Legal support for EA orgs - useful?

post by Tyrone Barugh · 2022-03-17T03:35:13.041Z · EA · GW · 18 comments


  What unmet legal needs does EA have?
  Do smaller orgs have those legal needs? 
  Why aren't lots of lawyers fixing this problem?
  What I've been considering
  My personal circumstances and counterfactual

I am a New Zealand lawyer who is quite seriously considering starting a practice in the next few months with the primary aim of providing legal support to EA orgs and individual EAs, with that practice probably being based in the UK. I have raised this with a fair few EAs I know (and a small number of EA lawyers I've been lucky to virtually meet lately), but think I'd benefit from wider feedback to:

Epistemic status: Internally quite confident, but not sure that this confidence is justified. I'm really excited about this idea and have had only positive feedback from other EAs, but I suspect that I might have insufficient knowledge  of the reality of starting up and running new EA orgs to really test the utility of this proposal and that the positive feedback from others may be partially the product of politeness and kindness.


What unmet legal needs does EA have?

EA consumes some legal resource already. That consumption can be categorised:

Some of the larger EA orgs have hired in-house counsel (e.g. Open Phil, Good Food Institute, OpenAI), although some have not (e.g. CEA - although they have hired lawyers to do other work, and can run some legal questions past those people). Those orgs presumably have identified a benefit to their work in hiring one or more in-house counsel.

Non-exhaustively, those needs might be categorised:

Do smaller orgs have those legal needs? 

I suspect so.

One view is that legal need increases disproportionately to organisation size/complexity - such that a one-person org barely has any legal risk/need because it does simple work and has good founder oversight, or something, whereas additional legal risk only really crystalises in larger orgs because of regulatory attention and commercial pressures that exist uniquely at scale. That view would explain why some large orgs have in-house counsel, but why some leaner EA orgs do not.

That view isn't entirely false, but the prevalence of lawyers targeting the small business market (or, in a new development, quasi-productising legal services) suggests that even smaller orgs routinely have legal needs.

Insofar as small orgs are not buying much legal resource, I suspect this is at least partially because:

Why aren't lots of lawyers fixing this problem?

There are some really talented lawyers in EA. Why haven't they pivoted to fix this problem?

I suspect a lot of EA lawyers are still focussed on earning to give. Plus legal salaries are pretty high, and so taking a paycut to do this kind of work can be personally costly as well as reducing donations.

In most jurisdictions there are also regulatory barriers to setting up a law firm beyond the usual hurdles for starting a services business - e.g. I have been working through this process and have needed to complete a course, get regulatory approval, and arrange professional indemnity insurance.

So my best guess is that this is a good idea, but just hasn't been done yet because the intersection of the following sets is small:

On the other hand, perhaps orgs are just so talent constrained in other ways that it makes more sense for EA lawyers to do non-legal work - or perhaps lawyers are particularly good at some kinds of this work. That would explain why orgs like CEA and 80,000 hours have  trained lawyers on the team doing non-legal work. This feels particularly explanatory given that legal services seem like something you can just buy more of - whereas perhaps there isn't just an endless tap of talent to do other EA work.

What I've been considering

In short, Altruistic Agency (EA tech support) but for legal services. Or Nonlinear's proposed EA Hiring Agency but for legal services.

I propose to apply for funding from the EA Infrastructure Fund and/or another meta-org to pay me to:

I also think that there could be value in funding for:

Within my application there would probably be a small allowance for paying a law student to do basic legal research and document preparation / other parts of the work that are not a good use of a lawyer's time, but only if there was sufficient demand for the service that my time was actually scarce.

In terms of quantum, I will apply for a sufficient amount of funding to do this properly and full-time. By agreeing to fund an entire period of work up front (a year, or perhaps six months as a trial), EA generally can access legal resource more cheaply than by engaging external lawyers - charge out rates vary, but I think it would be exceptionally rare to see a UK lawyer charge less than GBP 100/hour unless the work is pro-bono, and likely more. I would have minimal overheads, no real risk of client non-payment (to be cross-subsidised by other clients), and only want a salary that is sustainable for me to live on - so would cost far less.

If suspect that the best structure for me to do this (at least initially) is as a New Zealand legal practice, even though my intention would be to operate from the UK. There may be some need to be registered in the UK as well - especially if providing immigration advice; there are a range of sensible options here and they all seem sufficiently straightforward ('Registered Foreign Lawyer' status, taking the test to become a UK-registered immigration adviser, getting admitted in England/Wales). I plan to sit the conversion test to become an England/Wales solicitor in July and think it's very likely I will pass, but the viability of this project isn't contingent on that. 

Aren't the laws different in every country? How can a lawyer from jurisdiction X give advice about jurisdiction Y?

It depends on the issue in question, and probably also on what's at stake.

There are some things that absolutely require a local lawyer. Immigration advice given within a country usually can only be provided by a lawyer with the rights to practice in that country. Foreign lawyers usually can't appear in court.

