Three years ago, Mark Britton, JD ’92, took his 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons skiing down the backside of the 11,166-foot Lone Peak, some of the most difficult terrain in Big Sky, Mont. It was challenging, but the skiing duo, now 7 and 9, are virtual experts. A few months later, Mr. Britton founded Avvo.com, the popular lawyer ratings service, and took the entire legal profession on a similar adventure down the digital slope of web 2.0 interactivity.
Now the self-proclaimed largest legal directory in the world, Avvo has raised $23 million in venture funding and has gone from concept to market leader in three years. That may be slow for a downhill racer, but it is lightning fast in an industry that generally changes at a glacial pace.
Mr. Britton launched Avvo (short for “avvocato,” the Italian term for lawyer) in June 2007, starting with a lawyer directory in nine states. It followed quickly with a question and answer forum. That forum now receives 50,000 contributions per month, and its lawyer directory contains ratings and profiles for 90 percent of all licensed attorneys in the United States. “It is important for lawyers in general to understand social media and the revolution taking place as far as information transfer on the web,” he says. “Those who don’t understand technology and the web will be working for one who does.”
With 50,000 active participants and 2 million visitors per month to Avvo.com, lawyers are clearly making the effort to understand the digital landscape. They also see the value as the site, which now has 48 full-time employees, sends lawyers 160,000 potential client leads every month. “No one generates that kind of awareness for lawyers,” Mr. Britton says.
Mr. Britton has always been interested in finance and technology. After graduating from GW Law in 1992, he started practicing at Stoppelman Law Firm, a small securities litigation firm in Arlington, Va., before joining the transactional banking practice at Muldoon Murphy & Faucette in Washington, D.C.
It was, however, his three-year tenure with the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1994 to 1997 that propelled Mr. Britton’s career. “The SEC opened up opportunities,” recalls Mr. Britton, who entered the agency as a staff attorney in the banking group and quickly excelled. He was put on two consecutive rulemakings and, by 1997, was senior counsel in the asset-backed securities group as well as a recipient of the prestigious Chairman’s Award for Excellence.
After completing his term with the agency, Mr. Britton joined Preston Gates & Ellis in Seattle to practice on the Microsoft portfolio. His work with the company’s mergers and acquisitions chief led to an offer to become the general counsel of Expedia, an Internet-based travel reservation website that Microsoft created in 1995 and took public in 1999. Mr. Britton assisted with both the IPO and the company’s 2003 purchase by Barry Diller’s Interactive Corp.
In spring 2004, Mr. Britton and his family moved to Italy for a year, where he served as an adjunct professor of finance for Gonzaga University in Florence. Despite being thousands of miles away, his friends and family still called regularly with legal questions, particularly related to choosing lawyers, Mr. Britton recalls.
Wondering how he could share that guidance and expertise with the broader population, he conceived of a site originally called “Lawyer Brain,” which would be more consumer-sensitive than the phone book or search engines. “Anytime the Yellow Pages, which makes over $1 billion per year in lawyer advertising, is a primary resource for consumers, something is broken,” he notes.
He returned to Seattle to try to fix it. After hiring a former developer from Expedia, Mr. Britton tested the prospect of introducing a ratings website for the legal profession that algorithmically graded lawyers based on their resumes and displayed their contact information. “When we came out, we were so different because we were not the Yellow Pages, and we gave people information that lawyers did not authorize,” he recalls. Avvo was born.
Avvo’s transparency revolution has faced controversy. Nine days after the company launched, two lawyers unhappy with their ratings attempted to assemble a nationwide class action of practitioners potentially injured by Avvo. The plaintiffs sued on behalf of all consumers under the Washington Consumer Protection Act, rather than the allegedly harmed professionals. Six months later, a federal judge dismissed the case based on First Amendment grounds.
“Through transparency, we are shining a light on dark places,” Mr. Britton says. “The reality is that lawyers do great work, which is why 85 percent of our client reviews are positive,” he says. He recommends that lawyers start to engage in the conversation by giving potential clients something for free. “The more that you give them, the more they will trust you,” Mr. Britton says. “That is what web 2.0 is about—it is about the community and the interactivity.”
That interactivity is not lost on Britton, who still skis weekly during the season with his family (even his 3-year-old). “Everything I do, I try to do with my kids,” he says. “In a way, Avvo is my fourth child.”
—Ari Kaplan, JD ’97