First Amendment

Lawyer Web Site Defends Suit

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A Seattle lawyer is basing his lawsuit against a Web site that rates lawyers on Washington state’s consumer protection law.

John Henry Browne sued when he saw that his rating was below that of a lawyer who is disbarred and dead, Adam Liptak writes for the New York Times in a Sidebar column.

This site is called Avvo after avvocato, the Italian word for lawyer, said in an earlier post. The site permits lawyers who want to improve their ratings to add information and allows consumers to post critiques.

Browne, a criminal defense lawyer, was rated 3.7 on a scale of 10, later raised to 5.5 after he complained. His rating had suffered because the state bar had admonished him in 2005 for a fee dispute, a problem he attributes to an associate who drew up a retainer agreement that he didn’t know about.

Liptak checked himself out and got his rating raised to 7.4 after entering information about a couple degrees and a law review article, putting him ahead of Supreme Court Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Despite the problems, Liptak concludes that Avvo could provide a valuable service for consumers after it works out some of the bugs and gathers more information. Often people rely on Yellow Pages ads or even subway billboards to choose their lawyers, he points out.

The Web site has filed a motion to dismiss. Avvo’s lawyer, Bruce E. H. Johnson, told the Times that the site has a constitutional right to rate lawyers. “The First Amendment protects statements of opinion and evaluation,” he says. “And ratings are presumptively matters of opinion and judgment.”

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