February 11th, 2011

Dominic Barbara, High Profile NY Attorney, Suspended for 18 months

Part of this short story is about a lawyer named Dominic Barbara, who previously represented Howard Stern (and is a regular side-kick, call-in guest on his show). He also represented Joey Buttafuco, Jessica Hahn, and Michael Lohan, each of whom had more than their allotted 15 minutes of fame. New York Magazine once called him the “biggest, brassiest lawyer on Long Island.” And last year he was retained for a headline making crash on the Taconic Parkway that killed eight people (video).

But the more important part, to me, is the fact that what you see on a lawyer’s website, or in the newspapers, isn’t always what you get.

First, as to Barbara. He was suspended this week after “an avalanche of Grievance Committee sanctions” (nine Letters of Caution, nine Admonitions, and two Advisements). That’s a lot of baggage, and as a consequence of the latest round he was handed an 18-month suspension.  Among the charges, and these seem to be the straws that broke the camel’s back, are that he failed to issue itemized bills as required, failed to supervise the lawyers in his office, failed to timely refund a portion of a fee that had not been earned after the client fired him, and engaged in conduct that adversely reflects on his fitness as a lawyer by failing to adequately communicate with that client (or her new counsel).

But here’s the thing, despite this “avalanche” of sanctions, he has this to say about his firm on  his website:

For more than 35 years, The Barbara Law Firm has performed at the highest level of quality legal representation in the fields of Family, Matrimonial, Criminal, and Civil Law.

The highest levels? I think not. Not with all those sanctions. There is more puffery, of course, as he tries to parlay  the celebrity clients into more business:

Dominic A. Barbara has been leading this firm for more than 30 years, providing personal, assertive, successful legal representation to clients from all walks of life. The housewife, teacher and business owner receive the same care and consideration as the high-profile celebrities who turn to The Barbara Law Firm. Each one is looking for the same thing – a team of brilliant legal minds focusing on his or her individual case.

So what you see on a website isn’t always what you get when it comes to the law. Anybody can write puffery. And just because someone has high profile clients doesn’t mean that they are actually good lawyers. (I never did like that whole “celebrity lawyer” thing.) ” I once tried a case with a guy that had many high profile clients. In the well of the courtroom he was awful. And when I say awful I mean law students could do a better job. I would see him on the news after our trial and the first in my mind was this: His client is gonna hang.

The best way to find a lawyer isn’t by checking out the puffery on a website. It’s by asking around and making sure they handle the problem that you have, perhaps by starting with friends and neighbors and other lawyers who will hopefully be able to direct you to someone who knows what they are doing. In fact, this was the subject of the fourth post I ever did on this blog, more than 1,000 posts ago, when I only had six readers. They were all Bulgarian spammers.

So if you’re hunting for a lawyer, ignore that guy on the news. And certainly don’t be impressed with his website. For as the old New Yorker cartoon goes, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Avvo screenshot at about noon on 2/11/11

Addendum: I think it’s worth noting that this “avalanche” of Grievance Committee sanctions didn’t show up on Avvo‘s lawyer rating service, a service of which I’ve previously been critical. (This suspension hasn’t either, but I cut them slack for that because the opinion was just released yesterday.) But the point is that many disciplinary actions are hidden from public view. In other words, Avvo probably couldn’t have found the problems even if they looked. And that type of incomplete information can be rather misleading to the consumer, notwithstanding all the caveats that Avvo might provide. A copy of Barbara’s listing, showing “No professional misconduct found” is at right.


Learning Tricks from an Old Dog (Simple Justice):

Is this your hero?  Is this your savior?  Is this the lawyer who you want standing next to you when your life is on the line?  Or is this the guy who will charge you a whole lotta money because he’s a big time “high profile” lawyer, and when you decide that he’s not the guy you want next to you despite all the puffery on his website, he won’t give you your money back? (more)

Loud Lawyer Dominic Barbara suspended for 18 months (Courtroom Strategy):

I have had clients who have come to me after a foray into his firm’s office that when they complained about the non-stop pouring of money into legal fees, that he would offer to stay on the case if he allowed them to hold a press conference about the case. (more)

Update: Dominic Barbara Retires In Wake of Suspension

(Note: Subsequent to this post, news organizations ran stories on the suspension)


January 14th, 2011

Has Your Avvo Rating Decreased? (And Why Is There “No Concern” Over the Disbarred Lawyer?)

I got an email from lawyer-rating site Avvo two days ago. It told me that my Avvo rating had dropped from 6.7 to 6.6. The top score is a 10.

Had I done something wrong? No.

Had I been reprimanded or disciplined somehow? No.

And I also noticed that a lawyer that had been famously disbarred was listed as having “No professional misconduct found.” What’s going on around here?

