Avvo Answhores (Updated 11/30/2009)

Avvo has this “Avvo Answers” thingumbob, in which “consumers” (that’s potential clients to you and me) can “Ask legal questions and get free advice from lawyers” (that’s from the header text). Avvo is pushing the “free advice” thing pretty hard—the URL of the page is http://www.avvo.com/free-legal-advice.

That’s not how the people answering the questions see it, though. Here’s Austin criminal-defense lawyer Paul Walcutt’s disclaimer:

This answer is provided as a public service and as a general response to a general question, it is not meant, and should not be relied upon as specific legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.

Despite the disclaimer Walcutt, to his credit, seems to a) answer questions only in his geographical (Texas) and practice (criminal) areas; and b) provide thoughtful, accurate answers. While he doesn’t call it advice, it could well be. The same can’t be said of everyone else’s Avvo answers.

Carlos Gonzalez of New York answers questions in North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Virginia, Mississippi, California, Missouri, and probably 43 other states, the District of Columbia, and Grand Fenwick.

Victoria Marie “Tory” Mussallem of Jacksonville answers questions in, among other places, Georgia, Washington, California, New Hampshire. Here’s her disclaimer:

This answer is for informational purposes only. This answer does not constitute legal advice, create an attorney-client relationship, or constitute attorney advertising.

As though such a disclaimer has any effect, especially in light of Avvo’s contrary representations. Mussallem appears, from her Texas Avvo answers, to be the sort of marginally competent lawyer that Jacksonville apparently incubates (a typical answer is “contact a lawyer in your state”) though she at least acknowledges her 49-state incompetency by oftimes starting with, “I am a criminal lawyer in Florida, but . . . .”

Howard Woodley Bailey of New Jersey is another generic “consult with an experienced defense lawyer in your State” Avvo answerer. Here’s his disclaimer:

I do not practice law in your State. This answer is provided for informational purposes only. This answer does not constitute legal advice, create an attorney-client relationship, or constitute attorney advertising.

Alan James Brinkmeier of Illinois has a disclaimer too:

This answer is made available by the out-of-state lawyer for educational purposes only. By using or participating in this site you understand that there is no attorney client privilege between you and the attorney responding. This site should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney that practices in the subject practice discipline and with whom you have an attorney client relationship along with all the privileges that relationship provides. The law changes frequently and varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The information and materials provided are general in nature, and may not apply to a specific factual or legal circumstance described in the question.

Brinkmeier, who has “answered” more than 8,000 questions on Avvo, “answers” questions in the area of ethics and professional responsibility, employment and labor, car and auto accidents, debt collection, lawsuits and disputes, child custody, juvenile law, wrongful termination, DUI and DWI, immigration, appeals, civil rights, and domestic violence anywhere in the U.S.

The disclaimers should say that the “answers” are for entertainment, rather than education or information.

What’s the game? Why can’t people like Carlos Gonzalez, Tory Mussallem, Howard Bailey, and Alan Brinkmeier, who recognize that they have no clue what they’re talking about, just keep their traps shut and let the lawyers who have some chance of knowing the law answer the questions?

(Update: I just got off the phone with—well, got hung up on by—a very upset Alan Brinkmeier. He thinks my opinion is defamatory, and insists that he answers Avvo questions from across the country in practice areas other than his own “to help people.” I suggested that he post a comment here explaining, and he suggested that I retract this post.)

Like so much of lawyer marketing in the early years of the 21st century, it’s about numbers—meaningless numbers: points in an online game. Avvo gives lawyers “points” for answering questions—so many points for the first person to “answer” a question, and progressively fewer points for each of the next three or four subsequent answerers. These points can’t be traded in for valuable prizes, but Avvo designates lawyers “Level n Contributors,” where n is a number between one and 10 and is based on the number of points accumulated. While it allows readers to flag answers as objectionable (because of violations of the community guidelines, which include “Do not post answers with generic or duplicate content that doesn’t specifically address the question”—I’ve been using that one liberally), Avvo doesn’t vet the answers (how could it); if Alan Brinkmeier is the first person to post an answer to a question, he gets the same number of points (40?) whether the answer is erudite and wise or generic and clueless.

