Lawyer Awards Are (Mostly) Bullshit, Unless They’re Given to Me – American Institute Scam

I am one of the top ten Family Law attorneys in California.

Check that: I’m one of the “Ten Best” Family Law Attorneys for Client Satisfaction in California [if I pay for a membership in some organization that nobody has ever heard of]. A skeptic, as many a Missourian will be, might instinctively utter “bullshit” at such an award, and indeed, as much as I work to do my best for my clients, I have such a limited caseload that whomever was in charge of building the short list must’ve celebrated Cinco de Mayo a little too hard before drafting the list.

Are these random lawyer awards, a few of which I have been offered in the sixteen months since I made the jump to full-time legal practice, really worth anything?

Step 1: Create an Official-Sounding Organization and Award
Step 2: Appeal to Lawyers’ Vanity and Marketing Ignorance
Step 3: $

American Institute of Legal Scams

The organization behind my most recent, most prestigious award, is the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys. Who is AIFLA? The Better Business Bureau cared enough to do some research recently and said this:

American Institute Group, which uses several other names including American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys, American Institute of Family Law Attorneys, American Institute of Bankruptcy Attorneys,American Institute of Elder Law Attorneys and American Institute of DUI/DWI Attorneys. [Ed. note: don’t forget American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys! They’ll buy anything!] American Institute Group was registered in the state of Hawaii in July 2014 and lists Cynthia Stanley of Honolulu as its only member. In a recent nomination letter, Stanley called American Institute of Family Law Attorneys an impartial third-party rating service “recognizing excellence of practitioners in the field.” American Institute Group has not responded to a BBB request for information about the organization.

Certainly, the age of the organization provides some grounds for skepticism. But here’s my red flag: you don’t get to keep the award unless you pay for a membership to the AIFLA.

A tip to all the young lawyers out there: if you pay for an award, it is bullshit — period. If you receive these letters, it is a scam — period:


Perusing “American Institute” sites is almost a tragic experience: there are so many lawyers that fell for this scam and now have their faces plastered on these hall-of-sucker sites. And AIFLA/AIDUIA/AILegalCounsel/AIOPIA/AIOCLA/etc.has come up with an infinite variety of faux awards it seems: 10 Best Firms, 10 Best Under 40, 10 Best Female, 10 Best By State, and I believe mine was 10 Best for Client Satisfaction, across a handful of practice areas each, updated annually (of course).

How Do These Awards Stack Up With The Classics?

Lawyer awards aren’t a new thing: anyone remember Martindale Hubbell? Sure, they’re about as relevant as Pogs nowadays, but at one point, an AV-Rating was something to brag about. Was it something more than a vanity placard or was it simply an earlier incarnation of these arguably worthless awards?

I recently contacted Martindale to find out. And the selection process surprised me: submit a list of eighteen references (from outside your firm) to vouch for your abilities as an attorney.

That’s it. Have 18 friends.

And SuperLawyers? SuperLawyers is similar: all attorneys in a geographic area (such as Southern California) are eligible to submit a ballot listing ten in-firm attorneys who are “SuperLawyers,” ten out-of-firm attorneys who are “SuperLawyers,” and ten young “Rising Stars.” If you’re a shameless campaigner, it’s not too different from Martindale: have friends who will vouch for you.

Both are popularity contests. Is that better than a random organization picking names out of a hat using their own proprietary selection criteria for award recipients? Maybe a bit — at least the selectors are members of the profession who are arguably better equipped to differentiate between “good” and “bad” attorneys.

Here’s the big difference though: you don’t have to pay to keep your award (even if they do sell memorabilia and ad space for braggards).

Do These Awards Have Any Value for Attorneys?

The marketing term for these types of awards is “trust signals.” By appealing to third-party sources that vouch for your credibility, one can convince a prospective client or customer that you are, in fact, credible. Citing positive Yelp reviews is one way of doing this. Avvo client reviews and scores are yet another. Martindale ratings and SuperLawyers badges are too, of course.

What about these new awards? Do they serve any purpose? They might boost your Avvo score — which is a 1-10 rating based on awards, endorsements from fellow attorneys, publications, speaking engagements, and experience — if Avvo recognizes them. (Martindale and SuperLawyers certainly count.) And to a client who doesn’t know anything about lawyer awards (read: all of them), there is no way to differentiate between a “real” award and a paid one — you might sway an on-the-fence client if you display enough badges.

