Category Archives: Occupational Speech

Ethics Opinions and Antitrust

So a couple of weeks ago I was at the ABA’s Third Annual UPL School in Chicago – a gathering of those bar authorities dedicated to rooting out the unauthorized practice of law. And I have to say – it was a strangely chastened bunch. The specter of North Carolina Dental Board v. FTC hung heavy in the air, and many in attendance claimed that they no longer issue advisory opinions or cease-and-desist letters. Rather, they do one of two things when they get complaints: dismiss, or file a lawsuit.

This isn’t a bad thing. Advisory opinions and C&D letters can have a toxic, chilling impact, stopping all sorts of activities that are well outside the boundaries of the legal monopoly. In fact, this is the sort of practice that got the North Carolina Dental Board into hot water – dentists using C&D letters to shut down tooth-whitening services. And it’s what we see in the more egregious examples of UPL enforcement. Being more cautious when wielding the regulatory club isn’t a bad thing, so long as regulators don’t overcompensate and abandon ALL attempts to enforce UPL. 1

But I have to wonder: is the UPL side of the regulatory house not talking to the legal ethics side? Because the same issues exist there. North Carolina Dental stands for the proposition that Bar regulators can lose their state action antitrust immunity for anti-competitive behavior. And what’s more, this potential liability also carries through to the individual members of the Bar boards and committees that make these determinations.

Advertising ethics opinions – and advertising review boards, in those states that employ them – can have the same sort of anti-competitive impacts as UPL letters and opinions. In all such cases, potential competitors are being elbowed out or burdened. The fact that in the advertising context those competitors are primarily fellow members of the Bar doesn’t make a difference. Bar Ethics Committees – which are comprised of market participants – are issuing ethics opinion that limit competition. The do so by chilling the ability of other members of the Bar – members who may not enjoy Bar leadership positions – to offer information about legal services to the public. They may even limit non-lawyer competition with Bar lawyer referral services.

As with UPL, there are ways Bars can regulate such advertising activity without taking on antitrust risk. Doing so requires an open, transparent, and evidence-based showing that the consumer protection justifications for its restrictions outweigh the anti-competitive effects. Or at least “active supervision” by actual state government actors. But that’s not the typical closed ethics opinion approach, which we continue to see even now two years after the decision in North Carolina Dental. A handful of states – like Virginia, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington – at least seem to be aware of this concern. But it’s odd that the cautious approach on the UPL front has yet to be matched by most regulators on the legal ethics side.

Notes:

  1. Despite my skepticism about the breadth of the legal monopoly, I’ll readily acknowledge that there are consumer-impacting UPL practices out there, among them non-lawyers pretending to be licensed and the various related forms of “notario” fraud.

Speech Restrictions on Judges

More on occupational speech restrictions: I’ve come across this recent piece by Texas A&M law prof Lynne Rambo, dealing with First Amendment issues around judicial speech.  Rambo’s article notes that “surprisingly, most of the state and federal courts deciding judicial discipline cases based on extrajudicial speech have not addressed the constitutionality of the code provisions involved.”

No kidding! That’s because there’s been precious little judicial guidance in general when it comes to the tension between the First Amendment and occupational speech restrictions, and next to none where lawyers and judges are concerned (this, despite the law being the most speech-intensive of the licensed professions). Nonetheless, what little there is out there points in the general direction of occupational speech being regulated subject to the same intermediate scrutiny standard applicable to commercial speech.

We also know that occupational speech regulation only goes so far. Lawyers don’t waive their First Amendment rights as a condition of Bar membership; they are free to opine and express themselves any way they want (or at least, to the same extent as any other citizen) as long as doing so doesn’t involve their clients or matters.

But what about judges? Is there something special about their roles that would lend itself to greater reach for occupational speech regulation? Professor Rambo makes the case in the affirmative, arguing that judicial speech – even far off the bench – should be regulated via the Pickering test applicable to public employees.

What’s the Pickering test? It’s a balancing test, which looks at the the interests of the employee in commenting on matters of public concern and the interests of the State – as the employer – in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees. It doesn’t apply to things an employee might say as part of his or her job (it’s not a First Amendment violation for a government employer to discipline an employee for those), but rather only to those things a government employee says OUTSIDE of the job that may cause problems for the government employer’s mission.

That’s not much of an issue for most government employees, but it’s different for judges given their position in society. Judges are highly esteemed and viewed as neutral arbiters. The courts are very attuned to ensuring that judges avoid even the appearance of bias. A judge could be highly competent – and a paragon of objectivity – but that judge staking out positions on one “side” or another of contentious issues in the community will cause no end of trouble for the court.

As Rambo notes, the interest of the government employer in the Pickering test is “promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.” She suggests that in the judicial context this means something more: protecting the judiciary from extrajudicial statements by judges that compromise “either the actual or the perceived independence, integrity or impartiality of the court.”

That sounds right, particularly since the “efficiency” of the government institution that is the court is best measured not by how quickly it churns through cases but rather by how independent and impartial it can be – both in reality AND appearance. And that means that judges – unlike lawyers – may be subject to occupational speech regulation that reaches far beyond the confines of the courtroom.