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

The suit claims that Avvo, which tries to affix a score of 1 to 10 on thousands of attorneys in 10 states, violates the state's Consumer Protection Act. The suit does not ask for a specific monetary amount, though Berman is asking the court to shut down the site. He also is considering seeking a temporary restraining order and the possibility of adding more attorneys who have "impeccable reputations" to the suit.

"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 -- it dupes consumers into thinking the site is an accurate reflection of an attorney's ability," Berman said in a news release.

Named as plaintiffs are Seattle attorneys John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur, with the suit listing several alleged inaccuracies about rankings of other attorneys.

It says that Bellevue attorney Enrico Salvatore Leo was able to boost his score on Avvo by updating his profile with softball awards, with the score later dropping after he removed the achievements from his profile. And it says attorneys now serving prison terms score higher on Avvo than some Supreme Court justices, and several attorneys connected to Avvo have higher rankings than law school deans.

Avvo Chief Executive Mark Britton had yet to digest the entire 25-page lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon, but he had read enough to dispute claims that his newly launched rating system was misleading consumers.

In an interview, Britton said the suit was brought because Browne didn't like his Avvo score. The Seattle criminal defense attorney -- who has been quoted in P-I stories about the new online service -- has an Avvo score of 5.2, or "average," partly because of a 2005 disciplinary action he received from the state bar over compensation issues.

"I think that because Mr. Browne did not like his rating, they are filing this suit in an attempt to chill our rating system," said Britton, the former general counsel at Expedia who founded Avvo in February 2006. "All I can say is that I believe the First Amendment is alive and well, and certainly within that amendment and the defenses that go with it, we are able to make an opinion, to make an assessment regarding how well a lawyer might represent someone."

Berman said the case is not just about disgruntled lawyers who don't like their scores, contending there is evidence that attorneys can manipulate their scores on Avvo in order to boost their rankings. Since Avvo received media attention last week, Berman said he has been contacted by numerous attorneys from across the U.S.

Britton said the company, backed with $13 million from Benchmark Capital and Ignition Partners, had not earmarked a certain portion of the venture funds for legal defense. But he planned to file a response in a timely manner under Washington law.

In addition to Avvo and Britton, the suit also lists 25 John Does as defendants. Those include law firms and venture capital firms who could be added to the suit if it is proved they "aided and abetted" certain conduct. In a P-I story earlier this week, Berman said he did not plan to go after Avvo's venture backers.

On Thursday, Berman said he changed his mind on that issue because new information became available.

The suit claims that Avvo violates the state's Consumer Protection Act because it is not an objective or unbiased resource, even though the startup says its ratings benefit consumers.

"We are trying to get consumers more information than they ever had before," Britton said. "Before Avvo was launched, everybody was pretty much going to the Yellow Pages and search engines, which are not the most efficient places for people to find a lawyer. By providing that information and guidance, it just helps consumers get the legal help they need."

The suit also claims that Avvo holds attorneys hostage by forcing them to hand over credit card information to update their profiles.

Britton said that the credit card information is a security measure in order to guard against "hacker bots" and other people claiming profiles that are not theirs.

"There is nothing nefarious that we do with the information," he said. Still, Britton said the company is working on a new system to verify attorneys in ways that do not use credit card information.

The lawsuit also claims that Avvo uses a secretive method to come up with its rankings.

Asked about adding more transparency, Britton said that they would consider doing that, but they are most concerned about people "gaming the system." Disclosing the method by which it comes up with the rating could lead to people manipulating the score, he said.

Avvo continues to make changes to the Web site based on the feedback from lawyers and consumers, something Britton said Berman chose not to do.

"He chose rather just to file a complaint," said Britton.

In a Monday interview, Berman told the P-I that he views this as an important case because those who are in need of legal advice should be able to get trustworthy information. "If you are going to have a service out there, it should be reliable and it should be trustworthy, and this site is neither," said Berman.

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