Federal judge: Web site is free to rate lawyers

By The Associated Press
12.20.07

SEATTLE — The Web site Avvo.com is free to continue rating thousands of lawyers around the country, a federal judge has ruled, saying the scores might not be worth much, but they're protected by the First Amendment.

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik on Dec. 18 dismissed a class-action complaint brought by two Seattle lawyers unhappy with their ratings — prominent defense attorney John Henry Browne (average) and bankruptcy lawyer Alan Wenokur (good).

"To the extent that their lawsuit has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them," Lasnik wrote in Browne v. Avvo, Inc. "To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action."

Avvo lists profiles of lawyers in Washington, Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C. Lawyers can sign onto the site to "claim their profile" and update it with information about awards they've won or testimonials from other lawyers, and clients can add reviews.

Avvo plugs the information into a formula that spits out a score on a 10-point scale. Along with the profiles, the scores are available for free on the Web site. Because the scores are available for free, the lawyers' claim that they constituted deceptive or unfair business practices had no merit, the judge said.

"It's important to have empathy for the consumer's plight when they are trying to solve their legal problems," said Mark Britton, Avvo founder and a lawyer himself. "It is all in the name of getting them better information and better guidance." Browne, who recently represented Vic Kohring, a former Alaska state legislator convicted of bribery and related corruption charges, did not return a call seeking comment in time for this story. Browne has more than 35 years of legal practice, but his score was hurt by a recent sanction for overcharging a murder defendant. Lawyers for Browne and Wenokur could not be reached after hours for comment.

Avvo's system at one point rated Britton a better lawyer than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Britton said that had been fixed and that, as a judge, she is no longer rated. Also fixed was a system by which lawyers could quickly boost their scores by listing awards they've won, such as fourth-grade spelling-bee titles and softball championships.

Lasnik suggested that such ratings aren't worth much — "that and $1.50 will get you a ride on Seattle's new South Lake Union Streetcar" — but ironically, he said, Browne listed his designation as one of Washington's "SuperLawyers" by Washington Law and Politics magazine as evidence that his "average" rating by Avvo was unfair.

"Why one should assume that the attorney rating system developed by Washington Law and Politics is any better than that used by Avvo is not specified," Lasnik wrote, noting he fined one such "SuperLawyer" $40,000 for unreasonable and vexatious litigation tactics.

Britton said he didn't think the lawsuit would affect Browne's or Wenokur's score.

"The rating is unbiased," he said.