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A WORKING group of International Bar Association (IBA) members has been assigned the daunting responsibility of drawing up a position on multidisciplinary partnerships (MDPs) which the IBA can agree on.
The group, to be headed by US legal consultant Ward Bower, has been told to work quickly to draw up its "position paper" so it can be presented to the IBA's New Delhi conference in November.
The initiative is the IBA's response to the setting up of a World Trade Organisation (WTO) working group last year to examine ways of liberalising regulations governing the professions.
Bower said: "Lawyers need to take immediate action to formulate the profession's position on the issue."
The committee is made up of lawyers from several countries, including David Andrews of UK legal consultancy the David Andrews Partnership.
Bower insisted the group would approach its task with an open mind, but hinted that there were significant obstacles to a pro-MDP approach. He said client privilege and the independence enjoyed by lawyers were designed to protect clients' interests and that "the interests of clients and the public will provide the basis for any position espoused by the committee".
In a book celebrating the IBA's 50th anniversary, Bower warned that accountants would take over "significant areas of legal practice" if law firms did nothing to counter the threat posed by them.
It is hoped the committee will be ready to present its report to IBA president Desmond Fernando in New Delhi to allow for its swift distribution to IBA members across the world if he approves it. However, before it can become official IBA policy it will have to be approved at the next council meeting in Cairo in June 1998.
Professor Ross Harper, the immediate past president of the IBA, has come out against MDPs. He said it was the "most important issue facing lawyers worldwide" and threatened the "very independence of the law".
Peter Goldsmith QC, the former Bar Council chair and an IBA council member, said he was glad the IBA was "finally grasping the nettle" on the issue, but said he would "reserve judgement" on whether it was possible for an organisation as diverse as the IBA to reach a common position on MDPs.