In 2005, Mark Britton sat at a kitchen table in Sardinia, Italy.
It had been about two years since he left the online travel company Expedia, where he was an executive, and he was ready to uncork something new. It wasn’t a bottle of cabernet sauvignon or grenache that the Mediterranean island is known for: He was aerating an idea that could change how legal services were delivered in the United States.
That night, Britton sketched out what would become Avvo—based on the Italian word for lawyer, avvocato—an online marketplace to connect consumers and lawyers. The path he set out on would be littered with various lawsuits, including a class action shortly after launch, ethics opinions that put into question the company’s services and ultimately an acquisition by Internet Brands for an undisclosed sum, which closed earlier this year.
Now, after 13 years, Britton is preparing to step down from the company he founded and led, and he says he feels good about it.
“Hands down, what I’m proud of is all the people we helped, whether that’s consumers or lawyers,” he says. “You’re talking about tens of millions of consumers that we helped and you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of attorneys where we changed their lives.”
Avvo launched as a lawyer rating site in 2007 and later expanded to provide legal advice, a service providing limited-scope legal services on fixed fees called Avvo Legal Services and even a short-lived expansion into doctor ratings.
While Avvo has proven popular with consumers, and Britton feels great about what he’s accomplished for shareholders and employees, the relationship with some bar regulators looked different.
To date, Avvo Legal Services, which connects consumers to attorneys for a flat fee and takes a portion for advertising, has been knocked by at least five state ethics opinions saying that lawyers who engage with the platform are running afoul of rules regarding fee-sharing with nonlawyers and the unlicensed practice of law.
At the same time these decisions are coming down, Britton says that the legal profession is ailing, much at the hands of bar associations. However, he doesn’t see bar leaders as obstinate or recalcitrant. He sees fear.
In Britton’s opinion, that fear comes from a knowledge that something needs to change but not knowing how to change it. He believes that this, in part, comes from a failure to embrace the mentality around customer service in the legal profession.
“If you look at it through the lens of innovation, one of the things that was hard—and will always be a little frustrating for me—is the pace at which the profession is willing to move,” he laments.
However, this frustration doesn’t mean that Britton is leaving Avvo bitter or dejected. Rather, he is hopeful that his work and Avvo’s mission will help lead to a tipping point in the legal profession.
For context, he points to the legal profession’s adoption of email as a point of comparison. Based on his own experience as a practicing attorney, he says that email was slow to catch on, and even when it did it was only used internally by firms. By 1995, however, clients couldn’t understand why law firms were sending courier boxes when documents could just be sent digitally.
After that, “it tipped quite quickly,” he says. He hopes that Avvo, and other legal service providers like LegalZoom, will be able to create the same consumer gravity that will force a stuck profession to change.
As for what is next for him, Britton doesn’t know.
In the short term, his Avvo swan song will be at Lawyernomics, the company’s conference in Las Vegas from May 21-23. He’s not anxious about the separation, but he says he already misses the team and passion he engaged with every day at Avvo for over a decade.
After stepping down, Britton plans on taking a break. However, he surmises that when the rains return to Seattle, where he lives, and his kids go back to school this fall, he’ll take time to think seriously about what is next.
He mentioned an interest in stepping back into the regulatory fights Avvo has been in over the years to help provide guidance to state bars grappling with change. “The profession needs help, and I want to be a part of that,” he says.
Britton is also interested in building a business again with an eye toward legal services. However, he says he’s open to other industries.
Thinking about building another company, he says that there are problems he confronted at Avvo that haven’t been solved yet, and that torments him.
“I have a sense that there is so much more to accomplish,” he says. “I just don’t know what the vehicle is for that.”
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