Legal support for EA orgs—useful?
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:
Guess whether this initiative will be valuable vis-à-vis other ways I might contribute;
Guess whether funding this initiative would be a good use of EA money (as I will not be in a position to do this work pro-bono and intend to apply for funding);
Identify barriers to effectiveness / pointers in the right direction to increase impact.
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:
research (e.g. the Legal Priorities Project);
direct EA work (e.g. Legal Impact for Chickens); and
work to support EA work (e.g. lawyers working as in-house counsel at major EA orgs).
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:
The right structure for an EA org depends on a bunch of factors that lawyers are well-placed to advise on. If an org wants to attract tax-deductible donations, it might want to establish as tax-exempt charitable org. On the other hand, if the org expects to be funded (even partially) by commercial investment this structure might not be suitable. Similarly, this structure might preclude getting involved in lobbying or engaging in political campaigns—a problem if this is a key part of an org’s value proposition.
Example: Open AI began as a nonprofit, but later restructured as a for-profit ‘limited partnership’ that is ultimately owned by a non-profit so that it could raise investor capital.
Commercial agreements / funding agreements.
If part of an org’s BAU is paying people to do things (or, conversely, getting paid to do things), it might not be able to justify engaging an external lawyer to draft/review/negotiate each agreement. Instead, the org might adapt a previous agreement or develop a generic template. As an in-house lawyer, I do a lot of contracts work. Because I’m an existing overhead and because I don’t have an incentive to bill time on a simple matter, there’s less reluctance to get a quick legal one-over of these agreements—while finishing this post, an internal client asked me to check a NZD $30,000 services contract—it was mostly fine, but the reporting requirements were unnecessarily onerous and I was able to suggest removing them, saving my org and our contractor a few days’ unnecessary work. We can remove terms that aren’t right for the proposal in question, spot ambiguities that might be hard to resolve later, and make sure the contract actually reflects the deal.
Some people doing some kinds of direct work probably are subject to regulatory regimes. A hypothetical researcher doing biorisk preparedness work at a university might have had, indirectly, the benefit of legal advice—but if that researcher establishes an independent org, access to a lawyer might be helpful.
Legal risk of direct interventions
Without endorsing ‘dark EA’, there is not a homogenous legal risk tolerance across EA. Effective altruists who are considering doing something unlawful or legally grey would benefit from very carefully given legal advice to help ensure they are giving proper weight to the legal risks to themselves, their orgs, their funders, and EA more generally.
Improving donor tax deductibility.
Well-engaged EAs can avoid the trap of donating to a X% less effective charity because it offers Y% tax credit, where X>Y. But significant tax breaks for donations probably have a distorting effect, and at least some highly effective EA orgs with funding gaps could plausibly benefit from their donations being tax deductible in more jurisdictions.
Legal issues arising from working across borders.
If a promising EA would be significantly more effective in another country but is having trouble getting a visa, making sure that the person is applying for the right kind of visa and is providing the right kinds of evidence to the immigration authority seems useful. This would either be useful at an early stage for a very high stakes proposal (i.e. the EA could almost definitely successfully get the visa, but maybe there’s a 1% chance of failure which could be reduced by having a lawyer review the application before submission) or at a later stage for EAs doing less high-stakes or location critical work (such as if the immigration authority invites further information on some point and appears to be genuinely on the fence).
Beyond immigration advice, having staff work in another place can expose an org to the laws of that place—tax is the most obvious, but health and safety and data protection laws also spring to mind.
I understand Nonlinear is looking to start an [EA hiring agency](https://www.nonlinear.org/hiringagency.html). It seems plausible that “Lowering the barrier to hiring will increase the number of jobs orgs hire for.”
Similarly, having access to employment law advice could reduce that barrier—even if only in expectation on the basis of a small probability of employment relationship problems later on.
Because of their professional ethics and because they are typically well-versed in procedural fairness, lawyers are often considered to be trustworthy and appropriate people to handle integrity issues. As someone with deep ethical convictions that could plausibly depart from my professional ethics, I am actually kind of doubtful that lawyers are uniquely suited to this kind of work—but it is nevertheless a done thing. For example, lawyers sometimes support internal whistleblowing schemes, and are often brought in to support or conduct external reviews where something bad has happened.
I have a pretty strong—but not unshakeable—belief that orgs working on very high stakes matters should have a good mechanism to deal with integrity issues. See in particular the post late last year expressing concerns with how some EAs handle criticism (without taking a view on the merits of the research paper in question).
Issues papers / legal research.
Although most long-form legal research is done by legal academics, practitioners do some legal research. This can take the form of updates to an entire client group on new developments (e.g. if some new law affected a whole lot of EA orgs, it would be useful for someone to identify that and communicate it to them). Equally, an org might ask a lawyer to do some broad, high-level thinking about a proposal—e.g. understanding how the law regulates a particular thing across multiple jurisdictions, potentially for the purpose of assessing tractability of a problem, deciding where to locate an org, or deciding where to pilot a program.
Estate planning for EAs.
An EA friend who “exclusively takes life advice from high status rats” tells me he has taken out life insurance for the purposes of funding cryopreservation in the event of his death (unclear if this is actually true). Given a significant risk of death in circumstances where cryopreservation is not possible and his exceptionally strong commitment to doing good, he might want to put in place a will that distributes the proceeds of that insurance policy (and his estate more generally) to his charity of choice in the event that cryopreservation fails. I gave a talk to ~20 New Zealand EAs on this, and if I recall correctly, only one or two people had actually made a will.
I’m very excited about doing this efficiently, particularly by using document automation (e.g. an automated ‘will bot’ built using Docassemble to help EAs make straightforward wills for free). Charity Science does this already, but I think there might be scope to improve on it and to make it available outside of Australia, the UK, the USA and Canada.
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:
external lawyers are expensive, money is tight, and there are some other big competing priorities;
identifying a ‘good’ lawyer can be hard without knowing a lot about the law in the first place;
scale doesn’t permit hiring even a part-time in-house counsel;
instructing a lawyer isn’t actually that simple—you have to explain a lot, especially where you are doing something unusual (as EA often is), and that costs time;
many of these problems don’t require a lawyer—they’re problems a smart founder or team member can figure out themselves, even if it takes a bit longer.
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:
wanting to do EA work;
willing to leave law job (and take earnings cut/additional precarity/loss of status);
willing to practice independently rather than as an employee or in a well-established workplace.
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
I propose to apply for funding from the EA Infrastructure Fund and/or another meta-org to pay me to:
provide a virtual in-house lawyer service to early stage EA orgs—either for free, or on a pay-what-you-can basis;
provide free (or-pay-what-you-can) legal services to individuals doing valuable EA work in connection with that work, probably with some sensible but not onerous eligibility criteria;
do some basic research to try to get a better sense of the need EA organisations have for legal services (and other professional services—e.g. accounting, HR support);
if there is capacity after doing that, subsidise low-cost legal services to individual EAs where the legal issue is not entirely EA-aligned and has a mix of altruistic and private benefit).
I also think that there could be value in funding for:
another lawyer with a complementary skillset—e.g. a lawyer with particular experience in immigration. Whether this is realistic depends on how much funding is available—I’d like to make this an option in my application, but suspect that funders would want to see demand for the service and some reporting on impact before funding a second person.
a lawyer admitted in a United States jurisdiction, as a United States lawyer will be better placed to advise on the sorts of US matters that aren’t especially universal (see the section below on working across multiple jurisdictions).
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.