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Conforming against Expectations: The Formalism of Nonlawyers at the World Trade Organization

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There is a long-standing debate about the relative merits of lawyers and nonlawyers as adjudicators in international dispute settlement. Some argue that lawyers encourage predictability and coherence in jurisprudence. Others believe that nonlawyers better protect state interests. Both sides of the debate assume that lawyers are more formalist and nonlawyers more instrumentalist. However, this assumption has never been empirically verified. Combining multiple-imputation, matching, and postmatching regression analysis, we find that panel chairs without law degrees and substantial experience make greater efforts than lawyers to signal adherence to formalist rules and competence in the World Trade Organization’s jurisprudence. The Appellate Body deems the signal credible, in turn rewarding inexperienced nonlawyers with a decrease in reversal rates. Our findings suggest that nonlawyers display levels of formalism that are similar to (if not greater than) those of lawyers, which calls into question one of the classical reservations against nonlawyers serving in adjudicatory positions.

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