The Unasked Question In Tech Policy: Where Do We Get The Lawyers?
from the they-don't-grow-on-trees dept
When we criticize Internet regulations like the CCPA and GDPR, or lament the attempts to roll back Section 230, one of the points we almost always raise is how unduly expensive these policy decisions can be for innovators. Any law that increases the risk of legal trouble increases the need for lawyers, whose services rarely come cheap.
But bare cost is only part of the problem. All too often, policymakers seem to assume an infinite supply of capable legal counsel, and it’s an assumption that needs to be questioned.
First, there are not an infinite number of lawyers. For better or worse, the practice of law is a heavily regulated profession with significant barriers to entry. The legal industry can be fairly criticized, and often is, for making it more difficult and expensive to become a lawyer than perhaps it should be, but there is at least some basic threshold of training, competence, and moral character we should want all lawyers to have attained given the immense responsibility they are regularly entrusted with. These requirements will inevitably limit the overall lawyer population.
(Of course, there shouldn’t be an infinite number of lawyers anyway. As discussed below, lawyers play an important role in society, but theirs is not the only work that is valuable. In the field of technology law, for example, our need for people to build new things should well outpace our need for lawyers to defend what has been built. We should be wary of creating such a need for the latter that the legal profession siphons off too much of the talent able to do the former.)
But even where we have lawyers we still need the right kind of lawyers. Lawyers are not really interchangeable. Different kinds of lawyering need different types of skills and subject-matter expertise, and lawyers will generally specialize, at least to some extent, in what they need to master for their particular practice area. For instance, a lawyer who does estate planning is not generally the one you’d want to defend you against a criminal charge, nor would one who does family law ordinarily be the one you’d want writing your employment manual. There are exceptions, but generally because that particular lawyer went out of their way to develop parallel expertise. The basic fact remains: simply picking any old lawyer out of the yellow pages is rarely likely to lead to good results; you want one experienced with dealing with the sorts of legal issues you actually have, substantively and practically.
True, lawyers can retrain, and it is not uncommon for lawyers to switch their focus and develop new skills and expertise at some point in their careers. But it’s a problem if a disproportionate number start to specialize in the same area because, just as we need people available to work professions other than law, even within the law we still need other kinds of lawyers available to work on other areas of law outside these particular specialized areas.
And we also need to be able to afford them. We already have a serious “access to justice” problem, where only the most resourced are able to obtain legal help. A significant cause of this problem is the expense of law school, which makes it difficult for graduates to resist the siren call of more remunerative employment, but it’s a situation that will only get worse if lawyer-intensive regulatory schemes end up creating undue demand for certain legal specializations. For example, as we increasingly pass a growing thicket of complex privacy regulations we create the need for more and more privacy lawyers to help innovators deal with these rules. But as the need for privacy lawyers outstrips the ready availability of lawyers with this expertise, it threatens to raise the costs for anyone needing any sort of lawyering at all. It’s a basic issue of supply and demand: the more privacy lawyers that are needed, the more expensive it will be to attract them. And the more these lawyers are paid a premium to do this work, the more it will lure lawyers away from other areas that still need serving, thus making it all the more expensive to hire those who are left to help with it.
Then there is the question of where lawyers even get the expertise they need to be effective counsel in the first place. The dirty little secret of legal education is that, at least until recently, it probably wasn’t at their law schools. Instead lawyers have generally been trained up on the job, and what newbie lawyers ended up learning has historically depended on what sort of legal job it was (and how good a legal job it was). Recently, however, there has been the growing recognition that it really doesn’t make sense to graduate lawyers unable to competently do the job they are about to be fully licensed to do, and one way law schools have responded is by investing in legal clinics.
By and large, clinics are a good thing. They give students practical legal training by letting them basically do the job of a lawyer, with the benefit of supervision, as part of their legal education. In the process they acquire important skills and start to develop subject-matter expertise in the area the clinic focuses on, which can be in almost every practice area, including, as is relevant here, technology law. Meanwhile, clinics generally let students provide these legal services to clients far more affordably than clients would normally be able to obtain them, which partially helps address the access to justice problem.
However, there are still some significant downsides to clinics, including the inescapable fact that it is students who are basically subsidizing the legal services they are providing by having to pay substantial amounts of money in tuition for the privilege of getting to do this work. A recurrent theme here is that law schools are notoriously expensive, often underwritten with loans, which means that students, instead of being paid for their work, are essentially financing the client’s representation themselves.
And that arrangement matters as policymakers remain inclined to impose regulations that increase the need for legal services without better considering how that need will be met. It has been too easy for too many to assume that these clinics will simply step in to fill the void, with an endless supply of students willing and able to pay to subsidize this system. Even if this supposition were true, it would still prompt the question of who these students are. The massive expense of law school is already shutting plenty of people out of the profession and robbing it of needed diversity by making it financially out of reach for too many, as well as making it impossible for those who do make it through to turn down more lucrative legal jobs upon graduation and take ones that would be more socially valuable instead. The last thing we need is a regulatory environment dependent on this teetering arrangement to perpetuate it.
Yet that’s the upshot of much of the policy lawmakers keep crafting. For instance, in the context of Section 1201 Rulemakings, it has been openly presumed that clinics would always be available to do the massive amount of work necessary to earn back for the public the right to do something it was already supposed to be legally allowed to do. But it’s not just these cited examples of copyright or privacy law that are a problem; any time a statute or regulatory scheme establishes an unduly onerous compliance requirement, or reduces any of the immunities and safe harbors innovation has depended on, it puts a new strain on the legal profession, which now has to come up with the help from somewhere.
At the same time, however, good policy doesn’t mean necessarily eliminating the need for lawyers entirely, like the CASE Act tries to do. The bottom line is that legal services are not like other professional services. Lawyers play a critical role in upholding due process, and laws like the CASE Act that short-circuit those protections are a problem. But so are any laws that have the effect of interfering with that greater Constitutional purpose of the legal profession.
For a society that claims to be devoted to the “rule of law,” ensuring that the public can realistically obtain any of the legal help it needs should be a policy priority at least on par with anything else driving tech regulation. Lawmakers therefore need to take care in how they make policy to ensure they do not end up distorting the availability and affordability of legal services in the process. Such care requires (1) carefully calibrating the burden of any imposed policy to not unnecessarily drive up the need for lawyers, and (2) specifically asking the question: who will do the work. They cannot continue to simply leave “insert lawyers here” in their policy proposals and expect everything to be fine. If they don’t also pointedly address exactly where it is these lawyers will come from then it won’t be.