The U.S. Department of Justice sued eBay last week for agreeing not to poach employees from rival Intuit. According to the Department’s press release, “eBay’s agreement with Intuit hurt employees by lowering the salaries and benefits they might have received and deprived them of better job opportunities at the other company.” DOJ maintains that agreements among rivals not to compete for workers have long been deemed per se illegal. (Indeed, Google, Apple, Adobe, and Pixar quickly settled antitrust claims based on similar non-poaching arrangements in 2010.)
DOJ is right to attack this type of arrangement. Apart from harming individual employees, non-poaching agreements occasion a societal harm: They preclude labor resources from being channeled to their highest and best uses. To poach a competitor’s star employee, you must offer to pay that employee more than she’s currently making (or otherwise adjust the terms of her employment in a way she deems desirable). Her current employer will usually have a chance to counter your offer. If you win the bidding war, it’s likely because the current employer’s willingness-to-pay for the employee—an amount reflective of the degree by which the employee enhances her firm’s value—is less than yours. If you can derive more value from the employee, you should have her. When employers agree to limit competition for workers, they preclude labor resources from flowing to their highest and best ends, causing an “allocative inefficiency.”
So perhaps DOJ should go after the members of the Association of American Law Schools. Pursuant to a Statement of Good Practices to which AALS members scrupulously adhere, each law school has agreed to limit competition with its rivals by refraining from making lateral offers of employment after March 1 each year. Unlike the eBay/Intuit arrangement, the competing law schools’ trade restraint is applicable for only part of the year–from March 1 until the fall hiring season–but it has the same basic effect as the eBay arrangement. And, despite the law schools’ claims to the contrary, it isn’t justified on efficiency grounds.
By preventing law professors from credibly threatening to leave their existing employers after March 1, the AALS restraint significantly reduces professors’ ability to negotiate higher wages or more favorable employment terms. If you announce a competing school’s offer six weeks before fall classes start, you’re much more likely to receive an attractive counter-offer from your current employer than you would be if you sprang the news of your potential departure six months before the start of classes, when you’re more easily replaced. What’s more, law schools generally don’t tell professors what they’ll be earning the following year until after March 1, when it’s too late for a disgruntled professor to secure another offer elsewhere. The AALS restraint thus artificially depresses the salaries of a school’s most desirable professors.
Now this might not seem like something to get worked up over. Most people think law professors are a spoiled lot. They have relatively low teaching loads and, despite the fact that most lack PhDs, they generally earn a good deal more than most academics. Why should DOJ intervene on behalf of these fat cats? Because the law schools’ non-poaching arrangement diminishes the quality of legal education. Here’s why.
At most law schools, where equality of end-states tends to be fetishized, professors are generally compensated in lock-step according to seniority. There’s some variation, but apart from endowed positions, starting salaries and annual raises are around the same level for everyone.
Talent and effort, by contrast, are not evenly distributed. Most law schools have some super-stars who are exceptional teachers and scholars, a number of “solid” professors who put in their time and provide competent teaching and enough scholarship to stay engaged, and a fair bit of dead weight. Lock-step compensation depresses the incentive to move into the first category and enhances the attractiveness of the last. It’s favored by administrators, though, because it permits them to avoid awkward conversations about merit.
If late-in-time departures of professors were a real possibility, administrators would have a stronger incentive to keep their most productive folks happy. They could stand to lose teachers with low course enrollments, so they probably wouldn’t worry too much about keeping their salaries relatively high. They’d also know that their less productive scholars are unlikely to receive a late offer. But highly productive scholars who also provide lots of the thing the law school is ultimately selling–law teaching–would likely begin to earn higher salaries than their less valuable colleagues. With compensation more accurately reflecting the value professors provide, labor resources would be allocated more efficiently. And, of course, law professors would have an increased incentive to make themselves both “poachable” and indispensable by firing on all cylinders–teaching, scholarship, and service.
But don’t the law schools need their non-poaching arrangement in order to prevent scheduling disorder that would hurt students? That’s certainly what they claim. The “Statement of Good Practices” memorializing the law schools’ collusive agreement begins:
[T]he departure of a full-time law teacher always requires changes at the law school. Unless the school is given sufficient time to make the necessary arrangements to find another to offer the instruction given by the departing teacher, the reasonable expectations of students will be frustrated and the school’s educational program otherwise disrupted. To serve the best interests of the program of legal education from which the teacher is departing and that to which she or he may be going, the Association urges that law schools and law faculty members follow these suggested practices….
A horizontal restraint of trade, though, isn’t necessary to prevent the sort of harm the law schools envision. If a law school believes it needs some amount of lead time to prepare for a professor’s departure, it may unilaterally negotiate contracts with its professors obligating them to provide a certain amount of notice before any departure and specifying liquidated damages for breach. Unlike the “one-size-fits-all” AALS restraint, such contracts could accommodate heterogeneous needs and preferences. For example, required lead times and the amount of liquidated damages could vary based on the location of the school (urban with lots of adjunct possibilities vs. rural with few), the degree to which the professor’s course offerings require a specialized background (Securities Regulation vs. Contracts), and the pedagogical importance of the courses (Business Organizations vs. Law & Literature). Moreover, this contractarian approach, unlike the AALS’s horizontal restraint, would further allocative efficiency across law schools: If Raider Law is willing to pay Target Law’s hot professor an amount that will increase her salary and cover the liquidated damages she owes Target because of an untimely departure, then Raider must value her more than Target and should get her. Thus, it is possible to achieve the practical benefit the AALS restraint purports to pursue without using a horizontal restraint and in a manner that permits allocative efficiency.
A horizontal agreement not to compete should not be allowed to stand when a less restrictive, easily achieved vertical option could secure the retraint’s benefits. See, e.g., Maricopa County Med. Soc’y (condemning an efficiency-enhancing maximum price-fixing agreement among physicians and observing that the procompetitive benefit occasioned by the restraint could be achieved via vertical agreements rather than a horizontal restraint); NCAA (refusing to allow the need for competitive balance to immunize a naked horizontal restraint because such balance could be achieved less restrictively); cf. Professional Engineers (horizontal agreement not to engage in price negotiations in order to assure high-quality engineering illegal when substantive quality standards could achieve same result).
Perhaps one day the DOJ will acknowledge that American law schools are competitors and, for the benefit of law students and the legal profession, ought to act like it.