Gillian Hadfield

Kirtland Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, Gould School of Law, USC

Daniel R. Fischel and Sylvia M. Neil Distinguished Visiting Professor of Law, University of Chicago

Gillian Hadfield is a Hero of Justice for looking at law from a fresh perspective in groundbreaking writings on access-to-justice issues, including her new book, Rules for a Flat World — along with other efforts to promote new and more inclusive forms of law.

Gillian Hadfield has dedicated her career to the study of law, economics, and society, with special focus on access to justice and the challenge of adapting legal systems to globalization and technology. Her soon-to-be-published book, Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy (Oxford, November 2016) is an anthropological study of the evolution of law, and the economics of how we can develop better rules of social and commercial interaction. A must-read for law students and anyone interested in the role of law in today's society.

Q. What motivated you to write Rules for a Flat World? Can you give a synopsis? Who would you like to read it?

We pay a lot of attention today to the role of infrastructure and platforms, like social media and the internet, in supporting economic and social life. But I think the most important platform we have is the one most people, and especially those who are not lawyers, barely notice: the platform of rules on which societies build. To do just about anything we depend on rules about how we share resources, how we treat one another in neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities, how governments and corporations are allowed to behave, and so on. Without good rules, people don't trade as much, cooperate as well, invest, or trust one another and their institutions. Unfortunately, our rules are not keeping up with how rapidly our world is changing as a result of globalization and technology and growth.

Even more unfortunately, we have found ourselves in a place where only lawyers and judges are involved in solving the problem of inadequate rules. As wonderful as many lawyers and judges are, they are not well-equipped — and sometimes not motivated — to help us innovate better rule systems that are better able to manage complex global life. I don't want to be too hard on my colleagues in law, but we only have to look at the real failure to develop less expensive, more accessible ways of helping ordinary people resolve ordinary problems — problems with housing or child support or debt or purchases or paying fines, for example — to see that the legal profession is not really in a position to help us address even old problems, much less new ones. This is a problem in wealthy countries — where ordinary people simply can't afford to access the legal system to help manage the ordinary problems of everyday life. It's also a problem, a BIG problem, in poor and developing countries where there are few reliable means for resolving problems, especially if people are trying to move away from old ways that are unproductive or unjust. I think we need lots more people, who are not lawyers, involved and investing in developing rule and dispute resolution systems — if we are going to change that.

So I wrote this book first to show how important our rules platforms are and to get people who otherwise find law boring or mysterious (or worse!) interested in helping to solve these problems. That's why the book opens by explaining that law is just another way of making rules, and that humans have been making rules to support growth and development since time immemorial — sometimes we call those other rules cultural norms.It then looks at how globalization and technology are rapidly changing what we need law to do — that's what the "flat world" is, referring to Thomas Friedman's bestseller, The World is Flat — and shows how our current ways of producing what I call "legal infrastructure" are too costly and complex and not doing enough of what we need them to do. I then lay out ways in which we could make greater use of markets — for lawyers and rules — to stimulate the kind of creative problem-solving we need in law. The last part of the book looks at how we could use these techniques even in the places that need help the most — the bottom of the pyramid, where four billion people live on less than $8 a day and in a state that the U.N. has called "outside the rule of law." I'm hoping everyone wants to read the book! But especially people who are interested in building stronger and more productive communities both in our own countries and around the world.

Q. What are the biggest constraints to access to justice in America? Is progress being made to remove them?

The biggest constraint by far is the extraordinary cost of accessing legal help — advice about how to handle a problem like difficulties with child support or not getting paid or housing. It should be, and could be, a lot easier to get help. But unfortunately through bar associations and courts, lawyers — sometimes with good but misguided intent, sometimes with just protectionist instincts — have prevented people who are not lawyers — people with expertise in technology or new ideas for cost-effective ways of delivering legal help — from building better solutions. There is some progress — some companies like LegalZoom and PeopleClaim are finding ways to chip away at the limitations, offering better and less costly ways of writing a will or setting up a business or resolving a dispute with a contractor. There is more conversation today than there was five years ago both within and without the legal profession about the need for change and greater openness to alternative providers and systems — New York and Washington State, for example, have some limited experiments underway with non-lawyer assistants. But without a much bigger push from the public, I think these efforts will still continue to fall short for a long time.

Q. Your book explains that law can be both a facilitator and inhibitor of economic growth. Has the US reached a point where it has become an inhibitor? If so, what are the ramifications?

My starting point is that law is an essential platform for economic growth. So the problems for economic growth arise when that platform isn't working well — when it costs too much or is too complex to implement in a predictable way or when it just doesn't "get" the nature of the problems economic actors are facing. Law inhibits economic growth when it doesn't work in a reasonable way to make sure that deals are made and kept, that the impact of business and technology on people is managed fairly, and so on. When law isn't working well, fewer deals are made, people don’t want to invest as much, and communities push back on new technologies. Robust responsive legal infrastructure supports robust responsive growth. Legal infrastructure that is too costly, complex, and out-of-touch stymies that growth.

  • A condensed version of this interview appeared in the The Justice 911 Report, Issue 1
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