Avvo Inc., a Seattle-based business that rates attorneys, doctors and dentists, is on a roll. Founded in 2007, the company has grown by 400 percent during the past five years and expects to double its size again during the next two to three years. Avvo, which describes itself as the web’s largest legal directory, claims to rate and profile about 95 percent of attorneys in the United States.
The company’s name is derived from “avvocato,” the Italian word for lawyer. Avvo added ratings for medical doctors in 2010 and dentists this year, as well as a question-and-answer feature that provides free medical and legal advice. (Lawyers volunteer general legal advice and specify that they’re not creating an attorney-client relationship.)
Avvo rates professionals on a scale of 1 to 10, based on an evaluation by its proprietary software of their résumés, including how long they’ve been in practice, where they attended school, peer endorsements, awards and speaking engagements — “all factors we believe showcase professional competence,” said Josh King, Avvo’s general counsel. Avvo profiles include attorneys’ licensing details and disciplinary actions by state bar associations.
The privately held company has received $23 million in venture capital funding.
King is the sole staff attorney for the 75-employee company. He also serves as vice president for business development, overseeing 10 employees who handle human relations, finance, data management and customer care. “It’s quite the varied diet,” he said. Lately, King has been hunting in downtown Seattle for new office space, wrapping up last year’s audit and putting a new employee health care plan in place.
King reports to founder, chief executive officer and president Mark Britton, himself a former general counsel for Expedia Inc. King said that he and Britton prefer to focus on big issues and take calculated risks. “Businesses thrive on taking smart risks,” King said. “You have to give legal advice tailored to the opportunity. Your business can’t grow if you give advice about mitigating every risk.”
King outsources litigation to Bruce Johnson in Davis Wright Tremaine’s Seattle home office. David Clarke of Perkins Coie’s Seattle headquarters handles investor-relations matters and financing, including a $10 million round in 2010. Janet Cheetham of Ryan, Swanson & Cleveland, also in Seattle, is King’s go-to attorney for immigration issues.
King regularly fields calls from lawyers unhappy with their Avvo ratings or client reviews. Attorneys cannot remove or alter sanctions details or reviews, but they can edit their profiles, respond to reviews and comment about sanctions.
King estimates that he receives at least one threat of a lawsuit every week. In fact, he said, Avvo faced its first lawsuit within days of launching. Two Seattle attorneys claimed that Avvo’s ratings were inaccurate and misleading and therefore violated Washington state’s Consumer Protection Act. A federal judge dismissed the case six months later, ruling that the ratings were opinions protected by the First Amendment.
Another case — filed in 2010 by a Florida attorney who first alleged libel and later false advertising and misrepresentation — was dismissed in March under Washington state’s law barring so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPP), defined as lawsuits that target people for exercising their rights. The case was one of the first decisions under the anti-SLAPP law, which took effect in 2010. “I have a feeling that anyone else who wants to sue, this will sober them up,” King said.
King travels around the country addressing lawyers’ groups about online legal issues, the First Amendment, anonymity online and state regulation of attorney speech. “The legal issues I deal with most are not corporate issues but are media law and Internet law issues, and every issue around publishing legal information online.”
Many lawyers fear their state bar association’s rules prohibit them from displaying reviews or recommendations on sites like Avvo or LinkedIn. King said he urges them not to read associations’ bans on advertising too broadly.
ON THE HORIZON
Avvo expects to expand its services this fall by adding a marketing platform geared to attorneys. Lawyers will be able to use the company’s customer-management system to track contacts and follow up on leads, King said.
Avvo is planning for growth by increasing its sales force, but King doesn’t anticipate expanding his legal department. When he’s ready to add another attorney, he will choose someone who can ably handle nonlegal matters in addition to legal duties.
A native of Bend, Ore., King graduated from the University of Oregon in 1990 and received his law degree from the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco in 1993.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
After law school, King worked for two law firms in the San Francisco Bay area as a litigator, eager to argue cases in court. He became disillusioned when he realized he was spending most of his time in pretrial hearings and discovery disputes.
In 1996, he answered a classified ad for an in-house attorney at Cellular One LLC. The regional wireless company was seeking a litigator with public-utility experience to defend it against extensive antitrust lawsuits. King, who had worked for the California Public Utilities Commission while in law school, got the job. He discovered that he enjoyed blending legal knowledge with business sense.
“You get to apply the law, but you have to do it in a practical fashion every day,” King said. By the time he was 30, he was general counsel for the 1,100-employee company.
King joined AT&T Wireless’ legal department in Seattle in 2000, upon AT&T’s acquisition of Cellular One. He then moved into a nonlegal role in the corporate-development group, where he handled mergers and acquisitions, including helping to negotiate AT&T Wireless’ $46 billion sale in 2005 to Cingular.
King then joined Clearwire Corp. as director of business development. He spent two years with the Bellevue, Wash., Internet service provider, leaving when it went public in 2007. He joined Avvo shortly following its 2007 launch.
King and his wife, Heidi, are the parents of 13-year-old twins, Duncan and Ella. King described himself as a passionate fixed-wheel cyclist who commutes to work regardless of the weather. He blogs about his adventures at www.singlespeedseattle.com.
RECENT BOOK AND MOVIE
Cloud Atlas: A Novel, by David Mitchell; Ted (with his kids).
Take an exclusive look at 100 general counsel from the Fortune 1,000. View their profiles.