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?
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.”