Courtesy a couple of attorneys who feel offended on and essentially on that basis have launched a lawsuit, we have introduction to a web site that reviews the work of them and their colleagues - Avvo, which is based in Seattle.
Avvo is an online database providing background information on attorneys - including in Seattle and some other metro areas - and ratings, which the firm says is "based on a proprietary mathematical model applied equally to each lawyer to analyze information Avvo has about them, including their experience, disciplinary sanctions and professional achievements."
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Seattle attorneys John Henry Browne and Alan Wenokur, who think the system underrated them (and, in the process, misrepresented them).
We're not keen to get into the validity of the mathematical formula involved, or the data fed into it. Inevitably, it is based on a series of assumptions and selected information; most such efforts (and we've worked on a few in other arenas, notably that of public affairs influence) wind up being subjective in one way or another - that is, opinion.
If Browne, Wenokur or other attorneys can isolate libelous assertions of fact, that would be one thing: The law of libel could apply. Short of that, they're arguing in essence that no one should be able to express an opinion about professional performance. The leap from there is almost absent: Why then should expressions of opinion about consumer matters of any sort (consumer reports and testing) or even opinion about people in the public sphere - whether public officials or not - be immune from lawsuit? (God help the Willamette Week at Portland and its recent ratings of legislators.) Will movie reviewers be targeted next? If not, why not - movies which critics "disparage" can, after all, suffer loss in ticket sales. (Or at least an attorney could argue that they have.)
Avvo's blog has drawn a number of comments on the suit. We found this one of the most pertinent, from a business owner who has hired a number of attorneys over the years: "There seems to be an attitude of entitlement and arrogance…yes your private little ‘clubby’ world is coming to an end…the Internet is going to change the way lawyers do business just like it has changed many other industries (insurance, real estate, etc.). The notion that information about sanctions and disciplinary actions should hidden from consumers is outrageous. The notion that clients can’t provide feedback on the service they receive because lawyers will claim disparagement is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to silence them."
Courts traditionally have upheld expression of opinion as highly protected speech, and we suspect they will again here. If not . . . watch out.