But for many (most?) issues, a lawyer from a country with a sufficiently similar legal system should be well placed to provide advice. A little research might be required, but this is usually true of local lawyers unless the thing in question is something they have specific expertise in. Large commercial law firms in the UK, for example, have hired lawyers from countries like Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand for decades.

Where an issue is unusually high stakes, I might just provide some preliminary advice to guide the org's thinking in the immediate term and then help the org to connect with a lawyer in the relevant jurisdiction with the right specialist expertise. This is a normal thing for in-house lawyers to do. While my involvement might feel like an extra step, there can be value in this situation in ensuring the org is providing clear instructions to the external counsel (and sense-checking where it looks like those instructions might not have been completely understood or followed, which seems like a risk for EA orgs doing unusual things).

My personal circumstances and counterfactual

My earlier drafts of this post said little about this, as I want advice primarily about the merits of the idea generally, and not so much about the merits of me doing this. Several people who reviewed the post thought I should comment on this.

As noted above, I have gone through the process to set up a legal practice here in New Zealand - if I want to proceed, I just need to finalise insurance and notify the NZ Law Society. I am also preparing to move to the UK around August as my partner, another NZ EA, is going to be doing a MSc in Health and Development in London. My initial plans were to do 'consulting'-type legal work for some non-EA orgs remotely from NZ, but the better counterfactual if I don't set up an EA legal practice is probably just to get in-house or commercial legal work in London for a non-EA org or firm and do some more earn-to-give in the immediate term.

I had considered applying to a PhD program to write a thesis on a topic at the intersection of law and longtermism but I think I have a weaker view of both tractability and neglectedness in this area. This remains a potential counterfactual, but not weighted super high right now.

I could also cease to practice law and do some other kind of direct EA work. I haven't done an 80,000 hours call (although did reach out by email about the EA law idea), but would think carefully about my medium-term plan in the event that I did not secure funding for this idea.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Molly · 2022-03-18T05:09:15.816Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm Open Phil's in house counsel and would love to talk to you about this! I sent you a message with my contact info.

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-03-17T22:37:58.346Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The 80/20 of this might be to reach out to the biggest EA organisations and asking them if they get requests for legal support from organisations they support / grant to (e.g. Open Phil, CEA, EA Funds) - and, of course, if they are happy with the legal support they have. I'd also reach out to Charity Entrepreneurship since they've now incubated over a dozen charities that could have such needs.

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2022-03-17T22:41:55.474Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Another service you could offer which could be really valuable is being a common source of information and providing recommendations to specialized lawyers for doing specific things and establishing relationships with those lawyers so they are willing to offer their services at a discounted price (which will probably be easier initially than finding EA lawyers who specialize in something). 

That way EA orgs have more "buying power" with the agency, and your org could potentially manage that relationship to ensure the quality.

I think finding really good immigration lawyers in the US could be the first use case that I could imagine many organisations would need. 

Replies from: Bluefalcon
comment by Vilfredo's Ghost (Bluefalcon) · 2022-03-17T23:13:34.558Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm an EA and an immigration lawyer, and I'd sign up for this. 

comment by DMMF · 2022-03-18T13:58:34.037Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I work in-house for a tech company largely dealing with commercial agreements + international privacy/data/security issues. I'm happy to provide informal advice to any EA aligned org and contribute to this project in any way that may be helpful.

comment by lukeprog · 2022-03-17T16:41:34.741Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW a big thing for Open Phil and a couple other EA-ish orgs I've spoken to is that very few lawyers are willing to put probabilities on risks, so they'll just say "I advise against X," but what we need is "If you do X then the risk of A is probably 1%-10% and the risk of B is <1% and the risk of C is maybe 1%-5%." So would be nice you could do some calibration training etc. if you haven't already.

Replies from: Tyrone Barugh
comment by Tyrone Barugh · 2022-03-17T21:13:44.535Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the suggestion, Luke. I hadn't considered this. I'm going to have a go at the Open Phil Calibration Training applet first, and will scour the forum and Lesswrong for other useful training.

I've had mixed experiences using probabilistic language in my legal advice. It really depends on the client and the advisor being able to think like that. But I've got some internal clients who have responded well to this sort of advice - explaining things in terms of expected value can be especially good when giving advice about counterparties who won't tell us what they're thinking (e.g. in litigation or commercial negotiations). It would be excellent to work with EAs who think like this without prompting, and who actually expect that kind of advice.

comment by devansh (devanshpandey) · 2022-03-17T04:56:23.150Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, I am currently running an EA org, and legal help would be generally valuable to me both in the past and in the present. My impression is that scaling an EA law firm would involve a few people at the top being EAs and the rest being perfectly fine as normal, non-aligned lawyers; this would gain a bunch of the benefits of an EA law firm (primarily, I think, a general understanding of what EA's goals are and a "cost-benefit analysis" type thinking that tries to avoid being overly conservative and is perfectly fine advising its clients to do, e.g., things that are legally grey area but not enforced) 

So I'd say my answer is that this seems, at least to me personally, like a very potentially high-impact thing that would be incredibly helpful to me and other people starting small- and medium-sized organizations who need legal advice and support. This being said, I am probably not in the best position to answer that question (not having a birds'-eye view of the EA ecosystem like some others do) and so I'm very interested in other perspectives on this.

