AMONG THE BAD ideas few are as clearly devoid of all redeeming virtue as a proposal to protect the nation's lawyers from regulation by the Federal Trade Commission. The proposal will be considered this week at the American Bar Association convention in Atlanta, and it comes up as well on Capitol Hill in the FTC reauthorization bill. It deserves to be rejected in both places.
The proposal originated with the Texas Bar Association, which claims that in states like Texas, where all lawyers must be members of the bar association, lawyers are already regulated by the state supreme court. But that ignores the fact that in such states the bar's membership--the lawyers who are supposed to be regulated--have final authority over the rules. More important, lawyers and judges aren't likely to be sympathetic to challenges by non- lawyers of practices like minimum fee schedules and restrictions on advertising. Advocates of the lawyers' exemption also argue that the FTC doesn't need jurisdiction anyway, because it isn't busy investigating lawyers right now. But why should lawyers be singled out for an exemption from FTC regulation?
The Texas Bar's initiative may have been inspired by the efforts of the American Medical Association last year to obtain exemption from FTC regulation for doctors and other professionals. Those efforts, after a long fight, were unsuccessful. After that defeat, the AMA agreed to a law allowing FTC regulation of professionals' commercial practices but reserving to the states regulation of the quality of care and other professional matters. That is the provision that FTC Chairman James C. Miller III has been trying to persuade the lawyers and their champions to accept, and the often divided FTC is unified on this issue. There is a danger that, if the lawyers win an exemption, the AMA will be under irresistible pressure from its members to abandon the compromise it has accepted and seek exemption again. So it is doubly important that Congress not give the lawyers license to regulate, entirely free from outside control, their commercial practices.