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Larry Ribstein on After the Fall (Of Regulation)

My previous post in this symposium argued that deregulation is upon us.  Here I’ll discuss what that could entail.

The legal information expert:  I summoned up the specter of computers practicing law.  There is in fact no doubt that computers can practice law as that term is defined by some courts and regulators: giving personalized legal advice.  Clearly computers already can process a lot of data and come to fairly accurate determinations of many types of legal questions.

This does not, however, mean that computers can replace lawyers.  It means that lawyers will have to learn to work with technology.  The “legal information experts” of the future will have to provide the human insights about the world of law that computers must have to do their jobs.  They must also make the choices that computers can’t. For example, what types of contractual structures work best with the new types of arrangements that arise in a constantly changing business world?  What choices should individual clients make among the alternatives that a computer provides?

This is good news for lawyers.  Lawyers can focus on the more sophisticated tasks that require human ingenuity as computers take over the routine.

The policy architect. Freed by technology from routine, lawyers can increase their involvement in designing laws and other legal structures.  Computers may be great historians but they are not yet equipped to make judgments about what the future should look like.  Lawyers need not leave lawmaking to legislators, but can participate in a private market for law. Kobayashi and I discuss in a recent paper the potential for such private lawmaking and the changes in the law that could make it happen.

The death of the law firm.  Although I’ve written the obituary for Big Law, regulation continues to sustain a semblance of the big law structure.  These firms are sustained by rules restricting referral fees and non-lawyer financing of firms engaged in the practice of law.  At a more basic level, law firms address clients’ costs of obtaining information about lawyer quality.  Law firms presumably can help by monitoring, mentoring and screening lawyers, so that the client just needs to choose a firm with a good reputation.  But as big law weakens, so does its ability to provide these services.  More importantly, the markets and technologies discussed in my previous post can step in and solve clients’ information asymmetry better than can today’s law firms.

The future of licensing.  It’s unlikely that lawyer licensing will completely die.  It will be hard to reconcile complete deregulation of law practice with continued licensing of doctors, tour guides and horse dentists.   But there’s an important difference between lawyers and these other professions:  the prodigiously powerful lawyer interest group has managed to restrict access to the extremely broad field of human activity called the “practice of law.”  This regulatory monolith is bound to fracture.

It’s not clear what will remain.  Certain types of services to consumers may require a license, on the theory that ordinary consumers can’t fully protect themselves from lemons. Also, courts may insist that licensed lawyers conserve public courts’ scarce resources.  Licensing may reflect something like the traditional British distinction between barristers and solicitors.

Another approach to licensing may be to change how it is done.  Lawyers now must be licensed in every state where they practice law.  This enables states to erect regulatory walls that impede national law practice.  It also forces professional rules to be uniform in order to accommodate our mobile and global society.

A better option, similar to a system I’ve suggested for law firm regulation, is a “driver’s license” approach, where lawyers get a license in the state of their principal residence which they can use to practice anywhere in the country. Unlike the internal affairs doctrine for corporations, states could issue licenses only to their residents.  Because lawyers are likely to practice mainly where they live, this helps ensure that the licensing jurisdictions will have a stake in good regulation and prevent a potential race to the bottom.  At the same time, the drivers’ license approach would enable more jurisdictional competition for lawyer regulation than we have today, and thus help pave the way for the developments discussed in my previous post.