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AVVO.com's new online service allowing lawyers to quote fees for prospective traffic-ticket clients sends the public the wrong message, ISBA-member critics complain.
The website AVVO.com, famous for its lawyer-rating system, has launched a new service that allows prospective clients with traffic tickets to receive "bids" for representation from nearby lawyers.
Shortly after the program launched in mid-December 2012, the ISBA's criminal law e-discussion group lit up with comments that the system degrades the practice of law and creates ethical pitfalls for the lawyers who use it.
Looking 'through the consumer's eyes'
For his part, AVVO.com founder and CEO Mark Britton, a lawyer since 1992, said his organization strives to improve the reputation of the legal profession and, with this new service, is merely taking the next technological step forward in making connections between attorneys and potential clients.
"We've always been trying to do things that are unique for the consumer and unique for the lawyers. To the extent that we just stand still, all of this will completely wash over lawyers and change the profession while they're just standing there on the sidelines," Britton said.
He claimed that with its online Q and A pages, where non-lawyers post questions to obtain free legal advice from member attorneys, AVVO creates more than 220,000 connections between consumers and counselors every month.
The goal of the new "bidding" process, which is still in its formative stages, is to push consumers beyond the phase of asking questions and into the process of actually hiring AVVO's member attorneys for legal representation. Britton said the service, which is "in beta testing" and does not yet have an official name, is restricted only to clients seeking representation in traffic-ticket cases.
"We often see the question 'I was doing 140 in a 55 zone, should I hire a lawyer?'" Britton said. "That person should not be asking questions. That person should be hiring a lawyer."
He said his marketing and development team worked with 15 to 20 traffic lawyers to help fashion a product that, when someone posts a question about tickets, will help them understand that they might be able to hire a lawyer to defend their interests without having to spend a lot of money.
"Most people looking for a lawyer have three main questions they need answered in order to alleviate their fears: One, what will it cost? Two, how long will it take? And three, will I be successful?" Britton said. "You have to look at it through the consumer's eyes, not the lawyers' eyes, and we believe that what's going to get the consumer to activate and get over this fear of reaching out to find a lawyer is a bidding process - the word "bid" is something they understand."
Seeking legal service not like 'ordering a television'
But Wheaton-based criminal defense attorney Donald J. Ramsell, whose law firm runs the website http://www.dialDUI.com, said the bidding process tarnishes the legal profession's image in the eyes of consumers and puts lawyers in a situation of providing unreliable cost-estimates to prospective clients.
Ramsell started the series of posts on the ISBA message boards, and has since contacted Britton directly to voice his concerns.
"My number-one concern is that it suggests by its very nature that lawyers are some kind of fungible goods, as if we're not providing a service based on skill, but like we're laying carpeting or something," Ramsell said. "That's not only misleading to the public, because they're offered a device that suggests that's how it works, but it's offensive to any practicing attorney."
He said that with the limited information provided in the postings by the non-lawyer users of the AVVO website, it is essentially impossible for lawyers to provide useful advice or accurate price estimates. The online connections are akin to the typical phone calls he gets.
Ramsell described the typical caller as a person who provides very little detailed information, like "Hi, I rear-ended someone else. My foot slipped off the break. Can you get me out of this ticket?"
"There is no way based on that alone that I could ever give an accurate quote," Ramsell said. "Some clients want to know whether they can be found not guilty. Some clients are looking for a service that would include a trial. Some clients have associated charges - they failed to mention that someone was seriously injured in the accident, or they failed to mention that their license was revoked 10 years ago."
With so many intangibles, Ramsell said all of those potential clients could have vastly different prices for their cases, and it takes follow-up communication to properly and accurately determine an estimated retainer for the kinds of services the client is seeking.
"We're talking about what many lawyers would say is the simplest of legal services - a traffic ticket - but even then it's complicated because it's not about what the client thinks is the best service to provide as much as it's about what are the client's expectations and how do you fulfill those needs as their lawyer," Ramsell said. "You have to agree to accept the phone calls. You can't just do everything like you're ordering a television from Best Buy."
ARDC has no opinion
Britton said the early results of the service tend to show that it's not the price that is driving AVVO users to hire attorneys. Rather, he said it is the quality and amount of substance in the answers provided by the lawyers that tends to seal the deal.
"What we have found immediately is that the lawyers who put in the most thoughtful response are those getting hired. They actually help orient the person by saying, like, this is a traffic ticket that's easily taken care of for this price, and you don't even have to come into the office," Britton said. "The overwhelming number of users are not selecting the lawyers who put in the lowest price."
Nonetheless, Britton has listened to the complaints of Ramsell and other lawyers, in addition to the positive feedback he has received from participating attorneys and their newfound clients.
According to Britton, AVVO has already "tweaked" the new system in response to the criticism by removing the term "bid" from the process and by making it optional for lawyers to respond to the inquiries with a price quote.
"A few lawyers got worked up and spent time on the listserves, and I want them to do that," Britton said. "But if they understand that what we're really doing is getting more people to hire more lawyers for traffic tickets, I think they would grow to appreciate it.…We live and die at AVVO by getting lawyers more business."
James Grogan, an attorney with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, said the agency has taken no stance on the new AVVO service because it has no jurisdiction over non-lawyer entities like a corporate-owned website.
The ARDC does have jurisdiction over entities that commit the unauthorized practice of law, but Grogan does not believe that issue is relevant to AVVO's services of rating lawyers, allowing lawyers to answer questions from non-attorney users, and in allowing lawyers to "bid" for retainer agreements with traffic-ticket clients.
"It's conceivable that a lawyer in general who succumbs to some process or protocol that's offered over the Internet might act in a way that violates the rules," Grogan said. "The individual lawyer could always get in trouble for doing something that violated the professional responsibility rules, but we have no opinion about AVVO because it's not within our jurisdiction."