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Navigating unfamiliar waters of online lawyer directories

Death and taxes. And attorneys can now add Avvo and Justia to that list of inevitabilities.

Avvo and Justia are free, online legal directories. If you go to their Web sites and search for your own name, chances are very good that they’ve created a profile for you if your bar status is active.

Now, like death and taxes, you need to decide if you’re going to accept them gracefully, or fight them in futility. Personally, I’d opt for the former. According to some of the attorneys with whom I spoke, you might even come to like them.

Directory Descriptions

Justia is led by former FindLaw CEO and co-founder Tim Stanley. It’s more than just attorney profiles; the company provides free case law, codes, regulations, legal articles and legal blog databases, as well as community resources.

Avvo is more focused. Its stated purposed is to help people navigate the “complex and confusing legal industry.” The Web site indicates it caters to “regular people” and states that “many of the resources available today were developed for people who are already legal industry ‘insiders.’”

It further states, “Choosing a lawyer is an incredibly important decision, yet most people have no idea how to go about doing it, and resources to guide them are scarce.”

I’m not so sure I agree with all that, and frankly think it fuels the already prevalent anti-lawyer bias. But they didn’t ask for my opinion.

The service was founded by attorney Mark Britton, the top lawyer at Expedia for 16 years, and Paul Bloom, formerly with Microsoft.

Its name is short for “avvocato,” or lawyer in Italian (not the main ingredient of guacamole).

What differentiates the services the most is that Avvo provides an attorney’s disciplinary history, client ratings on a scale of one-to-10 and reviews.

When you visit both sites, what stands out visually — for now, at least — is the high number of unclaimed profiles. Human nature being what it is, my guess is that people who are using these sites to shop for lawyers are going to click on the claimed profiles, with real pictures, versus the generic, faceless human forms.

There are other online attorney databases, such as Lawyers.com from the old standby, Martindale-Hubbell. But Avvo and Justia are free, whereas Lawyers.com is not.

Worthwhile or Not?

Lawyers in Wisconsin have had vastly different reactions to the sites.

At one end of the spectrum is Gretchen Viney, of Viney & Viney SC in Baraboo. Viney has received two e-mails to date from individuals seeking representation. Both found her via Justia.

Viney hasn’t claimed her Justia profile, nor does she need more work to do right now (lucky her!). She replied to both inquiries, “I’m not your lawyer. And by the way, check the statute of limitations.”

At the other end is Sean M. Sweeney, of Halling & Cayo SC in Milwaukee, who took ownership of his profiles on both services and says it has been a positive experience.

It took about 15 minutes to complete the Justia profile, and from his perspective, there’s been no downside to it.

The most significant value to Justia is the help it offers with search engine optimization, says Sweeney.

Justia partners with the Cornell Legal Information Institute, a longtime favorite for aficionados of free legal research. Because the LII is a popular Web destination, this helps your firm’s Web site appear more prominently when people run Google searches.

We don’t know why that is; Google isn’t telling about how to get on its first page of results, although many e-marketers have tried to figure it out. But Sweeney says, unequivocally, that his firm’s Web site traffic has increased since he completed his Justia and Avvo profiles.

Coincidence? He thinks not. He’s pushing the other lawyers in his firm to do the same.

Sweeney notes that if you have a blog, Justia will keep a live RSS feed of your blog entries on its site. That brings more readers to your blog and helps get it linked to other blogs.

But has it brought in clients? Sweeney says that’s a tough call. Sometimes, when asked how they found him, clients say something along the lines of “The Internet,” and leave it at that.

He can only recall one e-mail through Avvo’s system where the sender ultimately became a client.

Monitor Your Profile

T.J. Perlick-Molinari of the Birdsall Law Office (http://www.birdsall-law.com/) in Milwaukee is also on Avvo. He suspects that a decent number of his clients were referrals who also Googled him, came across Avvo and were reassured by what’s there.

It’s the ratings aspect of Avvo that makes it a little dicey, agree Perlick-Molinari and Sweeney.

Avvo wants more in-depth information when you claim your profile, like speeches and publications. If you don’t give that information, you have no rating.

“I think that’s their downside. You’re sort of held hostage once you start filling it out to complete it,” says Sweeney.

Perlick-Molinari took the time to fill out the profile and ended up with a rating of 7.8 or “very good.” However, a while ago someone wrote a negative review, and he had no idea who that person was.

He notified Avvo and told them the author was not a client. He wasn’t happy that it took Avvo two weeks to remove the review, when a search would have revealed whether that individual was actually a client within minutes.

His advice, especially if you practice in an area where there’s high client dissatisfaction, like criminal defense or family law, is to monitor your Avvo rating and reviews often.

“For the most part I’m a fan. It’s an open forum and I’m all about freedom of speech. But if you’re going to publish a Web site that says we’ve got client reviews, you better make sure those people are actually clients,” he says.

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