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Could Dental-Board Decision Unlock Lawyer Control Of State Bar Regulations?, guest post Ken Friedman, Forbes

(Mr. Friedman is the Vice President of Legal and Government Affairs for LegalZoom Inc.)


Many state regulatory agencies are controlled by active members of the very professions they oversee. Last week, this fox-and-hen-house scenario was addressed by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that such agencies are not immune to federal antitrust laws unless their actions are actively supervised by politically accountable government officials. While the case dealt specifically with dentistry (teeth whiteners everywhere, rejoice!), the ruling will have far broader ramifications for many professions, including how the practice of law is regulated.

In North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, the Supreme Court upheld the FTC’s ruling that the Dental Examiners violated antitrust laws when they sent dozens of ‘cease and desist’ letters to teeth whiteners, claiming that they were engaged in the ‘unauthorized practice of dentistry.’ The letters and other strong-arm tactics worked – dentists in North Carolina established a monopoly over teeth-whitening services until the FTC intervened.

The Dental Examiners monopolistic campaign was modeled after a similar, if less successful, campaign engaged by the North Carolina State Bar.

The Supreme Court’s decision will have broad positive effects throughout the country. The Court’s ruling recognizes that letting professionals enforce their own monopolies creates a ‘real danger’ that they will act to further their ‘own interests,’ rather than the public interest. These practices increase prices to the detriment of consumers while decreasing consumer choice. The Court recognized that the problem is far worse when the boundaries of the state-granted monopoly are not ‘clearly articulated and affirmatively expressed as state policy,’ and the professionals are given the power to decide what is the ‘unauthorized practice’ of their profession.

This lack of clarity is not uncommon. For example, Rhode Island opens the door to this defining the unauthorized practice of law as the ‘doing of any act for another person usually done by attorneys at law in the course of their profession.’ They list a few examples, ‘without limiting the generality of the definitions.’

The active supervision concept is important. While the requirement is ‘flexible and context-dependent,’ the Court made clear that the ‘supervisor must review the substance of the anticompetitive decision, not merely the procedures followed to produce it.’ The supervisor cannot be a market participant and needs to have the power to veto or modify decisions. This will require significant interaction.

Regulating the practice of law is the classic example of active market participants protecting their monopoly. In its amicus brief, the NCSB states that its authority is vested in the State Bar Council, 65 of whose 68 members are lawyers.

The threat this poses is not idle. . . .