Replies from: Tyrone Barugh
comment by Tyrone Barugh · 2022-03-17T06:21:45.214Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, Devansh. Scaling a traditional law firm definitely requires that 'pyramid' approach - but it isn't unusual for boutique firms (both in law, and in other professional services areas) to be mostly comprised of reasonably experienced folk. I'm reluctant to think about scaling up too much (although have of course given it some consideration) as my focus is on seeing whether the idea has merit at a more modest scale, but the composition of a more scaled up org providing legal services (and/or other professional services) might be determined by the interest EA lawyers had in doing that work - I'm speculating that if there are lots of people in the intersection of those three sets I described above, you might see more within-community growth versus hiring outside. But all of this is just a guess - focus at first would be on testing the merits with one or a small number of people.

comment by Austin (akrolsmir) · 2022-03-17T06:41:53.674Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This sounds cool - Manifold Markets absolutely would have benefited (and currently would still benefit!) from easy to access, EA-aligned legal help. We are based in the US, though, so consider this a call for "a lawyer admitted in a United States jurisdiction" to take on similar work!

Replies from: devanshpandey, Tyrone Barugh
comment by devansh (devanshpandey) · 2022-03-17T14:42:56.742Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, this is a good consideration; if something like this ended up happening, it would be wonderful if Tyrone could get two or three lawyers to cover the major EA hubs (US, especially CA, the UK, and maybe the Bahamas) - either in physical location or in knowledge.

comment by Tyrone Barugh · 2022-03-17T21:15:08.243Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Austin, what sorts of legal needs did you have (/currently still have) in setting up Manifold Markets? Jurisdiction aside, anything not in the list above?

Replies from: akrolsmir
comment by Austin (akrolsmir) · 2022-03-18T04:40:04.951Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think your list covered it! Primarily, we'd appreciate advice on organizational structure (for our main product; nonprofit branch; offshore crypto subsidiary) and on regulatory barriers (figuring out what kinds of prediction market payouts would be acceptable)

comment by Markus Amalthea Magnuson (peppersghost) · 2022-03-17T14:39:01.512Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm 100% behind this idea, maybe not surprisingly so since I founded the Altruistic Agency, that you even mention in the post :) I think the agency model works exceptionally well for work that is only needed every now and then (makes no sense to hire someone full-time) but is so specific/domain-specific – or might even require a license, like in this case – that no current in-house person can do it. The most common option is to hire contractors/freelancers. An agency can be as simple as acting as a layer in between, a contact point with an already built-up roster of great and vetted contractors.

In my view, and I obviously think about this every day, especially regarding the long-term plans for my own organisation, agencies in the EA community should be much more ambitious than that. Having a permanent agency, ideally with full-time employees, allows you to think on a higher level and in a longer term about how you can improve the entire EA community. A lot of work will be one-off projects, day to day types of tasks, but this kind of work helps build up a profile of what EA organisations in general need. Once you've worked with dozens of organisations, you have quality data that allows you to also start thinking about things like original projects, reusable work, publishing learnings, making recommendations etc.

In short, starting an "X Agency" for EA organisations will allow you to confidently answer the question "What X needs do EA organisations have?" in a rather short time, backed by very good data. During the same time, you're doing actual work that helps the organisations.

Please let me know if you're interested in chatting about all of this. I've learned a lot just since January when I launched the Altruistic Agency. I'd also be happy to share my application to the EA Infrastructure Fund that got me funding for the first six months.

Replies from: Tyrone Barugh
comment by Tyrone Barugh · 2022-03-17T21:23:11.052Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Kia ora Markus, thanks very much.  I'd be grateful for a chat - will get in touch.

comment by Cullen_OKeefe · 2022-04-03T22:23:56.405Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I do think this would be quite valuable. I get asked to provide legal advice to orgs, and am usually not in a position to do so. It would be great to have someone able to do this.

comment by MichaelA · 2022-03-18T22:47:40.920Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fwiw, I think you should probably indeed apply for funding to do this! Here are two posts I wrote that might be helpful for that:

(This comment is just my personal views, and isn't necessarily a prediction that you're super likely to get funding, but I do at least feel pretty confident the time cost of you applying is worthwhile in expectation, given how low the time cost should be and how useful this project might be.)

comment by Jack Lewars (jlewars) · 2022-04-14T20:21:21.274Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One other use case: EA orgs are increasingly using Employers Of Record to employ staff in countries where they aren't registered. The agreements with the firms that provide this are important - they are frequently worth >$100k - and can be quite dense. I wouldn't be surprised if you got more demand for reviewing these than for immigration advice (although I have literally no data to support that view).