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."
Avvo lists lawyers licensed in the District, including the number of years in practice, disciplinary history, and ratings on a scale of one to 10. The site also lists lawyers in 22 other states, including Maryland. Virginia lawyers are not yet on the site.
Making public information available on the Internet has been a key element of President Obama's push for increased transparency in the government. But in the nation's lawyer capital, many lawyers do not want details about suspensions and other reprimands to be published on the Web without their permission.
Kuhn said the bar's members alerted it to Avvo's directory last year. In a Jan. 27 letter, the association demanded that Avvo "immediately remove the improperly acquired information regarding members." If Avvo does not comply, the letter said the bar would "pursue any and all available remedies."
Avvo founder Mark Britton, who is licensed to practice law in the District, said the site does not remove profiles, although lawyers can modify or add information and appeal reviews they consider unfair or untrue. Avvo will delete personal information, such as home addresses, upon request.
But some local lawyers say Avvo's profiles and ratings can be misleading. And Avvo profiles often appear high in the list of search results as consumers increasingly turn to the Web to find bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce lawyers.
"I'm not trying to hide from anyone, but if people want to find me, they can look me up through the bar," said Bruce Familant, who is licensed in the District and Michigan, but not in Virginia, where he owns a home. He was upset that he was listed on the site.
"That's a privacy issue," Familant said. "I don't want people soliciting me."
Joseph Cerroni of Annandale said he is considering filing a suit against Avvo unless it corrects information on his profile, which says he has been cited for professional misconduct.
"That was resolved years ago, but the site makes no reference of that," he said. "Either put in all the information, or take it out completely."
The Client Protection Fund of the Bar of Maryland, the state's legal licensing body, provides Avvo with information for 34,000 lawyers, including the name, address and date of admittance to practice in the state. Avvo pays a standard fee for the agency to produce the list. So far, none of Maryland's members have complained, according to the bar's administrator.
Some District lawyers have spruced up their online profiles by adding a photo and practice details. Other lawyer directories, including the well-known Martindale-Hubbell directory, are also moving online.
"I think it's a positive trend," said Gregory Beck, a lawyer at the Public Citizen Litigation Group who has added details to his Avvo profile. "The profession needs something on the Internet to enable people to basically shop for lawyers."
Rebecca Tushnet, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the bar association's restrictions on use are "ridiculously overreaching."
"The D.C. Bar, when putting public information up that should be available to a lot of people, it's a mistake to stand in the way of that," she said. "The basic question is, can that little notice at the bottom of every Web site actually be a binding contract?"