Katharina Pistor, The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality (2019).
Robert Gordon | September 28 | Legal Profession JOTWELL
I teach at a school most of whose graduates take jobs, at least for a few years, as associates in one of the 100 largest corporate law firms. Until their first stint as summer clerks, and even for some time thereafter, most of them know very little about the work firm lawyers do. Law schools don’t do much to enlighten them on these matters. Scholarly treatments of the social effects of business lawyering are rare. We have, of course, plenty of scholarship on substantive fields of business law – corporate law, tax, securities, intellectual property, and so forth. Sometimes practitioners come into our classrooms to help students understand how to structure corporate deals, such as a merger or initial public offering. These are useful forms of training, but not much help if we are trying to understand the social and economic contributions of corporate lawyers. What is their role in society? What value do they add or as their critics would ask, subtract? Katharina Pistor, The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality, identifies both the positive and the negative in their work.
The business lawyers I habitually talk to tend to respond rather vaguely to questions about their social functions. They identify themselves as among the professionals in the legal-and-financial-services industry like accountants, underwriters, or insurers who provide technical services to implement business decisions and deals of their clients. “We grease the wheels of capitalism” is a common phrase, or, as a law firm partner interviewing me for a job once put it, “We are the pants pressers for American business.” This formula identifies the lawyers’ role as auxiliary to the real movers and shakers, the entrepreneurs and investment bankers and managers of capital. Other business lawyers describe their job primarily as that of risk-managers: they help their clients identify sources of “legal risk,” such as potential adverse litigation, or regulatory and tax consequences of decisions. Competent risk managers, of course, aren’t just doom-and-gloom merchants: they try to help their clients structure their dealings so as facilitate their taking “good risks” and to avoid or minimize “bad risks.” Still others – often litigators – identify corporate lawyers with the classic paradigm of the libertarian champion of the free market, or the heroic defense lawyer resisting the authoritarian state and the greedy faux-populist plaintiffs’ bar. Rather less flattering accounts are sometimes heard from businesspeople who cast lawyers as operators of a vast protection racket, creators of dense complex webs of regulation that their expensive technical skills are then required to navigate.
In 1984, Ronald Gilson made a path-breaking contribution to theorizing the social function of the work-product of business lawyers, or at least of some business lawyers, with his Value Creation by Business Lawyers: Legal Skills and Asset Pricing, 94 Yale L.J. 239 (1984). He characterized the lawyers’ role in helping to structure business deals as that of “transaction cost engineers” who help to reduce the frictions of deal-making, e.g., by helping the parties to anticipate and provide for common risks and information asymmetries.
Originally published in JOTWELL. Read the full article here.