Thursday, March 12, 2009

Avvo: Let's take a step back

First, let me start off by fully disclosing: Avvo is a competitor to ExpertHub and our legal directory LawFirms.com. We both have a website (in our case we have about 50 of them) that help connect consumers with lawyers. Ours has been a traditional approach (historically, although that is changing) . . . Avvo has tried something bold and new.

Quick Background

Avvo has a proprietary algorithm that rates lawyers. They grab publicly available data, compile a rating and then allow lawyers to come in and contribute up-to-date more accurate information that updates their rating. Its a very pro-consumer approach. As one of my friends said to me the other day, "you only know you've got a bad lawyer when its too late." With the massive amounts of damage that can be done IF you have bad lawyer, it seems like a service that helped separate the good from the bad would be pretty valuable to consumers AND lawyers.

What Went (Or Is) Going Wrong

Anytime you do something disruptive to the status quo, there is going to be push back. When you are disrupting a profession like legal advice, you would have to expect the push back to fairly signficant. And it has been. IMO, some of the push back is justified. For example:
  • If you stake your claim on a rating system, the rating system needs to be reliable, auditable and needs to stand up against relatively normal "what if"examples. Avvo has been criticized for rating lawyers that seem to have a good reputation in legal community worse than those that are known to be pretty average. Clearly for avvo's ratings to be taken seriously, they need to be reliable. The question is whether or not the false positives they have now are algorithmic and systematic flaws or just incomplete data. I think its too early to tell.
  • The "answers" feature may result in too many "spammy" answers from lawyers looking to exploit the system to get free case leads. Spam is a reality in online marketing . . . whether it is email, search spam or just low-value user generated content. The gut wrenching thing about avvo's answer's spam is that it comes with the cloak of authority (I mean, these are lawyers for god's sake, they can't be giving you bad or incomplete advice just so you'll call them, can they?). Again, I think this one is too early to tell.

On the Other Hand

A lot of the criticism thrown at avvo by lawyers and legal marketing consultants isn't well grounded in the reality of how consumers make a decisions about purchases. And, as much as we want to put legal services on a pedestal, it is a service that is purchased.
  • One of the biggest complaints about rating lawyers is that it somehow seems silly to make a decision about legal services the way you make a decision about a plumber. These arguments put legal services in the "relationship" category akin to the "relationship you have with your doctor". Not sure about that one. I had open heart surgery at the age of 32. Sure, I did my research and met the surgeons and made an excellent choice from an excellent surgeon. He did a bang up job and I'm 100% healthy . . . and both he and I hope that we never talk to each other again. Think about for a second, if I've been arrested for a DUI, need to file for a divorce, or need to resolve a probate issue , I want to make sure I receive the best legal advice possible from someone who is very good at what they do. So good, in fact, that I don't need to contact them again. And while heart surgery truly justified hours and hours of research, I would have greatly appreciated a more comprehensive information source to make the job easier.
  • Another complaint is that review sites skew negative and that they can ruin your business with one half-truth from a unhappy customer. There definitely are legitimate concerns about consumers posting negative information without recourse. However, eBay revolutionzed peer-to-peer selling with a review system that puts a premium on buyer feedback. Is the issue mitigated by having a fair dispute resolution process?

In the end, I have to admire what Avvo is doing. They are trying to do something bold and its too early to tell. It may work, it may not. But, it's worth watching it unfold. If I've learned one thing in life online, it's that things don't always evolve the way you think. I remember meeting eBay at a start up gathering when I was at the Stanford GSB in 1997 and thinking, "an online garage sale, how silly is that? Why would the mass market want to buy other people's junk."

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