“Avvocating” for Lawyers and Social Media, Avvo’s CEO Previews Seattle Summit, May 3-4

“Avvocating  Social  Media” 2012 Conference Brings Together Lawdom’s Best and Brightest Social Media and Legal Minds at the Crossroads of Online Social Interaction

For centuries, the venerable “black robed” legal profession has been unfashionably late to most forms of social engagement. Imagine: Lawyers were banned from advertising in 1908, until the gag order was removed as late as 1977. Yet even with free speech restored, a national survey conducted on behalf of the American Bar Association found that “public confidence in lawyers has not improved over time due to…an absence of attention to communication.” Lawyers have been taught the same way in law schools since the days of Clarence Darrow. Contracts. Torts. Criminal Law. Civil Procedure. No Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest here.

So it is nothing short of revolutionary that along this evolutionary road, Seattle’s Avvo has ushered in a major breakthrough in the legal services industry. Under CEO and co-founder Mark Britton, the former general counsel for ExpediaAvvo.com (the name is short for the italian word for attorney) has made what the legal world might call an irresistible and winning appeal  By breaking with tradition and then breaking down community resistance, Avvo became the first online legal directory and ratings site where attorneys can showcase their credentials, specialties and experience and where they can also be reviewed and scored according to several criteria including client reviews.

Avvo’s follow-up has been even more impressive — and socially significant. The site launched an incredibly popular Question-and-Answer Forum where any visitor can obtain expert, free legal advice from not just one, but a coterie of attorneys. All site participants can then vote on which answers they like the best. The verdict?  Instead of shrinking from the challenge of greater consultative transparency, Avvo has shown its members a truly effective and ethical egress for reaching out to the public at large. No, Clarence, legal marketing was never like this!

This May 3-4, Avvo will bring the third annual installment of a world-class symposium, entitled “Avvocating 2012: Legal Marketing in the Era of Social Media,” to Seattle’s Bell Harbor Conference Center. It has arranged a stellar lineup, featuring such Internet luminaries as Rich Barton, chairman of Zillow. Stephen Fairley, founder of the Rainmaker Institute, Carolyn Elefant, the well-known blogger at MyShingle.com, Matt Homann of LexThink, and hometown heroes Vanessa Fox, a former Google director of Webmaster operations, and author of “Marketing in the Age of Google,” Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager of Bing, and Shauna Causey, VP of the Seattle Social Media Club, among many other social media, legal and marketing digerati.

Mark filled us in on the current caseload in advancing Social Media within the legal profession, and what it ought to mean mean for attorneys and their growing practices in the “Era of Social Media.” It was an an honor to speak with one of the legal industry’s most engaged and engaging “Avvocates.” 

Seattle24x7: Mark, we had the pleasure of interviewing you just days after Avvo first launched. How would you characterize the meteoric rise of Avvo.com? 

Mark Britton: Four years ago, we were a tiny upstart still trying to figure out what this new social media site really meant for the legal profession. As you may recall, we were even sued in a proposed nation-wide class action. Well, we’ve gone from that humbling beginning to becoming the largest, on-line venue in the legal vertical. Compared to mainstay companies in the online space for legal, such as Martindale-Hubble, we’re now 4-5 times the size of Martindale online.

The American Bar Association has held us out as one of the top legal portals in the United States, and one of the the companies that is truly changing the face of the legal profession. We’re currently logging about 4 million visits a month.

Seattle24x7: You’ve also attracted a broad base of support in advertising.

 Mark Britton:  This is true. We presently have around 2500 advertisers.

 Seattle24x7: A pivot point for Avvo was the opening of your Question and Answer Forum on the site. What can you tell us about it?

Mark Britton:  We started as a legal directory, as you well know, but we layered on top of that a Question and Answer Forum which has captured an extraordinary amount of attention and become the entry point for our product.

So you can come in to Avvo.com for free and ask a question, anonymously if you choose, and get answers from real lawyers, (and now, with our expansion, real doctors and real dentists as well). You’ll get answers to those questions for free. We are currently getting around 100,000 contributions to the forum each month.

The social interaction is big, it’s wonderful and it works. And because we’ve fostered this very special  ecosystem, we’ve gone from being an upstart that was a bit disorienting to the legal profession to one that’s being heralded by the legal profession.

Seattle24x7:  Q&A seems like the ideal entry point for pre-engagement with a legal counsellor. Those kind of consultations are not easy to arrange in the real world, yet you’ve placed the interaction at the fingertips of the online user.

Mark Britton:  We have and in so doing, we are covering an incredible array of issues. It’s not just people who are thinking of buying a house, or even a business, but, for example, issues surrounding criminal DUI matters and traffic tickets. On the other end of the spectrum, a lot of small businesses,  VC’s and entrepreneurs have questions of a different nature. We’ve seen a surge in real estate questions on the east coast because of the population densities in those markets. Many people on the east coast are represented by a lawyer when buying a house. They want to acquire an understanding of some the issues involved before actually hiring that lawyer.  Family issues are also very popular, including divorce, child custody and adoption.

Seattle24x7: It sounds very engaging. Avvo.com readers are able to vote on the answers they like best?

Mark Britton: You may be surprised to learn that we have a 97% response rate in our legal question and answer forum.  What that means is that we have literally tens of thousands of lawyers around the country that are answering visitor questions, and the answers represent a range of perspectives and insights. The law tends to be like cooking in that there’s not necessarily one right answer or recipe. By reviewing several responses,  the visitor can consider various different approaches and a variety of creative thinking.

