Attorney Licensing and Restraint of Trade

Tomorrow, the Supreme Court hears oral argument in North Carolina Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission.  It’s a case of not-inconsiderable interest to state attorney regulators, as the central issue is the extent to which state licensing boards can clear the field of non-licensed competition.

The primary point is based in antitrust law, and whether the “state action doctrine” (which immunizes state agencies from most antitrust law) applies to entities – like licensing boards – which have been granted regulatory authority by the state, but which are made up largely of market participants rather than neutral regulators.

You can see why this would be a problem.  Grant competitors the right to regulate the field, provide minimal-to-no objective oversight, and you’ve set the stage for all manner of anti-competitive behavior.

In North Carolina, this predictably enough resulted in the Board of Dental Examiners (an entity largely composed of practicing dentists) ordering non-dentists to stop providing teeth whitening services.

The parallels to law aren’t hard to see.  Most states have very loosey-goosey definitions of “the practice of law,” which are often used to exclude non-attorney businesses that do something that remotely smells of “legal.”  Real estate brokers, document preparers, accountants, etc. – all have at one point or another been the legal industry equivalent of mall kiosk teeth whiteners.

While not every state is regulated in this way, many have boards and commissions that carry out regulatory functions with little to no state oversight.  Advertising review commissions come immediately to mind.  Attorneys practicing in less benighted jurisdictions may not be aware that in places like Florida, most advertising must pass a gauntlet of review by a board of one’s competitors.  And, to add insult to injury, attorneys have to pay for this little exercise.  It’s a practice rife with problems and obvious antitrust concerns.

It certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing if state licensing boards had their wings clipped. There’s little to recommend the granting of state monopoly power to a group of market participants and then letting them exclude competition with impunity.  The practice is bad for consumers, protects entrenched interests, and acts as a drag on innovation. Pulling the state action doctrine back wouldn’t prevent the Bars from regulating, but it would be a step toward them – and all licensing boards – doing so in a more measured and appropriate way.

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