5 Wishes For Attorney Regulation Reform

In early April, I left Avvo. It’s been 10 years; it’s time for something new. What that is yet . . . I don’t know. Summer is glorious in the Pacific Northwest; I’d love to take some serious time off and enjoy it with my family and friends.

So I don’t know how much more I’ll be writing here. I suspect, however, that I will stay involved in efforts to improve our legal system, regardless of where my work takes me. So with that adieu, I leave you with a brief wish list of legal reforms:

  • Change to “Principles-Based” Regulation.  The American system of attorney regulation is rules-based: read the rules, comply with the rules. Such a system that has the advantage of clarity, but it’s a poor system for attorneys. It’s brittle. It’s non-responsive to changes in the environment. It focuses on detail (and “creative compliance”) at the expense of the purpose underlying each rule. And it makes innovation hard. Why not adopt the example of our cousins in the UK and move to a system of principles-based regulation? Let’s re-write the Model Rules to focus on desired outcomes, rather than rigid rules, and let attorneys and firms figure out the best ways to achieve those outcomes. We might be surprised the extent to which such a system would elevate the profession to a place where the focus is back on achieving the best outcomes for clients, rather than mere “compliance.”
  • Allow Non-Lawyer Ownership of Law Firms. Law firms are starved of investment – and the innovative thinking that would happen if smart non-lawyers could be invested in the success of those firms – by the flat-out bans on non-lawyer investment in, and ownership of, law firms.  Enough with the hand-wringing about the “uniqueness of the profession” and “corporate profiteering.” Law is already a business, and we are deluding ourselves if we think that attorneys are immune from the pressures of the bottom line. It would be easy to build client protection measures into such a system. And let’s be honest: well-run corporate businesses, with transparent practices and high levels of accessibility, would provide better, more predictable, more responsive, and less conflicted service than most lawyers and law firms right out of the gate.
  • Scale Back the Definition of “The Practice of Law.” Along with allowing non-lawyer ownership of law firms, we should dispense with the field-grabbing maneuver of claiming that everything remotely “legal” is “the practice of law,” and thus can only be handled by licensed attorneys. Let lawyers practice at the top of their licenses, and let everyone else – so long as they aren’t “holding out” as attorneys – be free to dispense legal advice, even to paying customers. There’s a decent chance the Supreme Court will dictate this result within the next few years anyway, 1 so some enterprising Bar should just get out in front of this sea change that’s coming. 2
  • Fix Multi-Jurisdictional Practice. My great-grandfather was a lawyer in Indiana. He abruptly moved his family to Tulsa in 1921, arriving just as race riots roiled that city. He had to start his practice over in a new state, but state-based attorney licensing made sense at that time – and certainly up to, and beyond, his retirement decades later. Most attorneys, including great-granddad, worked in wide-ranging, intensely local practices. But in modern society, it’s the rare lawyer who isn’t focused on a narrow area of law. Those narrow areas often span multiple geographies. So why persist in the fiction that general facility with a state’s law – as tested on a single occasion – is a necessary prerequisite to practice law in that state? Why not have admission at the national level, handle discipline at the state level, and control – via more frequent and specific tests – admission to practice before local courts? Doing so would far better police the point where failure to understand the local rules can do the most harm to clients (representation in court), while freeing lawyers (and the clients they would serve) from the arbitrariness of state MJP restrictions.
  • Create Meaningful Regulatory Processes.  Administrative agencies drive a gigantic body of the law – just look at the Code of Federal Regulations.  Non-legislative in nature, administrative rules are nonetheless adopted under a well-developed body of processes and norms.  While this process differs slightly from agency to agency, it is marked by transparency, opportunity for public comment, and responsiveness.  Notices of Proposed Rulemaking are promulgated, and orders imposing new or amended rules offer detailed descriptions of how any serious comments received were addressed. Nothing of the type pertains in lawyer regulatory processes. Supreme Courts treat lawyer regulation as just another adversary process – often freezing non-lawyers out. Publicity, notice, and transparency? Typically non-existent. And even the most well-intentioned regulators inevitably get hung up on a decision-making process that gives interested market participants (who often have the scantest sense of their regulatory obligations) veto power.  If the legal industry is going to maintain self-regulation, it needs to start doing so in a much more serious and neutral fashion.

Many lawyers would regard these as radical changes. But they really aren’t: they are a mix of approaches proven elsewhere and straightforward fixes for obvious regulatory failings. Unfortunately, our profession strongly prefers incremental approaches to anything that smells of “change” – that’s one reason we’ve got the creaky assemblage of Rules of Professional Conduct lawyers are saddled with. If the profession is to adapt and best serve the public, it’s got to do more than just tidy things around the edges. I offer my “wish list” as a modest starting point for that discussion.

Notes:

  1. There is a very good argument that telling non-lawyers they are barred from giving legal advice violates the First Amendment, and cases – including this one – challenging limitations on “paid professional speech” are working their way through the courts.
  2. Also worth noting: the legal monopoly in the UK doesn’t include legal advice; yet things seem to be working tolerably well there.

2 thoughts on “5 Wishes For Attorney Regulation Reform”

  1. Josh, we need many more “disruptors” on legal regulatory boards before we will really begin to see c changes. Why don’t you become a board member for your State Bar?

  2. Hey Josh – enjoy your summer with family; i always read your commentary eagerly and will miss it in the future. Here is to hoping you will return to these battles in some fashion. Congrats on the Avvo sale and your exit. Make it a summer to remember for two lifetimes. Friedrich

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