- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

Lawyers often sue to protect consumers. In Washington - the lawyer capital of the nation - lawyers are threatening legal action to prevent consumers from getting a full measure of information about their services.

The District of Columbia Bar Association has told the consumer service Web site Avvo.com to stop using information from the bar’s own Web site - or face legal action. The Avvo site provides consumer information about lawyers, including their fields of expertise and whether they have been disciplined by a court or bar association.

Joshua King, an Avvo vice president, said the company has had no problems gathering information from other bar associations across the country - from New York and Boston to Austin, Texas - since it started its site in 2007.

But in Washington, which has more lawyers per capita than anywhere else in the U.S., Avvo is having a tough time.

Consumer advocate Steve Pociask is appalled.

“It’s not practical for people who defend free speech to turn around and say, ‘As long as it doesn’t affect my members,’ ” Mr. Pociask, president of the Washington-based American Consumer Institute, said Monday. “It sounds like a boys club.”

Mr. King calls the D.C. bar’s demand an insult to average Americans.

“Attorney licensing data is a matter of public record,” he said. The bar “wants to protect the interests of the District of Columbia Bar and its members. Note the absence of any interest in protecting the public.”

He said the problems started after the D.C. bar realized that the company was taking lawyer-licensing information from the bar’s site.

Mr. King said the bar then posted a “terms of use” statement and blocked Avvo’s access to the site.

He said the Seattle-based Avvo continued downloading from the bar’s site to update information, at least until receiving a “cease and desist” letter Jan. 27 from Timothy K. Webster, a lawyer with the K Street firm Sidley Austin LLP.

The bar’s primary objections are that Avvo failed to ask for permission to use the information and that it is soliciting members, according to the letter.

“They made a public Web site,” Mr. Pociask said. “It’s the World Wide Web.”

The letter told Avvo to stop taking information from the site and demanded that the company “immediately remove improperly acquired information.”

The bar says Avvo violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act - an anti-hacking law bolstered by the USA Patriot Act.

The D.C. bar would not comment and referred to the Jan. 27 letter.

Mr. King said it would be “easy enough” to find when the restricted-use clause was posted based on the bar’s internal records. He called the accusation that Avvo violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “far reaching” because the law applies only to the federal government.

Mr. King said the information his company uses could be acquired through the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“It is ironic that it has been less than a week after Obama issued his memorandum to the federal agencies about transparency in government and expansively interpreting the … act,” he said.

Janet Moss, executive director of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Client Protection Fund, said her group gave Avvo a disk with the names and addresses of lawyers practicing in the state, along with their dates of admission to the bar.

The Oregon State Bar posts on its Web site whether a member has been prosecuted for ethical misconduct and found guilty, spokeswoman Kateri Walsh said.

“It is a public record [but] has to be something they were found guilty for,” she said.

Mr. King said Avvo profiles include “disciplinary” actions such as bar sanctions. “These are punishments … that impact an attorney’s ability to practice law,” he said.

Mr. Pociask said he thinks the ratings represent an underlying issue and pointed to a 2006 lawsuit in which a federal judge upheld Google’s decision to lower the rankings of dozens of Web sites.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit by KinderStart, which had a big drop in Internet traffic, supporting Google’s argument that the rankings are a matter of opinion.

Carolyn Elefant, a private-practice lawyer in District, said she does not back the D.C. bar’s position on Avvo.

“I’ve been a supporter and user of Avvo since its inception,” Miss Elefant said. “I don’t know why the D.C. bar is doing this, and I don’t know why members weren’t informed of it.”

She said Avvo gives exposure to good lawyers who don’t have the money for expensive advertising.

“Avvo is doing something that the bar should have been doing 10 years ago,” she said.

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