The Limits of Legal Imperialism

“First thing we do,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry VI, Part II, “is kill all the lawyers.” Nowadays, the first thing countries trying to get rich seem to do is import dozens of lawyers. In Eastern Europe, former communist countries applying for European Union membership must harmonize their laws with those of the EU. So extensive is this process that it sometimes appears as a “legislative tornado.”

Importing laws and legal standards has dominated attempts by former communist countries to join the West. Foreign experts helped draft model legal codes and revised draft laws throughout the Yeltsin era in Russia; outsiders helped craft Ukraine’s postcommunist constitution, the charters for the central bank of Estonia, Poland’s secured transaction regime, and Bulgaria’s securities regulations.

But importing well-designed laws from outside a country’s borders didn’t begin with communism’s fall. Legal transplants, indeed, are as old as the law. The most extensive transplants of law took place when Europe’s empires spanned the globe. After World War II, the US launched the first “law and development movement” to promote growth and slow communism’s spread. Legal reform efforts in the former socialist bloc mark the second major law and development movement. This time around, however, Europe competed with the US in spreading laws eastward.

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