The Avvo rating, it seems, is based upon its super-secret “mathematical model.” It made me wonder a bit about the 11 herbs and spices that went into this, so I read their explanation:

The rating is calculated using a mathematical model that considers the information shown in a lawyer’s profile, including a lawyer’s years in practice, disciplinary history, professional achievements and industry recognition – all factors that, in our opinion, are relevant to assessing a lawyer’s qualifications.

According to that explanation, my rating should go up, not down.

But if my rating got lowered for no apparent reason, I wondered if others were lookin’ a bit better than, perhaps, they deserved. So I checked out the former Chief Judge of New York, Sol Wachtler, to see how he was doing. He had a bright green check mark that said “No Concern.” And a statement that said “We have not found any instances of professional misconduct for this lawyer.” [Update: The Wachtler listing was updated after this post appeared; see the comments.]

So I guess that part about him being arrested, convicted, jailed and disbarred doesn’t really matter to Avvo’s “mathematical model.” Judge Wachtler was subsequently re-instated to the bar, but how could Avvo miss a story that played out on the front pages of the newspapers?

Now I don’t write this to pick on our former Chief  Judge who has done his time, as this is very old news. I do it to pick on Avvo and demonstrate that whatever “mathematical model” it claims to use clearly continues to have problems.

This isn’t the first time I’ve checked in on the company. I saw in January 2009, for instance, that there was “no concern” over a registered sex offender. It’s two years later now, and Avvo still can’t seem to get its act together with respect to the most basic of ratings (finding misconduct), according to my utterly unscientific check of exactly one famously disbarred lawyer.

But one thing Avvo has been very good at is gaining attention for itself. There have been no shortage of articles, and links, to the site. That gives it Google juice, and thus a self-fullfilling prophecy is born; if lawyers are worried about potential clients seeing an Avvo rating, then they will want it to be a perfect 10. If you Google Avvo, you will find there are now over a million hits.

And how do you get the higher score? How do you get to be a 10? Well, Avvo is perfectly happy to tell you that “Peer endorsements do affect the Avvo Rating.” Ahhh, so if you can persuade your friends to review you, that will help get you a better objective rating. But ignore Avvo and just be the best lawyer you can be, and your rating may drop. This, of course, doesn’t make sense in any logical universe.

But it does make sense if you want to make a buck. Avvo, after all, isn’t in this game to be altruistic. If  you let your friends know about the site, and get them to review you, your rating will go up. Big win for Avvo. Big win for anyone that plays Avvo’s game. Not such a big win for lawyers that just do their job.

And there’s more. I know this will come as a great shock to many but, if you pay the company a fee, they will give you benefits; like turning off the advertisements that would otherwise run right next to your name.

But wait, there’s even more! If you order soon, there may still be openings for “sponsored listings” in your area! That’s right, like a gazillion other lawyer search companies, Avvo is in the pay-us-to-highlight-your name game. This is the pitch I got from them in September;

I wanted to let you know that we have a sponsored listing position open for Medical Malpractice in New York County. This is your chance to be showcased throughout Avvo when consumers are seeking legal assistance. Not only will you get listed above top-rated Avvo attorneys in search results, you’ll also get featured on every page where consumers (who live in New York County) are researching Medical Malpractice information.

Then I got another one in October, another in November and another in December. Nice. They look just like a thousand other pitches I’ve received.

So in the end, it really isn’t about a rating, and perhaps lawyers that watch Avvo should stop pretending it is. It’s about generating buzz by getting your lawyer friends to rate you, getting higher Google page rank, and ultimately getting fees from lawyers to have their names stuck  up above the listed ratings. Avvo has just figured out a more sophisticated way to do this than most of the other slobs out there. The ratings, it seems, aren’t really all that important except as a come-on to the lawyers that the company wants to pitch services to.

The company has now expanded to add doctor-ratings. There is exactly zero chance this will be any better than lawyer-ratings.

(All Avvo links coded as “nofollow” so as not to make the situation even worse)


Updated: I noodled around with Avvo and added some faux awards like SuperLawyers and ABA Blawg 100. My rating went up. The Blawg 100, of course, says nothing about my skills in the courtroom. And my SuperLawyers “rating” is one that I’ve already discussed my ambivalence about.  If I paid money for another faux award, the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, would that also increase by “rating?” I also added a few speaking engagements and op-eds I’ve written.

And this was interesting, I inadvertently listed the same publication twice. When I deleted the redundant one, the rating went down. In other words, not only isn’t there any check on the quality of the publication, there isn’t even a check on redundancy.

In essence, the Avvo nonsense doesn’t really rate lawyers at all, but rates their ability to promote themselves by giving them information. Then they contact you to try to sell you advertising.

