Does AVVO sale to Internet Brands end the disruption cycle?

Online legal referral and attorney rating service

For some attorneys—even 40+ years after Bates v. Arizona—marketing itself is a disruption. But when AVVO, the online legal referral and attorney rating service, came along in 2006, it created some of the more significant disruptions to the legal marketing industry. With the company being acquired by Internet Brands last week, the question is whether the business will remain cutting edge?

Of course, as is usually the case, the company touts that things will remain the same and be “business as usual” under new ownership. But that is rarely the case. I would argue that Martindale, Nolo and Total Attorneys—all businesses acquired by Internet Brands (makers of such sites as WebMD, Fodor’s Travel and MySummerCamps) no longer have the same impact they did before being acquired. When Findlaw was acquired by Thomson in 2001, it basically ceased being Findlaw (after the typical “business as usual” period of time). If you want to see the original premise of Findlaw today, you go to Justia. Martindale-Hubbell, founded in 1868 by attorney James Martindale (talk about being ahead of the curve on marketing! I always thought Greg Siskind was first with everything), was what most law firms considered the one piece of business development they would pay for. And pay for they did for over 100 years until the Internet killed the golden goose. When I first started visiting law firms to discuss marketing in 1996, I was often sent to see the librarian—because she updated the Martindale listings—that (plus perhaps the holiday card) was the extent of “marketing.”

You would probably be surprised to realize that Avvo has now been around for nearly a dozen years. The site is a recurring part of my annual marketing ethics CLEs—not because it is unethical, but because it has generated so much controversy (and litigation, and state bar fights) over that time. In the early years, founder and CEO Mark Britton battled with a number of state bars to simply acquire what was supposed to be publicly-accessible attorney records to populate the Avvo database. Some lawyers that were dissatisfied with their Avvo rating sued, frustrated by the company’s argument that their ratings algorithm (which they would compare to Google in regard to secrecy) was unfair. Others did not like the way their profiles (and those of competitors) were displayed. The recent Avvo foray into a lawyer referral product really rubbed some states the wrong way—claiming everything from unauthorized practice of law to fee-sharing, among the arguments. I’ve always suggested that the problem states had with a referral product was it often competed with their own. But it was yet another example of the ongoing battles in State Bar of Wherever v. Avvo. There are enough entertaining Avvo-based lawsuits and state bar ethics opinions to teach a semester-long course in law school.

Every once in a while I play with my Avvo profile—I’m at solid 8.4 out of 10—and try to increase my score. It is typical of my marketing efforts at most law firms to make sure an attorney has claimed his/her profile and populated it appropriately—because one of the great successes of the site is that it generates high rankings on searches. Over the years, I’ve used Avvo marketing tools, such as sponsorship and advertising placements, to promote various lawyers, law firms and practices. I had some good results with pure consumer-driven practices; not as much on the “business” side. But the site and the products were never stagnant. So I had to stay aware of what was new and how things worked. In recent years—perhaps not a coincidence as the business was being prepared for sale—there were television commercials and other brand-awareness raising efforts that likely match up with many of the brands of Internet Brands.

I’ve gotten to know Britton over the years. He was always accessible, friendly and supportive of various initiatives I would undertake in a number of my American Bar Association roles. Avvo general counsel Josh King always responded when I had a question about anything related to their business. It will be interesting to see how things play out once the dust settles. Internet Brands does not strike me as being particularly disruptive—but time will tell. In the meantime, I’ll wait for the next new entrepreneurial lawyer marketing effort to spring up—and shake things up again.