There’s even a weekly leaderboard where Avvo, feeding the beast, hypes: “Get in the top 6 and be featured on the Legal Guides, Answers & Advice, and Lawyer Search pages.” Get more points, get more exposure. (I note that the #7, #8, and #9 spots on the leaderboard are occupied by Robert Guest, Cindy Henley, and Paul Walcutt, all Texas criminal-defense lawyers who got on the board by giving thoughtful, helpful answers to Texas questions only.)

To get in the top 6, though, and be feature hither and yon, it looks like a lawyer must, unlike Robert, Cindy and Paul, be willing to answer anybody’s question from anywhere: to be (with apologies to prostitutes) an answhore.

If they were trying to help the potential clients, these answhores would shut up and let experts answer the questions. But they aren’t trying to help anyone—anyone, that is, but themselves. So they rush to provide non-advice advice, non-answer answers, reducing the motivation for lawyers who actually know something to answer the questions. Are they in ethical jeopardy? I haven’t given a lot of thought to the rules they’re violating, but the fact that they are putting their own interests ahead of those of people who are looking to them for  help, as well as the need they feel for a disclaimer, both suggest that these answhores face ethical pitfalls.

What about Avvo? Avvo could easily solve the problem by not allowing any but in-state lawyers answer a question for, say, the first 24 hours after the question is posted. Advertising “free advice,” does Avvo have some responsibility to try to ensure that the advice is actually advice?

Probably not.

But the more useful the answers are, the better Avvo (theoretically, at this point) will do. By giving New Jersey answhores an incentive to leave generic “answers” to Texas questions, Avvo reduces the usefulness of its answers.

When the first two or three answers to every question are effectively “I have no clue, but here, watch me pull something out of my ass,” the service is much less useful to both lawyers and potential clients than it would be if the first two or three answers could be, “I’ve dealt with that, and here’s what you need to know.”

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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16 Responses to Avvo Answhores (Updated 11/30/2009)

  1. Mickey Fox says:

    Thank you, Mark Bennett, for stating what I thought I was alone in feeling. I do answer questions on AVVO. And, I try to answer only those questions which I feel competent in answering.

    This is yet another area of ethics in which the Bars of the several states have not yet set clear rules. In response to some of my inquiries, I have gotten answers that generally amount to “we will apply those rules already in place.”

    Well, that ought to do it. I mean, the set of rules that were created to deal with telephone book advertising have done wonderfully well in television advertising (which can change much more frequently) and ought do swimmingly with internet-based ads (which can change on a whim) and Web 2.0 media (which changes even BEFORE a whim).

    In addressing this issue I have to call attention to your prior post regarding the Connecticut lawyers and the “referral service” – not because of the post contents – but because the issue is the same: we (the several bars) choose to deal with things retrospectively rather than prospectively. And in an age of lightning-fast changes in advertising technology, to wait a moment is almost to wait a lifetime.

    Anyways, again, thank you for saying what I had been thinking.

  2. I am the “Cindy Henley” to which you refer. : ) I think I may have answered Qs from other states when I felt comfortable doing so. At one time I provided disclaimers because I felt a bit concerned about someone saying that it was my fault that they did such & such. Finally, I decided that I would just answer Texas questions and I leave off the disclaimer (which might not be a good idea – I don’t know.)

    I actually enjoy answering the questions. Kind of weird perhaps but I really do like helping people, and this is an easy way in which I feel that I can share knowledge (which I qualify as hard work paying off on a gift from God. : ) ). Most of the time the people need a lawyer to help them individually, but I do not think I have ever gotten a call from anyone whose question I answered. (I have gotten calls from people who read about me on AVVO in their search for lawyers, as have you – I know this because we frequently get called by the same people which I consider a good thing for both you and I – I think we are both damn good lawyers who work hard for our clients.)

