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Web Directory Of Attorneys Upsets D.C. Bar

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

Washington is teeming with lawyers, with about 90,000 of them licensed to practice in the District, hundreds of law firms and thousands of soon-to-be lawyers enrolled in the area's law schools. But if the District of Columbia Bar has its way, finding one of those lawyers online may not be so easy.

The association wants an online directory that compiles profiles of lawyers -- from the bar's own Web site, no less -- to cease and desist, arguing that posting information about Washington lawyers for commercial purposes violates copyright laws and privacy rights.

It's not too fond of the feature that allows consumers to rate a lawyer, either.

"This has nothing to do with obstructing access to information," said the bar's spokeswoman, Cynthia Kuhn. "It has to do with a commercial company taking this information without authorization and in some cases perpetuating misinformation" by not updating the data frequently enough.

Avvo.com, the site posting the profiles, says it's simply using public data to help consumers find lawyers and their track records.

"There's no reason why lawyer-licensing records should be treated any differently than records for any other profession," said Joshua King, general counsel for the Seattle start-up. "The bar doesn't like the fact that the information is out of its control."

The dispute is the latest in an escalating debate over how private Web sites can use public information. It also underscores the tension around a growing number of sites that allow clients to publicly critique any professional, from doctors to plumbers.

For example, a dentist and a chiropractor in California recently sued patients who posted negative reviews of them on Yelp.com, a consumer review site. In separate suits, they said the reviews were false.

Some school systems have blocked the site RateMyTeachers.com from campus computers in response to less-than-positive notes posted by students, and law enforcement groups have voiced concern about RateACop.com, a year-old site on which users can leave comments about police officers.

Days after its 2007 debut, two Seattle lawyers sued Avvo, saying that the ranking system was flawed and that it allowed accomplished lawyers to score lower than those with disciplinary sanctions. The suit was dismissed by a federal judge, citing First Amendment rights.

Review sites often skew toward negative ratings, said Michael Fertik, chief executive of Reputation Defender, an group that advocates for online privacy.

"Some of the sites that began as restaurant review sites are becoming repositories for professional reviews, as well," he said. "Now five negative reviews are reducing their client growth by half, even though there's not enough data on these review sites to get good results."

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