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Author: Catherine Fisk

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Beyond Lawyers: Thoughts on Talent Wants To Be Free

This book is a terrific synthesis of many literatures on legal rules regulating employee-generated intellectual property, human capital, and the nature of innovation. Through her broad and perceptive reading in law, economics, sociology, geography, psychology, and organizational behavior, among other fields, Lobel has compiled a persuasive argument in favor of free employee mobility. She explains the law of trade secrets, noncompetition and nondisclosure agreements, pre-invention assignment agreements, and works for hire in copyright in terms that can be understood by nonlawyers. She explains economic concepts like prisoners’ dilemmas, agglomeration economies, and the rigidity of labor markets in simple terms and links them to legal rules and to news accounts of how legal rules affect company and employee behavior.

One of the book’s great strengths is how engaging the writing is and how deftly Lobel constructs her synthesis. The prose style is jaunty. The examples are ripped from the pages of the Wall Street Journal, magazines aimed at business readers, academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals of business and economics, as well as canonical stories of genius inventors and entrepreneurs ranging from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. In a mere two pages, she skips from academic studies of business to anecdotes about her experiences consulting with inventors to a story reported in Forbes Magazine to Joseph Schumpeter’s classic economic works published in the 1920s (pp. 202-203). She makes great use of a diversity of sources to develop her argument about why the law ought to allow a great deal more mobility of human capital than it currently does.

The book is clearly aimed at an audience of business people and policy makers rather than legal scholars. As she says at the end, “If many of your best employees are leaving you, it serves as a warning sign to make changes.” (p. 244) That is all to the good. Many of the ideas in this book aren’t new – scholars have been criticizing overbroad enforcement of noncompetes, trade secrets, and invention and copyright assignments for decades, and the research on agglomeration economies (like Silicon Valley) is no longer novel. But the broad scholarly consensus in both law and business/economics that employee mobility leads to economic growth has not yet had much impact on law. Indeed, the proposed Restatement of Employment Law is poised to make some aspects of the law in this area more hostile to employee mobility. So an appeal to nonlawyers seems essential. As Lobel points out (pp. 72-73), at least one state (Massachusetts) has been engaged in a serious look at whether to dramatically change its laws governing noncompete agreements to allow much more employee mobility, and a book like this is tailor made to be read by legislators mulling over whether Massachusetts businesses would be helped or hurt by making noncompete agreements unenforceable. She translates the empirical work of a number of scholars into clear and simple lessons for business executives and policy makers.