Avvo Inc. ignited a firestorm of controversy within the legal community when it launched its free Web site with ratings of attorneys in June 2007. The site uses information from state bar associations, courts and lawyer Web sites to compile a numerical rating. It also includes client ratings and peer endorsements.
Nine days after the site was launched, two lawyers unhappy with their ratings filed a lawsuit in Avvo's hometown of Seattle, claiming that avvo.com is deceptive and violates consumer-protection laws. In December a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, agreeing with Avvo that the Web site content is protected by the First Amendment.
Josh King wasn't yet on board when the suit was filed--he joined Avvo in October as vice president of business development and general counsel. The mixed role suits King, who has always relished jobs with a wide range of responsibilities. Though he went to law school dreaming of being a litigator, he found working at a litigation boutique less exciting than he had imagined. Moving in-house, he found new challenges, becoming general counsel of Cellular One of San Francisco at age 30. When the company was folded into AT&T Wireless, he lost his GC title but soon found opportunities outside the legal department.
Q:One of the interesting things about your resume is that you moved from legal to a business development role. How did that happen?
A:I was working as an M&A lawyer at AT&T Wireless when the mergers and acquisitions group asked me to join them as vice president of corporate development, and that was a nonlegal role.
Q:Did that seem like a natural move?
A:Actually, I didn't think twice about doing it. I jumped at the opportunity, and not only because it was a promotion. It also meant being able to continue to do negotiating, but at a higher level, instead of dealing with the more detailed, sometimes quite frankly boring stuff that you think about when you're the lawyer trying to pull together the M&A transaction documents.
Q:From there you moved to a business development role at Clearwire, right?
A:Right. That role was also completely business development.
Q:At Avvo, your title is vice president of business development and general counsel, so your finger is in both pies.
A:Yes. You know it's a little unusual for a company this size and at this point in its development to have a general counsel, which is one of the reasons it is a mixed role. In fact I'm not even spending the majority of my time on legal issues. It's really more heavily focused on the business development side.
Q:Do you like business development work better than the legal work? Do you see yourself going in that direction?
A:It's funny because if you'd asked me that question a few years ago, I would definitely have said yes. But what I didn't like was the legal work inside a massive company where the work is very, very narrow. When I was at Clearwire, I sat next to this three-person legal department and it took me back to my Cellular One days. They were dealing with a lot of different stuff, all at the same time. That's a much more interesting environment for a lawyer.
Q:How do you feel about the mixed role?
A:I think it's great because it's two different areas in which I can make an impact.
Q:What was the reaction at Avvo when the judge ruled in your favor in the class-action lawsuit?
A:We weren't surprised. I had read all the pleadings before I came in here and I was pretty convinced it was going to get tossed. The outside lawyers were pretty convinced it was going to get tossed. That said, once you actually get the news, there is certainly a tremendous sense of relief to get it over with. And the timing was funny. We were hosting a holiday party that day for 100 or so people in our new offices in Seattle. It really put an additional edge on the party, and it was great fun.
Q:Were any changes made in the ranking process to respond to the plaintiffs' allegations?
A:The lawsuit was filed nine days after the Web site launched. And the Web site is still technically in beta. So a lot of changes have been made between the time we launched and today. I don't think it would be accurate to say that any of them were made in response to the lawsuit. They've been made in response to input we received from all sorts of people--consumers, our advisers, attorneys --you name it.
Q:The plaintiffs claimed that two Supreme Court justices got the same rating as an attorney who had been convicted of conspiracy. So the implication was that this is not a legitimate rating system.
A:Our data is based on the information we get from the bar associations. So if something like a criminal conviction hasn't processed its way through the bar association records, then we are not going to have it. We did make some changes, though, based on feedback we've gotten. Now if we don't have anything more than just the bar association record on an attorney, we don't publish a numerical rating. We won't publish a numerical rating unless we have both the bar association records and information that we gleaned from the attorney's Web site or information the attorney has added after claiming their profile.
Q:The judge said that this lawsuit highlights how rankings of attorneys have become ludicrous. How do you respond to remarks like this?
A:Clearly we don't think the ratings are ridiculous. What we're doing is obviously a lot different than the "Super Lawyers" or some other types of publications. This is drilling into a completely different level. And what we're really trying to stress is that the ratings are not an assessment of how smart an attorney is or even how good an attorney is. It's our assessment of how likely he is to be able to meet a consumer's need. We think the algorithm that we use to pull that together is a very useful starting point for consumers when they are going through the difficult process of trying to hire an attorney.
Q:Currently you rank attorneys in nine states and the District of Columbia. What are your plans for expanding to the rest of the country?
A:The states we cover now include a little over 50 percent of the attorneys in the U.S. We would like to get to 80-plus percent of all attorneys by the end of this year. We're very dependent on the information we can get from the regulatory bodies in the states. And we find that the willingness to provide information about attorneys to the public varies quite a lot state to state. It just reinforces the importance of the work we are doing. It's hard for consumers to find information about attorneys. It's hard for us to find sometimes, and that's all we do.
Q:Do any of your attorney friends give you flak about being part of Avvo?
A:Not really, surprisingly enough. They think it's interesting. They do joke about getting their ratings higher. There is always that level of competitiveness you get among lawyers.
Q:What is it like working at Avvo?
A:It's very much still a start-up here with 23 employees in a big drafty office in downtown Seattle, with people shooting nerve guns around. It's a very different atmosphere from your typical corporate environment, or certainly your typical law firm environment. It's a lot of fun.