See also: Attract Clients with a Crappier Avvo Rating (Big Legal Brain)


January 5th, 2009

Avvo: "No Concern" Over Convicted Sex Offender

Avvo, the lawyer rating service, says it has “no concern” over a convicted New York sex offender, whose license was suspended last week. Steven J. Lever, a former Kirkland & Ellis associate, was the subject of a sharply divided opinion from New York’s Appellate Division, First Department, with a three judge majority suspending him for three years over the dissent of two others that sought to have him disbarred. The lawyer plead guilty in September 2005 to sex offense charges related to soliciting sex over the internet from what he believed to be a 13-year old girl. (See: Sex Offender Keeps Law License)

The Avvo opinion on Lever gives their definition of “no concern” as follows “We have not found any instances of professional misconduct for this lawyer.” (Pdf version here: Avvo-Lever.pdf)

Avvo also says it has found “no misconduct” regarding the lawyer, with the definition of “no misconduct” being exactly the same as “no concern:”

“We have not found any instances of professional misconduct for this lawyer.”

Avvo has been oft criticized for its ratings because the subjective nature of lawyering isn’t truly amendable to any rating system. Avvo had contended that, while the subjective part was difficult, the objective part of rating attorneys by looking for misconduct actions was something it could do.

While I wouldn’t expect last week’s disciplinary decision to be reported in just one week, the actual criminal action against him was resolved three years ago. And Avvo missed it. (There are also zero comments by others on the Avvo site related to this lawyer.) If it is Avvo’s policy not to research crimes committed by attorneys (and I’m guessing that based on the fact that they didn’t report this sex crime conviction), then even its limited value of analyzing objective data is a failure.

Avvo thus apparently fails not only with the subjective rating system, which defies quantitative analysis, but also with the limited objective analysis of data that it aspires to. Because if you don’t find the data, the analysis isn’t worth squat. Garbage in, garbage out.

See also on Avvo:

And previously regarding Lever:

Links to this post:

Why AVVO Will Hurt Lawyers
Everyone who reads this blog knows I’m no fan of AVVO for many reasons. But just this week Eric Turkewitz, in a very well considered blog post, again notes the AVVO rating system is just flat out a danger to the public it purports to
posted by Susan Cartier Liebel, Esq. @ January 07, 2009 5:14 PM


March 2nd, 2008

Avvo Rating System: Thanks, But I’ll Pass

The Avvo web site for rating lawyers came on line last year to the sound of widespread derision. I won’t re-invent the wheel, just point you to Scott Greenfield’s most recent post on the subject at Simple Justice, where he goes through some of his past criticisms, which Avvo has been working on from the beginning. The last time I checked it out, they wanted my credit card number just to write a review of another lawyer. Thanks, I thought, but I’ll pass.

Since Greenfield said today that many improvements had been made, I went back for a visit. After all, the days of lawyers or clients finding appropriate counsel from books is rapidly going the way of the dinosaur, and potential clients may find such websites that will replace Martindale-Hubbell. So this is the nightmare I found when I tried to create an account to update the profile they created for me:

A “terms of use” document that I started to read, before I realized it didn’t have an end. Or at least it didn’t have an end any rationale human being would ever see. After reading the part about giving them the right to change the terms at any time without my agreement, and this could be to take my first born for all I know, I knew it was unlikely I would agree to their terms of use.

It then went on to assert that they had the right to send me as many junk emails as they want from whoever they sell their lists to. You can’t opt out. I mean, really, are you guys kidding with this crap? [Edit: Apparently you can opt out of commercial emails, but not “service or account-related emails.” See the comments.]

Quickly disgusted, I copied and pasted the terms of use into a Word document, ran the word count, and found their 15-page magnum opus to be 4,983 words long. And some of it, for reasons known best to people who apparently don’t deal with actual humans, is IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS IN BLOCKY PARAGRAPHS FILLED WITH WRETCHED LEGALISTIC MUMBO JUMBO making it almost impossible to read. Is this where you put stuff when you really don’t want folks to read it?

I quickly left the site. Thanks, Avvo, I’ll pass again.

Addendum 3/27/08: More on lousy legal drafting using all caps at The Legal Satyricon, wth many links: Seven sixteenths of one inch… Maddox meets contract drafting


June 28th, 2007

Avvo Responding to Criticisms

Avvo, the new attorney ranking website, has been responding to frequent criticisms of its site. This was revealed in a a 1 1/2 hour interview with Paul Bloom, a founder and VP of marketing at Avvo, by Scott Greenfield — owner, operator, writer, editor, publisher and grand poobah of Simple Justice.

You can read the details at Avvo: My chat with Paul. That’s Scott’s mug shot at right, not Paul.

Addendum: At the request of Mr. Greenfield, I have added a more up-to-date photo.

See also: