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Law Firm Website Design Companies : The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Judge rules in favor of Avvo's online rankings

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/12/19 15:12

Avvo won a key legal victory Tuesday in its quest to legitimize its online attorney rating service. The legal brouhaha erupted earlier this year when high-powered class-action lawyer Steve Berman sued the Seattle startup, claiming that the company's attorney ratings were a "flat-out scam" and could harm consumers. But U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik on Tuesday granted Avvo's request to dismiss the suit, writing in a 10-page order that the startup's attorney rating system is protected by the First Amendment.

Berman was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Avvo Chief Executive Mark Britton declared victory, saying he had been confident that the court would reach that decision.

"This was a case that should have never been filed. It was aimed at chilling and censoring our opinions, the opinions of consumers and even the opinions of other lawyers," said Britton, the former general counsel at Expedia who founded Avvo last year. "We are gratified. We are very happy."

There is the possibility of an appeal.

The suit, which was brought by Berman on behalf of Seattle attorneys John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur shortly after Avvo's launch last June, claimed that the attorney rating service was severely flawed since some accomplished lawyers scored lower than those with disciplinary actions.

For example, the suit noted that Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito received the same rating as an attorney in prison for conspiracy and other charges.

The suit also said that attorneys could manipulate the rankings by updating their profiles on Avvo, citing one example of a Bellevue attorney who boosted his Avvo rating by posting athletic awards on his profile page.

But Lasnik wrote Tuesday that the Avvo ratings -- which assign rankings of 1 to 10 on attorneys -- are "subjective opinions."

"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. 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," Lasnik wrote.

Lasnik also questioned why Browne would use his rating as a "Super Lawyer" by Washington Law & Politics magazine as evidence against his sub-par Avvo rating, noting that the court did not want to determine if one system was better than the other.

Avvo, which has raised about $13 million from Benchmark Capital and Ignition Partners, has attracted more than 4,000 lawyers who have claimed profiles on the site. About 2,000 of those are from Washington state.

Despite the legal action, Britton said that he spent little time on the case and most of the employees stayed focused on the job at hand.

"I think the team took it for what it was worth, rather than getting worked up by it or getting distracted by it," he said.


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