(the video makes sense if you wait for the 1:00 mark)

Besides that, do these awards trigger anyone else’s “ick” factor? (For a marketing tool to trigger a marketing guy’s ick factor, you know it has to be bad.) Promoting oneself as a “Top Attorney” when you know the award is simply a money grab tossed out willy-nilly to a number of attorneys who they hope will send back a check for $250 feels like a Nigerian scam for the lawyers and false advertising to potential clients. It may even be, gasp, unethical.

I passed on my AIFLA award. I have an Avvo 10.0 based on publications, endorsements, and speaking engagements. I have perfect client reviews to date. I’ve earned those awards and, as preachy as it might sound, faux trust signals just don’t feel right.

This was originally written in May 2016. I recently updated it in 2018 after stumbling across a couple other American Institute offshoots.



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22 Responses

  1. I appreciate the advice and research. The “American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys” solicitation was going straight into the trash, but now, I think I’ll put through shredder

  2. You fell for the same thing you criticize others for. You don’t have a 10.0 rating on AVVO because of speaking engagements and endorsements. You have a perfect rating because you pay to be listed on their web site as a “Pro”.


    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      Actually, I don’t pay for pro (it’s a long story) and pro has no effect on your rating. But thanks for trolling and go copulate a goat.

      1. As inartful as the comment was, the point (assuming I’m correctly understanding it) is that your “10” Avvo rating has nothing to do with client reviews. Only attorney reviews (“reviews” which I use loosely, because they can only be positive and are called “endoresements”) count toward your rating, not client reviews. As you and I know your “attorney friends” could be responsible for your endorsements. Since attorneys can only endorse you, they couldn’t, for example, leave you a poor review for your lack of candor, failed deadlines, shenanigans in court, etc., not that you do any of those things, they were merely illustrative. I think a better comment by “Atticus” would have been something more akin to comparing Avvo to Martindale Hubbel or other, peer review processes. I do appreciate that Avvo takes into account your public disciplinary record. This is something that would be beneficial to potential clients. Just my thoughts, for what they are worth …

        Here’s the quote from Avvo regarding how an attorney is rated:

        “Do peer endorsements and reviews affect my rating?
        Peer endorsements do affect your Avvo Rating, though reviews do not. This is because peer endorsements–one lawyer endorsing another’s skills and experience–are a way to assess industry recognition, which is a factor in how we calculate an attorney’s Avvo Rating. Reviews do play a very important role for people looking to hire an attorney, but we have chosen to not include that information when calculating the Avvo Rating.”

        1. You are absolutely correct that the Avvo Rating does not include client reviews. That is what the separate 5-star system is four. Having two systems is unintuitive, but I play by their rules.

          The 10.0 “Rating” isn’t just endorsements, though they can help quite a bit. I’ve never gotten someone above 8.5 based on endorsements alone and there is a guy in Texas who spam-endorsed every lawyer he could find in the U.S., hoping correctly that they’d reciprocate, and despite his 100s of endorsements, he’s just a mid-8 or so.

          Other factors in the 10.0 rating include:

        2. Bar leadership positions
        3. Publications on known websites or print media
        4. Speaking engagements
        5. Lawyer awards from less-bullshitty sources
    2. Nice article. I found it by googling the American Institute due to the fact that I just got a letter from them. They are out of their mind if they think I will pay for an award like this. Some people are not so driven to hang a new plaque on the wall.

      Since you mentioned it, I do not like AVVO. Their rating is, in my opinion, a joke. They basically force you to participate and jump through their hoops to have a decent score. Attorneys are being judged whether they like it or not and almost held hostage by AVVO. If you don’t want to deal with it, your score stays low. Or, you can simply puff up what you do, positions, awards, etc, and follow their recommendations and they will boost your score. I personally know utterly incompetent attorneys with scores higher than mine. I graduated near the top of my class. I don’t claim to be the smartest person around, but I know what I know. Our firm makes almost ZERO effort at marketing and we are swamped. We don’t need or want AVVO. AVVO is a joke. If you want to know about an attorney or a law firm, ask around. We operate strictly on word of mouth and promote ourselves by civic involvement, rather than paid advertising. I called the folks at AVVO and told them to get my score off their database and they did it. I told them I want nothing to do with them and they cannot force me to participate or penalize me for not doing so. I hope they keep getting suede and someday someone will be successful.

      My two cents.

