ABA wants free trade in legal services?

The International Business Times is reporting that American Bar Association President Stephen N. Zack is lobbying India to refrain from shutting U.S. lawyers out of the Indian legal market:

Currently, U.S. lawyers are allowed to travel to India on an “in-and-out basis” to advise their clients on non-Indian aspects of law. That “status quo” should be maintained as the [Bar Council of India] considers the broader issue of whether to allow the practice of law by foreign law firms in India, Zack said….”The ABA believes that allowing such activities is critical not only for the mutual benefit of the legal practitioners in both countries,” [Zack’s] letter said, “but also for fostering the vital and already close relationship between India and the United States and to promote the robust growth of trade and investments between our two countries. Allowing such activities is also essential in making India a preferred venue for international arbitration proceedings.”

This is a huge issue, and only going to get bigger in the coming years.  In most countries, including the U.S. and India, the legal profession is highly regulated and heavily skewed toward protectionism (i.e., preserving a pre-globalization status quo).  For example, in order to “practice law” in the U.S., one must generally graduate from college, attend law school for 3 years, and pass a state-specific bar exam.  Other countries have similarly stringent requirements.  Obviously, most people who have been through the trouble (and expense) of this process are vehemently opposed to competition from anyone else–including (and especially) lawyers licensed in other countries.

Which is what makes the ABA president’s statements so interesting.  Supposedly, U.S. lawyers currently provide Indian businesses with “consultancy legal services” (to use the article’s phrase) rather than “practice law” (which is the magic phrase to denote what one cannot do without an official license in a given state/country).  However, such verbal formulations are notoriously vague, and everyone who argues over their precise meanings are lawyers with a vested interest in either (1) expanding their own market for legal services or (2) keeping new competition out.

To date, new competition has mostly been kept out, especially here in the U.S.  It will be interesting to see whether the ABA president’s recent lobbying in India represents a first step moving toward a free trade in legal services between the U.S. and India.

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