Lawyer-rating site Avvo is violating a state statute barring unauthorized use of “an individual’s identity for commercial purposes,” an Illinois lawyer has charged in a putative class-action complaint filed last week in the chancery division of Cook County Circuit Court.

Fee- based marketing plan

The gist of the complaint is that without any authorization or participation from plaintiff or any other lawyer, Avvo has created profile pages for 97% of the of the attorneys in the country, using publically-available data; then, Avvo’s fee-based marketing plan allows lawyers who pay a fee to put ads for their practices on the profile pages of lawyers who don’t pay the fee — and the lawyer profiles where the paid ads appear are those of head-to-head competitors.

If you are the target of this shake-down tactic, you can then pay a fee to keep Avvo from putting ads for your competitors on your profile page.

The class-action plaintiff practices family law in the Chicago area; in the complaint, she cites four family-law lawyers who practice in the same geographic area as she does, and whose ads are parked on the profile Avvo has created for her.

Free speech or misappropriation?

The theory behind the complaint is that Illinois’ Right of Publicity Act is violated when Avvo takes publically-available personal data of a lawyer — years in practice, practice areas, bar discipline history, education — and puts it to commercial use without the lawyer’s consent, by using the profile to sell advertising or marketing space to those who pay for it.

According to the on-line ABA Journal, Avvo’s chief legal officer has called the allegations in the complaint “bizarre” and “ludicrous.”

My own Avvo profile (created without my authorization) has my smiling face, my office address, lists my practice areas as “business, ethics and professional responsibility” — and has three ads from lawyers who would appear to sort of work in the same practice area as I do. One is based in Columbus (150 miles down the road from me in Cleveland), one has a tag-line that says “Need a lawyer who sues other lawyers? Call …”) and one says he is dedicated to “Fighting For What Is Right And Ensuring Our Client’s Best Interest Are Served.”

Interesting stuff, but Avvo is plainly profiting from data about me (including my glam picture) that its bots have harvested from my firm’s website and the Ohio Supreme Court’s lawyer registration rolls.

I think that’s unfair, and I hope the Illinois lawsuit survives the inevitable motion to dismiss and proceeds to discovery. I’d like to know how much money Avvo makes on this shake-down. So far, though, the odds are with Avvo in achieving dismissal of the complaint.

Score: Avvo, 2 – Profession, 0

To date, according to the ABA Journal article, Avvo has successfully fended off attacks on its business model, obtaining dismissal of a 2007 federal class action complaint in Washington, over the site’s lawyer-ranking system (I have a 6.7/10 rank — why? No client has ever ranked me on Avvo), and a suit filed in Florida and transferred to Washington before it too, was dismissed. A suit similar to the current one in Illinois was filed in San Francisco last year; a motion to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law is pending.

Data marauding — plus

Avvo is not content to profit off your professional data; last week it announced it was going to roll out a flat-fee legal services plan — and yes, this morning my Avvo profile has an ad parked on it touting contract reviews at $149.00 per.

It may be just a matter of time before this race to the bottom results in a scenario where a client keys in a credit card number and gets legal “advice” from a robot. Technology geeks are already predicting such a future, where the lawyers “may be less J.D. than R2D2.”

I hope I’m not around to see it.