    I usually answer the AVVO questions when I am bored. But I totally agree about some of the people who answer. I have written complaints about 3 of them in the past – directly to the people who run the website. (For example, one lawyer would write such things as, “I don’t understand your question” or “I agree with X” – without adding any useful or potentially useful information.) My guess is their motivation is points for level optimization. (If I were truly trying to make points, I would update some of my prior speeches & post them. But, that is not my intent.)

    The other day I noticed a female lawyer – don’t remember her name – gave an INCORRECT (not just an insufficient) answer. She was not from Texas & so stated, but she had no business answering questions about Texas law (unless she conducted thorough research.) She did not know what she was talking about.

    I think AVVO is a good site for people to conduct research on lawyers who have good referrals from clients and from other lawyers – just as you and I do (and many of our colleagues do), but I do not think that researchers / potential clients / people in need should use the person who answers their question necessarily. That may be a beginning point, but the references are far more important than someone who just answered their question. It might be right, it might be wrong – but it should just be the beginning of the search for who will help the person help them handle what is obviously an important situation in their life.

    Thanks for the post, Mark.

  3. Robert Guest says:

    Mark,

    I enjoy answering avvo questions. It’s a much more efficient version of the “you search, I answer” posts I featured on my blog.

    Criminal defense does not lend itself to simple or standard answers. The most common questions are

    1. What is the range of punishment?
    2. What will the result be of my criminal case?
    3. Is my lawyer screwing me?

    The limitations of Avvo make it impossible to answer 2 or 3. I feel a duty to admonish defendants against committing legal suicide by proceeding pro se, or discussing their case with the police/DA. Most of my answers are “talk to a/your lawyer”.

    Avvo has value, but it is also open to abuse and Big Seo shenanigans. Regarding the former, I am also disturbed by out of state lawyers giving useless “answers” to game the system. The question asking public is not served by out of state lawyers whoring them self out for points.

    Avvo partly creates this situation by making the rankings update weekly. So a body of work is not respected as much as a constant churn of useless information.

    Finally, Avvo is taking a turn towards the dark side. I got an email last week soliciting “premium placement” for the top ranking for Dallas/Kaufman criminal defense. I have been happy to support Avvo because it seemed like a meritocracy, not the usual pay to play lawyers.com model. Why the would abandon something that approaches objective rankings for the status quo is beyond me?

    I have spent a few hours of my time answering over 100 questions. Now, any lawyer who will pay $500 a month can buy a top spot without contributing anything but money.

  4. Ellen Victor says:

    Mark,

    What a timely post for me. I finally got fed up tonight with attempting to answer questions that had already been “responded” to by 3 lawyers, and sent Avvo a scathing e-mail. I doubt that I will receive any sort of satisfactory response. I then expressed my frustration on Twitter and Cynthia Henley sent me here.

    Carlos Gonzalez may be from my state, New York, but I promise his non-responses are no more helpful for New York estate and business questions then they are for his out-of state responses. And he is now Pro, so I doubt he will be discouraged from continuing his rapid climb up the “leader board.”

    And if I may add to your Hall of Shame responders, John Kaman (California) surely wins some sort of award. I did manage to respond to one question first, then Mr. Gonzales said he agreed with me and Mr. Kaman followed with “Not only is the first response correct so is Mr. Gonzalez. This must be some kind of trifecta.”

    Here’s one I didn’t get to respond to: The first attorney gave a good response, Mr. Gonzales agreed and Mr. Kaman wrote “My learned colleagues score an ace again.”

    Almost seems like he is taunting Avvo to see how far he can go.

  5. shg says:

    What I find most surprising is how many of you enable Avvo Answers, one of the most ill-conceived ideas ever. You aren’t helping people, but enabling this culture of hall-assed freebie self-promtional responses and abdication of responsibility. Of course, Avvo is happy to use your desire for self-promotion to aid in its business model of suggesting that attorneys exist to offer free advice to anyone who wants it. So what if the advice is totally wrong; this is about marketing, both for the lawyers and Avvo, and has no connection to honest services or integrity.

    Wanna help people? Do it right. Help the poor and homeless. Meet with them, ask the right questions and give correct advice. AvvoAnswers is the garbage way out, and only conveniently serves to promote you on Avvo. You’re sleeping with dogs, so don’t complain what you wake up with.

    At least Avvo knows it’s a scam. Do the lawyers?

    • Mark Bennett says:

      You’re wrong, of course: the idea—facilitating Q&A between lawyers and people with legal problems—is a laudable one. I give free legal advice (often of the “don’t talk to the cops” or “trust your lawyer” variety) over the phone all the time; lots of criminal defense lawyers do so. They don’t do it because it’s good for business, but because it’s good for society or because they like to help people. Avvo answers could be an extension of the same process—civic-minded lawyers pointing laypeople in the right direction, or demystifying the law for them.

      Lots of lawyers don’t give free advice, though, even when giving it would be no more work than refusing to give it, and make excuses for not doing so—speculative and unlikely liability, for example. By creating business incentives for lawyers to “answer” questions (even when they don’t know the answers), Avvo has taken free legal advice out of the hands of lawyers who know the answers and share them because they care, and put it in the hands of marketers trying pathetically to get their names to the top of the page.

  6. Shane says:

    I’m not a lawyer. I am, however, quite familiar with Q&A sites. I think the sites that do it best are the StackExchange family – whose flagship site is StackOverflow.com (really great community for simple programming questions). The way they do it is that the asker gets to choose one question for being the best, and anyone with a certain level rating can rate questions up and down.

    It does become much like a game, but the rules of the system are structured to embrace this game and improve the site at the same time. Quality answers get more points, bad answers cost points. Putting a “me too” answer is punished pretty harshly by the community.

    Of Q&A sites, Avvo is probably one of the most poorly designed. Giving any weight to the order in which answers are posted is just bad incentives, and ruins the “community” aspect of these sites.

  7. Thank you for that insightful and refreshingly honest post. I too have had mixed feelings about Avvo.

    I have no problem with the lawyers who simply agree with their “esteemed” colleagues on a response in order to score quick points. That kind of strategy should be pretty transparent to everyone, including people who might consider hiring them.

    What bothers me are the lawyers who answer questions posed by someone who obviously already has a lawyer and who is just using the site to second-guess that lawyer. Many people who are asking questions have just entered a guilty plea or are being encouraged to take a guilty plea. Who does it help to second-guess the advice of the lawyer who negotiated this guilty plea and who is intimately familiar with the facts of the case. And yet some lawyers will do precisely that. They seem to suggest that they have gleaned something from the two- or three-sentence question that the questioner’s retained counsel has somehow missed.

  8. Though I agree with all of your points, I disagree somewhat strenuously with a push for bar regulation. Personally, I trust consumers, and I believe that consumers will realize when an answer is valuable and when it is not and will choose accordingly. I also think that posts such as these which e-shame offending attorneys and companies will do far more to force these services to change than bar regulation. Once the bars step in, these types of sites are forced down and there aren’t any others to take their place. Though on the surface, this may seem like a good result, all it does is open the door for those lawyers with the deepest pockets to leverage SEO and Google ads to get clients. I realize that Avvo is far from perfect but with the changes that you’ve recommended, it could become more useful to consumers as well as lawyers seeking to educate the public about the law. The bar is not going to make recommendations – it will either give the site a thumbs up or a thumbs down and neither result will improve it (in contrast to the impact of market forces and e-shaming, which I believe will).

  9. Alan Brinkmeier says:

    Mark

    I am the Alan Brinkmeier that you say should “recognize that they have no clue what they’re talking about” and should, “just keep their traps shut”. When we spoke by phone this morning unfortunately you were not interested in hearing anything I said when you rudely hung up the phone on me when I inquired if you would consider removing the post about me if I explained why I participate in the online forum.

    Here is my thinking. I volunteer by posting online in an effort to help those that take time to post their problems. I do not do this for some ill purpose or as a game. I have done this same kind of thing in my practice and this is another way, albeit online, in which I feel that I can share. More such volunteer effort is needed by us all and it binds us to our community in a positive way. Try it. You might like it.

