The Government will impose multi-disciplinary partnerships (MDPs) on the legal profession if the Law Society refuses to allow them.
A senior government source has told The Lawyer that it is preparing to follow up a threat made in opposition three years ago to refer the legal profession to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission if the society refuses to budge on the issue.
Senior legal observers say that the Government's renewed enthusiasm for MDPs has been fuelled by the belief that they could rescue the country's ailing high street firms that will be badly hit by its legal aid reforms.
The Government believes MDPs would open up new business opportunities for high street solicitors if they are prepared to give up their much cherished independence to work with accountants and estate agents
The Law Society is already carrying out an MDP consultation among the profession and is aiming to resolve the issue by next summer.
Law Society president Michael Mathews reacted angrily to the threat. He said it was for the profession, not the Government, to allow MDPs. "I think the Government are not the best people to decide what is in the interests of the high street."
He added that in the unlikely event that the profession rejected MDPs in the consultation, the society would fight attempts to force its hand.
However, the Sole Practitioners' Group (SPG) welcomed the move, saying MDPs represented a "creative way forward". SPG spokesman Monty Martin said: "A lot of people think MDPs are for big hitters - they are not. The group thinks they could be useful in medium-sized towns, where people are used to one-stop shops."
Clive Parritt, a council member at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales, said there might be more initial benefit in small accountancy firms sharing offices and referring work in a "GP practice- type structure," rather than entering full-blown MDPs.
"If you are a sole practitioner lawyer, do you really want to go into practice with a sole practitioner accountant?" asked Parritt, who is also chairman of accountancy firm Baker Tilly.