More on Avvo

 Posted on June 19, 2007 in Uncategorized

A silly class-action lawsuit against silly website Avvo has New York Legal Update asking,

Should Zagat's be careful when it provides numerical ratings for a restaurant's food, service and decor? Should movie critics be concerned when they give a movie 1 and half stars rather than 5 stars? Should the Automobile Association of America – AAA – worry about a class action suit when it gives a group of lodgings two diamonds as opposed to three. Rating systems give consumers valuable information in comparing two different products or services when they lack first hand information about those products or services. Rating services also provide an incentive for firms to provide the highest quality of services possibly. Do lawyers honestly believe that they are so unique, so different, that the services they provide are so different, that they simply cannot be evaluated on a numerical basis?

(Thanks, as often, to Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice for the heads-up.)

Granted that suing Avvo because you don't like your rating is a goofy idea, New York Legal Update misses the real problem with Avvo's ratings.

Avvo's ratings are calculated from a few of the quantifiable descriptors of a lawyer's career: number of publications, years in practice, number of honors, number of speaking engagements, and so forth. (The formula is proprietary, but it's easy to see what its inputs are.) Scott (like me a perfect 10 in Avvo-world) makes the point that this system disregards entirely the vital qualitative differences between lawyers.

Do lawyers honestly believe that they are so unique, so different, that the services they provide are so different, that they simply cannot be evaluated on a numerical basis? Even assuming that lawyers' services could be quantitatively rated (more on that below), Avvo doesn't do it.

It is possible meaningfully to quantify the qualitative differences between some products or services. NYLU gives the examples of other restaurants, movies, and hotels. And there's the rub: Zagat's ratings, movie critics' ratings, and AAA ratings are given by people with, as NYLU says, "firsthand information about those products or services." That's why the ratings actually mean something. Avvo's ratings, on the other hand, are not, and so don't.

I've tried to imagine a numerical rating system that might safely distinguish between the lawyers who shouldn't be practicing from the lawyers whom I would trust with my own freedom. I can't see any way to do it. Some of the V6s (walking violations of the Sixth Amendment) have been practicing for longer than the champions (some for too long), some of them have more cases than the champions (some too many), some have tried more cases than the champions, and so forth. So are criminal-defense lawyers and their services so different that we cannot be evaluated on a numerical basis? I believe so.

We're not selling souffles. If you hire the wrong criminal-defense lawyer, you don't get to walk out halfway through. If your results are bad, you can't check out in the morning and check in somewhere else. If you hire the wrong criminal-defense lawyer, you lose your freedom or your life. There are no do-overs.

Because of the stakes, trust between accused and lawyer is everything. Trust is a very personal thing, and unquantifiable. No defender is the best lawyer for every case - a lawyer might be a 10 to one client and a 3 to another. The only way that an accused can know who to trust is to talk to as many defenders as he can stand to, look them in the eye, and figure out who's going to tell the truth - no matter how ugly - and who's going to say whatever he thinks it'll take to get the case.

A consumer should have access to any relevant information when she's trying to choose a lawyer. Avvo's ratings, however, are wholly irrelevant. Choosing a defender is not easy. Avvo tries to make it easy, and fails.

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