Seattle24x7:  So there is not necessarily one, correct answer to a legal question?

Mark Britton: The differences are in how one attorney vs. another might approach the same question. So two opinions can indeed differ. Of course, there’s the letter of the law but there is also the practical application of the law. We just did an interesting audit of our system and I looked at hundreds of legal questions as we were thinking through how we might continue to design the system. The diversity of opinions is truly remarkable.

Seattle24x7: So there are times when lawyers are contributing multiple answers to the same questions?

Mark Britton: We’ve seen 15 or 20 opinions in some instances coming from different lawyers, sometimes reinforcing what another lawyer had to say. But you have so many lawyers participating that both the lawyers and the general public recognize this as a valuable community.  The readers can then vote, both the person who asks the question and the other professionals, for their favorite answer.

Seattle24x7:  The archives from these interactions would seem to create a marvelous “Knowledge Base”? Is it searchable?

Mark Britton: Yes, the questions and answers are searchable. They’re indexed and retrievable.

Seattle24x7: How are you able to deal with the classic misconception that by offering a legal opinion there is an implied “attorney-client relationship” being created, and the liability associated with detrimental reliance on a particular piece of advice?

Mark Britton:  For one thing there are disclaimers, for another, there is common sense. It’s an interesting fact that there are lawyers and doctors in our society who go to social gatherings, or visit  friends’ houses or attend youth soccer games or have other social engagements, whatever they may be, where they’re constantly interacting with others in their communities. In fact, historically, that’s what professionals like doctors and lawyers did all the time as respected members of the community.

It’s really no different today when a lawyer or a doctor meets others, online or offline,  who pose legal or health questions. It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that they would say, “I’m not sure I can talk to you because I might be creating a doctor-patient relationship.”

 

Seattle24x7: Point well taken.

Mark Britton:  As a society that is becoming more comfortable with the Internet, what we are realizing is that all the Internet is doing is bringing us closer together. Going online in a public forum is the same as our everyday lives at the weekend soccer game or at a cocktail party. There’s no context to this, other than a social context, and any person can decide to fulfill his or her duty or role in the community however they wish.

Seattle24x7: Yes, the context is decisive.

Mark Britton:  Right, doctors or lawyers can dispense their first impression as a means to provide some baseline of information. If the other person wants more than that, well then, the lawyer can say come to my office and I’ll help you out or I’ll let you know, whether we need some papers signed, or I need to put you on the examining table. Legal or medical, that’s how the world works.  Just because the internet helps us better exchange ideas, it doesn’t add any special significance to the interaction and it doesn’t change the equation. I think it’s a matter of that greater comfort and understanding of the Internet that has become a part of our lives as it matures and as we move more of our lives online.

Seattle24x7: The upcoming Avvocating Conference in Seattle on May 3-4 is a true “meeting of minds,” both legal and social. What is the mind set of attorneys today in regard to social media?

Mark Britton: That’s an excellent question. For a great many of my colleagues, and this is somewhat of a mystery, it can often be like they’ve cleaved off the marketing part of their brain. The sentiment is, ‘I’m a lawyer. What does that have to do with marketing?’

What they’re forgetting is that when they go to law school they’re actually applying to start a business. And every business needs marketing. What I am starting to see is this tremendous realization in the legal profession over, let’s call it the last decade, that marketing cannot be overlooked.

In making that realization, lawyers need to think through some key areas: inbound and outbound marketing, leveraging the press, social media, search engine optimization, and the availability of advertising and monitoring tools, for starters.

As lawyers are becoming more comfortable with advertising and realizing these tools exist, especially on the Internet, they’re seeking to learn how to lace them all together, how to create  an integrated marketing plan, how to execute their plan and, and hit those objectives. It’s not about joining some Twitter group and chatting with people. It’s understanding what is the foremost objective in joining?

Two years ago at our first Avvocating Conference we said to our attendees, you need to pay attention to this. Now, at Avvocating 2012,  it is time to begin to create and implement the plan, to take meaningful action.

Seattle24x7: What would you say is the most controversial aspect of social media marketing today in the legal profession?

Mark Britton: I think the question of professional ethics is always central to any interaction.  We have a one-hour ethics portion of the conference because it’s critical to speak to the ethical side of these issues. Attorneys know it’s incumbent upon them to uphold the highest ethical standards for our communities.

Seattle24x7:  Where do the professional ethics standards for lawyers intersect with social? 

Mark Britton:  Well, there remain a lot of advertising rules that guide what can say or cannot say as a lawyer and define the disclosures that you need to have. Many of these are being litigated but there are  five to seven states that are in the crossfire. At our last event, we had people attending from 35 different states.

There are really two parts to the Ethics discussion. How do you stay within the attorney-advertising rules and still aggressively utilize the digital marketing channel? And two, just as a practical matter, how do you have conversations with your communities on-line?

It’s also helpful to know what are the consequences that may arise?  For instance, if you get a negative review, or someone says something about you that you don’t like, or discloses a client confidence, how do you interact with them? How do you do it both ethically, practically and appropriately. [24×7]

Seattle24x7: We look forward to covering the Avvocating conference, Mark. Thanks for the insights. 

Mark Britton: You’re very welcome.

Visit Avvo.com online.

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Larry Sivitz (Google) is founder, publisher and managing editor of Seattle24x7, the founder of SearchWrite Search Marketing, an SEO, PPC and Social Media Thought Leader, and an SPJ award winner for Seattle magazine.