Before massive layoffs at the country’s major law firms, before major cuts to the funding of free legal aid clinics, and before the meteoric rise of Google, consumers relied on lawyer referrals for legal representation. Once search engines took over, however, and we grew used to accessing the world from our desktops, consumers turned to the web.

The problem here is that some don’t have the benefit of a lawyer’s advice on top notch attorneys.  So the world’s best legal raters — and some newcomers — began pairing their print ratings with detailed online databases. Each of the major raters has its own advantages, but it can be difficult, for example, to parse when it’s best to use Martindale Hubbell’s Lawyers.com as opposed to startup web crusader Avvo. So we’ve compiled some information about the four major legal raters, their differences, and their main qualities.

Take a look, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Lawyers.com

Best for: Largest profile database; Great research tools

Total Peer Reviews: 70% of US lawyers peer rated

Oldest; Initial commitment to offline

Lawyers.com is the consumer-focused website of Martindale-Hubbell, a leading legal directory that stretches back 140 years, and creator of the prestigious “AV” rating for great peer-rated lawyers. The free website provides profiles and information for up to 1 million lawyers and law firms around the world. Lawyers.com also provides tips on how to select a great lawyer, explanations of major areas of law, and hosts community discussions on hundreds of legal topics.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Lawyers.com seemed to be struggling in terms of brand recognition and website traffic. In 2009, it even appeared that legal ratings startup Avvo would overtake Lawyers.com in unique monthly visitors. In November 2009, for example, Avvo only trailed Lawyers.com by 42,000 unique visitors and seemed to have all the momentum. But a set of television ads and a revamped online presence seems to have revived Lawyers.com, as it now lead Avvo by nearly 130,000 monthly unique visitors as of February 2011.

Best Lawyers

Best for: Media partnerships; International reach

Total Peer Reviews: 3.1 million

Best Lawyers describes itself as the “oldest and most respected peer-review publication in the legal profession.” For 25 years, Best Lawyers has reviewed attorneys nationwide, and provided a forum to help consumers find great lawyers in a wide range of practice areas. The newest edition of their print referral guide, The Best Lawyers in America, included 41,149 lawyers in nearly 130 practice areas, and was based on over 3.1 million evaluations from other attorneys. Best Lawyers teams up with local news publications upon the release of their referral guide, adding detailed legal stories about some of the best and most innovative lawyers.

This year, for the first time, Best Lawyers teamed up with US News and World Report to provide whole law firm rankings based on peer-rated reviews. The best law firms in each practice area were designated “Tier 1.” Best Lawyers continues to grow and remains a powerful force in the world of legal ratings.

Super Lawyers

Best for: Selection process transparency; “Rising Stars”

5% of lawyers in each state selected

By accepting only 5% of the lawyers in a given state, Super Lawyers selects the statistical cream of the crop. Like Best Lawyers, Super Lawyers bases its decisions on “peer recognition and professional achievement.” Super Lawyers’ complicated selection process includes a combination of peer nominations and their own “Star Search” program, in which the Super Lawyers research department investigates great lawyers who may not have been nominated by their peers. Once the nominations and search process are complete, Super Lawyers evaluates the candidates based on twelve factors including verdicts and settlements, honors and awards, experience, and position within law firm. Super Lawyers Magazines are then published on a geographic basis in all 50 states.

In 1998, Super Lawyers launched Rising Stars, an effort to highlight the country’s best lawyers who are under 40 and have been practicing for fewer than 10 years. Rising Stars now operates in 17 states including California, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Talented young lawyers are great for consumers because they are often cheaper, but often don’t qualify for other ratings.  In addition to the Super Lawyers print magazine, the service enables lawyers to claim their online profile in order to add updates about contact information and new accomplishments at my.superlawyers.com.

Avvo

Best for: Consumer-focused information; Q&A database

Total Profiles: 90% of licensed attorneys in the US

Primary commitment to web

Avvo is a newcomer, and probably the most controversial of the bunch. Avvo uses an algorithm to rank lawyers on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their experience, reputation, education, and a number of other factors. Avvo also allows attorneys to claim their profiles by adding contact information and additional details about their practice. Lawyers can also use Avvo to engage with consumers by writing legal guides on a variety of issues and answering questions on Avvo’s Q&A database.

Critics have said that Avvo’s ranking system can seem arbitrary and fluctuate for no apparent reason. But 2 million visitors each month and the monthly generation of up to 150,000 contacts for lawyers, according to CEO Mark Britton, is nothing to scoff at. And as consumer reviews become an increasingly important aspect of online life, you can expect Avvo to take even more mojo from the legal ranking titans. Avvo has taken strides to be the main consumer-oriented alternative to the other raters, encouraging lawyers to develop simple legal guides for non-lawyers and writing blogs like Avvo Blog and NakedLaw, which “exposes everyday law in a way non-lawyers can understand.”

It’s important to note that online reviews have recently been proven to be vulnerable to fraud. Last week, for example, the Federal Trade Commission fined a company selling guitar training DVDs $250,000 for paying marketers to post positive reviews and boost profits. But the ratings services often guard against these false reviews. Avvo, for example, states in its community guidelines that reviews that appear to be solicited or part of a quid pro quo will not be posted. And Super Lawyers has implemented safeguards to prevent lawyers from “gaming” the system by preventing “back-scratch” nominations and forbidding campaigning for nominations.