Avvo Corp. of Seattle, an Internet-based startup that “rates and profiles every lawyer so you can choose the right lawyer,” is facing a class action brought by those rankled by the rankings.
The company, which ranks lawyers on a scale of one to 10, with the three lowest categories being “extreme caution,” “strong caution” and “caution,” has made for lively chatter in the legal blogosphere since it debuted last week � and has upset lawyers slighted by its ratings.
John Henry Browne, a Seattle criminal defense solo practitioner, said that the peer-reviewed Martindale-Hubble lists him AV (legal abilities “very high to preeminent” and ethical standards “very high”), but Avvo originally assigned him a 3.7, or “caution.” The rank has since been increased to 5.2, or “average.”
Browne said that attorney Steve W. Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle, asked him to represent a class of lawyers who allege that the site does not do them justice.
Berman, who filed the action on June 14 in federal court in Seattle, called the rankings “unreliable and meaningless, misleading to a consumer trying to find a lawyer.
“A lawyer who was disbarred and dead has a higher ranking than the dean of Stanford Law School,” Berman said, adding that one of the owners has a higher ranking than his former law firm colleague who is going to be president of the American Bar Association.
Avvo Chief Executive Mark Britton said that the company stands by the Avvo rating, “applied consistently and evenly to all attorneys.” Browne got a low rating because he was disciplined by the Washington state bar, Britton said.
Browne said he received an admonition in 2005 involving a contigency fee issue, noting that an admonition is not an infraction. He added that, in the same year, he got a pro bono award from the bar.
Roy S. Ginsburg, a solo marketing ethics practitioner in Minneapolis, said he is watching this and a New Jersey case with interest. His clients include Super Lawyers Magazine, which got into trouble in New Jersey for ranking lawyers.
Last July, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising held marketing that mentions a lawyer’s selection as a “Super Lawyer” or a “Best Lawyer in America” violates ethics rules against misleading advertising by creating an unjustified expectation about results the lawyer could achieve.
The state’s high court stayed the opinion, pending a review on the merits. It assigned retired Judge Robert A. Fall to create an evidentiary record on the issue in hearings that started last week at Ocean County Courthouse in Toms River, N.J., Ginsburg said.