Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Seattle law firm filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit last week against the new Internet lawyer-rating service Avvo Inc. nine days after it went online.

The service says it rates lawyers from one through 10 based on their job performance. But one of the lawyers rated as “superb” at 9.3 says the system is so flawed that it is deceptive to consumers and unfair to lawyers.

“The bottom line is the Avvo rating isn’t a true representation of one’s ability to practice law and deliver positive results to their client,” said Steve W. Berman, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit. “In reality, we believe the site’s rating methodology is prone to error and wide open to manipulation.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, accuses the company of using its Web site,, for unfair competition and deceptive acts of commerce under the Washington Consumer Protection Act. Avvo’s chief executive officer is former general counsel for the travel Web site

The lawsuit says Avvo ranked U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito Jr. with a 6.5, the same rating as a lawyer who is serving a prison term for conspiracy to defraud the government. A 6.5 indicates “good” performance.

According to the lawsuit, Bellevue, Wash., lawyer Enrico Salvatore Leo listed an award with Avvo he won last year for playing recreational softball, which caused his rating to rise. The award was unrelated to his law practice, the lawsuit says.

“This sort of casual rating system might work for finding a restaurant or tire store, but when a person needs to find an attorney to handle a life-defining crisis, we think this system is wholly inadequate,” Mr. Berman said.

Avvo officials denied that their rating system was “casual” or inaccurate. They also said the complaints are coming from disgruntled lawyers.

“Because we are bringing information to light that was previously difficult, if not impossible for some consumers to find, that is making some attorneys uncomfortable, specifically the attorneys who filed the suit,” said Mark Britton, Avvo’s chief executive officer.

He said awards unrelated to a law practice would not alter a lawyer’s rating.

The computer system recognizes awards that could affect a rating but “flags” others, Mr. Britton said. Avvo personnel then review the award information.

If an award is relevant to a law practice, “we will increase the points,” Mr. Britton said. “If it’s the fourth-grade spelling bee,” the rating remains unchanged.

He said he was uncertain what effect the lawsuit would have on his company.

Avvo rates lawyers in nine states and the District. The company plans to add lawyers from other states as it compiles information on them. Maryland and Virginia lawyers have not been rated.

Lawyers in the District who were listed on the Web site said they knew little about it and were reluctant to comment.

Avvo says it derives its rating from publicly available records, such as law degrees, awards, bar admissions and disciplinary actions. The company then uses a mathematical model and point system to come up with a composite score for each lawyer.

A score of one indicates “extreme caution.” A score from nine to 10 is “superb.”

Company officials would not disclose their mathematical model.

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