SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline)--The Illinois Supreme Court was within its rights to deny giving a list of attorneys to an Internet site that allows clients to rate their lawyer's performance, a leading court reform advocate told Legal Newsline.
Avvo.com is hoping to create an online directory that provides rankings and educational background, career and disciplinary information on attorneys in all 50 states.
Though Seattle-based Avvo claims to have information on majority of the attorneys in Illinois, the company was looking to get a complete roster of the 85,000 lawyers listed with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC), an agency of the state Supreme Court.
Ed Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, said the Supreme Court was "within their rights" to deny Avvo's request.
"They have the authority to make the decision they came to; there's no denying that. We just don't happen to agree with it," Murnane told Legal Newsline.
The public advocacy organization argues that the court's decision robs the public of access to vital information about attorneys.
"I think a roster of licensed lawyers in Illinois ought to be made public and available to the news media and citizens, just as a list of accredited doctors and other professionals is available; its just common sense, open government," Murnane said.
Lawyers, he said, should not be protected from being identified.
"There are multitudes of ways that people can learn about lawyers through online directories and such. So why restrict official access to the lawyer list with complaints, denials of complaints and other information? It just doesn't make any sense," he said.
Although the Illinois ARDC is closely affiliated with the high court, an official said the relationship had nothing to do with last week's order denying Avvo's request.
"Ultimately the decision was solely that of the Supreme Court; it was a policy decision," said James Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel of the Illinois ARDC.
"We have no invested interest in the bottom line. It's the court's master roll and it's really the court's decision as to how access to it should be interpreted and applied," Grogan added.
Legal experts agree that the high court's decision appears to be based on longstanding rules surrounding the use of the master list as opposed to an underlying conflict of interest.
"The Supreme Court is the ultimate authority with regard to the rules that control the practice of law in Illinois," said Robert Burns, professor of law at Northwestern University.
Burns said the high court decided that Avvo did not meet the conditions under which the roll would be disseminated.
"They were not convinced that Avvo would contribute to the quality of the legal system in Illinois such that they should make an exception to the guidelines already established in relation to a commercial enterprise," he said.
The Illinois ARDC argues that the information is not being kept from the public. Grogan said the agency offers disciplinary, malpractice, education and other relevant information to anyone who is seeking information on a specific attorney.
Even information on a pending investigation that could lead to disbarment is available to a party researching a troubled attorney's background.
The Illinois ARDC cannot, however, provide someone with a list of attorneys in a specific area of law.
"The Illinois Supreme Court doesn't license by specialty licenses," Grogan said. "It's not like a board certification for surgeons. In Illinois there is only one type of law license that is given to attorneys. Because of that, the master roll has no information about the particular nature of a lawyer's practice."
This may explain why lists of professionals in areas like medicine seem to be more readily available to those who provide services similar to that of Avvo.
"I don't think there is some special thing about lawyers that would justify a different rule in terms of distributing a master list of professionals," Burns said. "It's just that there is a different authority making the decision on whether to do so."
Another possible reason for the court's decision could be concern over what would ultimately be done with the master roll.
"The Illinois ARDC was concerned about what Avvo was going to do with the information," Burns said. "There were also worries as to whether the rating system was going to be helpful or distorting. There just seemed to be concerns that Avvo's use of the list would not provide objective information to consumers of legal services."
Illinois is not the only state in which Avvo has run into problems.
The company had to petition to get access to New Jersey's list of attorneys. As of now, Avvo reports to having a full listing of attorneys in 19 states.