      1. I agree, for the most part. I’ve described my relationship with Avvo as “love-hate.” Arbitrary scores, like when a twenty-year practitioner who is a partner at a major firm and a titan of the industry is rated a 6.7 because he didn’t fill out his profile, is idiotic. See here for an old rant:

        On the other hand, Avvo has worked for me and many others. I used to run the marketing for a fifteen-person firm and Avvo would send us a dozen leads a day – many were crap, but I’ll take one or two quality leads for free if all it takes is playing their game. As a solo, I still get calls from Avvo and one or two cases per month.

    3. Not so. I was ultimately listed as a 10 and I haven’t paid anything to Avvo ever! In fact, I was surprised how professional and courteous they have been over the years despite the fact they make no money off me.

      However, I do agree with the article that many other fly-by-night organizations are scam-like, and agree those should be avoided.

  3. FYI – I don’t disagree with the premise of your article/blog, but the blue rectangular “Pro” symbol is clearly visible on your Avvo profile. And in my experience, an attorney’s Avvo rating doesn’t increase after a certain point unless he/she pays for a Pro listing.

    1. Believe it or not, I got to 10.0 before I got the “Pro” badge added at a firm I used to work at. I’ve seen a couple profiles get there without paying for pro. I’ve helped dozens of lawyers with their marketing, so I’ve seen far to damn many of these profiles. What you’re probably experiencing is the increased difficulty of getting the last point or so – I think what they were shooting for is a normal curve type distribution (average lawyer being a 5.6, “best” lawyers being a 10.) It’s also possible that they make it easier to get there if you pay for Pro, though I don’t know why they’d do that and risk their entire site’s reputation if it ever got out that they were pay to play – the real reason to pay for Pro is just to get the ads for other lawyers off your profile, which is reason enough if you already have a strong Avvo rating.

      And folks, I’m not saying Avvo is awesome or even good. See the old post “my love/hate relationship with Avvo” for just some of my issues with them. But at least they tried to create something CLOSE to a legitimate measuring stick. Is it better than SuperLawyers, which is peer endorsement popularity only? Or Martindale (same thing!)? Not sure. Is it better than Lawyers of Distinct-scam or American Institute of Selling Nice Plaques? Absolutely.

  4. Thank you, sir, for your honest and blunt blog about this matter. I just shredded my invitation from American Institute Counsel of Attorneys to join the 10 best Estate Planning attorneys in California. I thought it was trash when I received it but, just in case, I thought I’d search around for others who received this nonsense. In the shredder mine went. Out of my mind…now, I’m back to doing real work for real clients who appreciate my hard work. Thank you again. Jay Creighton

    1. Happy to spread the gospel – these fake awards not only make all attorneys look bad, and trick some naive lawyers out of money, but they are downright deceptive when it comes to potential clients.

  5. Great post. Despite the “ick” factor two key questions remain for a lawyer: do they attract clients and do they influence Google SERP rankings. As many know, Google’s recent (August 2018) algorithm update, labeled the “Medic Update” , has impacted doctors and lawyers. The common thread appears to be Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) businesses which Google thinks includes most lawyers. There appears to be a massive change in Google search winners and losers in the legal field as a result of the Medic Update. The SEO brain surgeons are saying that lawyers with strong expertise, authority and trust are winning out.

    So I think the key question is whether Google sees these arguably BS awards as signs of expertise and authority.

    1. Now you’re speaking my language! Love talking SEO!

      And really excellent point on the Medic update. I don’t think it is worth potentially misleading consumers into thinking that a lawyer is a legitimate winner of a legitimate award just to game the SEO rankings and it would suck if buying plaques was the new secret to SEO success. I’ll continue to recommend what has always worked well: write long, informative content. Cite your sources (link to statutes) in the content. Write stuff that is helpful (like this article, it seems) and links and rankings happen organically – no pun intended.

      Really, with medic being an authority-based update, I have no idea what measuring stick Google uses at this point. It’s not links – they’re already using that. I do think their algorithm is strong enough to connect the dots between online articles on law-related sites, mentions on reputable sites (like SuperLawyers), and maybe even consumer reviews. Perhaps career longevity counts too.

  6. Plenty of attorneys pay for these awards and they are well aware of the fact that they are bogus. It’s really made me think less of some of my colleagues. I personally think it’s highly unethical to pay for recognition, but many knowingly do it.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I once had a marketing client who said (paraphrasing here): “I don’t care if they’re bullshit. Clients don’t know any better. Get me plaques for each of my offices.”


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