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.

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