    I attempt to help people point them in the right direction for a potential solution to their problems knowing full well I am not their attorney. I gain nothing. I have no ill-will in doing so. I enjoy trying to help others with the questions they post. I join Ms. Henly (her post 26 Nov) and her thinking as I too really do like trying and helping these people. I like it when someone phones me to thank me for a post I have made and follows up with another question.

    Other than the summer months of 2009 when I was fully engaged and could not post much, I continue to enjoy trying to help.

    I have been lucky enough in my practice to do appeals which have pertained to a wide variety of legal issues such as product liability, wrongful death, contract, insurance, civil rights, constitutional law, police matters, government takings, and more. By posting in the section that covers Appeals I do see and make observations on posts in these and other topics. I am thankful to be able to talk with those people that have phoned me to talk about their situations further. You calling me an answhore on your post falls in the category of all name-calling – it does not further any positive dialogue.

    As I have often mentioned to people that ask, I think Avvo is only one of several tools that a person looking for an attorney should use to choose the right lawyer.

    Alan Brinkmeier

    • Mark Bennett says:

      Alan,

      Thanks for replying.

      Unless you are having some problem with your phone system, you—as I noted in my update—hung up on me. It was not the other way around.

      Maybe you really think that you are making a positive contribution with answers like this, but your disclaimer—not “a substitute for competent legal advice”—says otherwise.

      I’ve got my hands full helping people who have questions that I have answers to, and I have a rule against providing legal advice—pro bono or otherwise—in areas outside of my areas of licensure and special knowledge. So I decline your invitation to join you in answering questions from every state dealing with every topic of law.

      • Alan Brinkmeier says:

        Mark,

        Nothing is wrong with my phone, as I attempted to and did speak for about 15 seconds to explain some of the appeals I have done in a wide variety of areas of law only to realize you had left the line.

        Anyway, even though you disagree that my free online participation is a positive thing, isn’t it a lot more civil to have a dialogue such as this as opposed to your name calling blog [avvo-answhores.html]. One of the things I teach in ethics and professional responsibility to young lawyers is that civility assists lawyers to make a point more rationally, peacefully, and powerfully than name calling.

      • Mark Bennett says:

        I’m certain my phone didn’t disconnect us (because it has never done so before). I know that I didn’t disconnect us. Occam’s Razor suggests that either your phone disconnected us or you hung up. Since you insist that the former is not true, I have to conclude that the latter is. You were so mad that you asked, “why don’t you retract it?” and hung up.

        Anyway, you’ve inspired another blog post. So . . . you win?

  10. Mark,

    I have contaced several times in the past to discontinue the practice of allowing attorneys commenting on cases outside of the state where they are licensed. Eventually, I had an actual person contact me to inform that me that they could not stop the practice of allowing attorneys to answer questions that they have no business answering. I told them that I found that answer lazy. I told them if they were a responsible website they would not allow this practice of answering questions outside the jurisdiction where they are licensed. A second person from Avvo contacted me suggesting that if I saw an answer that was merely for gaming the system to “flag it is as objectionable.” Again, I found this to be a lazy answer from Avvo since I would be doing their work. I have cut down on answering questions on their site since I spoke to the second person because I feel that the main focus is creating content for their webiste by having lawyers answer as many questions as possible. Thus, their website moves up the search engines so that they can later charge for advertising.

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  12. Ron Phillips says:

    Attorneys answering questions asked by non-attorneys in jurisdictions where they are not licensed to practice seems tantamount to practicing without a license. Most laypeople (Avvo readers) would not understand that attorneys must be admitted to the bar of the state(s) where they practice by demonstrating competence with the laws of that state.

    Avvo is a really neat idea that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, a prolific few have decided that peeing in the well is a neat idea too. The value of Avvo to laypersons as a forum for educating themselves on legal issues is irreparably dimished when users have to wade through crap answers and unqualified opinions from professionals who should know better than answer questions from beyond where their license permits them to practice.

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