reviews. Consumers also want lawyers to guarantee a win and do it at no charge. Consumers also want to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Who wouldn’t?
But does Avvo’s mix of services, from the horrific Avvo Answers to its latest offering, Avvo Advisors (protip: be careful, as you’re gonna run out of alliterative offerings eventually) serve anyone’s interest? Remember, when Avvo burst onto the scene, it was a lawyer rating service, challenging Martindale-Hubbell’s obtuse AV rating with its numerical offering that even an idiot could rely on. And only an idiot would.
But Avvo was a business, and businesses have to do something to create revenue or they die. So Avvo recreated itself from lawyer rating service to “the largest legal-related Q&A website,” which was code for marketing. In 2014, Avvo obtained funding in the amount of $37.5 million, but said it didn’t really need the money.
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.
A year later, Avvo picked up another $71.5 million, bringing its total funding to about $130 million. Avvo has commercials now to attract “legal consumers,” those people that we call clients, marketers call “leads,” to turn to its pages to find a lawyer.
Has Avvo helped the public? Has Avvo helped lawyers? Has Avvo capitalized on what consumers want even though it’s bad for the public and bad for lawyers, but good for Avvo? And if Avvo was kicking profit butt, would it dilute its equity with another $71.5 million traunch?
I’ve received thousands of phone calls from people who found my name on Avvo. From them, I got one case. The rest were either calls for free answers (“it will just take a minute,” he said before launching into a half hour story), a concept heavily promoted by Avvo, or public urination in Peoria.
In 2007, I wrote quite a bit about Avvo, as it brought something very new to the fore with its lawyer ratings service, and commanded attention as it was obvious that people wanted an easy, if absurd, method of finding “good” lawyers without any effort. I asked then what Avvo has done for lawyers.
Carolyn says, “take a look around.” So I ask again, what has Avvo done for you, as a lawyer? After all, it’s got about $130 million in funding, so it has to be doing something right. Right?