Last week, we reported that Avvo.com, a website providing information and ratings of attorneys across the country, was being sued by a lawyer who says the site defamed him.
Larry Joe Davis, a St. Petersberg, Fla., lawyer, alleges in his suit that the site erroneously listed him as an employment/labor law attorney, and gave the wrong address for his business. Davis also claims that his consumer rating jumped by nearly a point as soon as he logged in, and then fell again once he removed information he added to his profile.
This, Davis says, proves that Avvo purposely publishes false and misleading information regarding attorneys in an attempt to coerce them into logging in and editing their profile.
But any good lawyer knows that there are two sides to every story -- and Josh King, Avvo's vice president and general counsel, wants to tell his.
According to King, Davis is an attorney with a spotty record who doesn't understand how Avvo works and doesn't like the fact that we're publicizing the fact that he's been sanctioned.
Davis's claim that merely logging into the site raises an attorney's rating makes sense once one understands how Avvo works, King says.
How it works
The website creates attorney profiles from the ground up, using mostly public records data, King says. Thus, most attorneys -- about 95 percent nationwide -- have an Avvo profile, even if they've never heard of the website.
The typical profile is relatively sparse and contains the most basic attorney information: name, contact information, his license status, and whether he has been disciplined.
If a lawyer wants to add information to his profile, he can claim it by logging in and verifying that the profile is in fact his own. Once his profile has been claimed, the lawyer can add as much information as he wants -- photographs, publications, speeches, and the like. Lawyers can also change outdated or incorrect information.
According to King, attorneys who haven't added or changed information typically receive a rating of no concern or, if the lawyer has been sanctioned or otherwise disciplined, attention.
But once the lawyer adds or updates information on her profile, the website uses an algorithm to create a numerical rating based on the available data. Generally speaking, the more information added, the higher the rating.
Just claiming the profile doesn't increase your rating, King explains. But if you add information in, odds are the rating is going to go up because [the algorithm] has more to work with.
Conversely, King says, if you delete information, then [the rating] probably goes down, since [the algorithm] has less to work with.
Similar to dismissed suit
As for the lawsuit, King says he's seen this movie before. In 2007, shortly after Avvo's launch, lawyers John Browne and Alan Wenokur filed a class action lawsuit alleging that their Avvo ratings were inaccurate and misleading.
In an order dismissing the suit, Judge Robert Lasnik of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Seattle ruled that the rating system is protected speech under the First Amendment, and that the system is not only defensible, it is virtually impossible to prove wrong.
In a June 2007 blog post addressing Browne and Wenokur's lawsuit, Avvo CEO Mark Britton called it a predictable response from lawyers who have disciplinary actions in their backgrounds that will now be presented for their potential clients to see.
In addressing Larry Joe Davis's suit, Britton similarly writes that the real issue [in the suit is that] that Mr. Davis was sanctioned by the Florida State Bar in 2007 and he doesnt want you to know about it.
As far as Davis's lawsuit, King said that he has reached out to Davis -- who never contacted him personally before filing suit -- and offered to explain in greater detail how the site works. King said he is confident that the suit will be thrown out and that the real remaining question is whether there are going to be sanctions, penalties, or attorney's fees that the company will be able to collect.