Defending the MDP approach

Neasa MacErlean reports on the many strains which can develop when different professions are working together

The highest profile multi-disciplinary practice in the UK is in deep trouble. Its continued existence has been in doubt for two years, and it loses most of its major cases – County NatWest, Guinness II and III, to name just three.

But earlier this year, the SFO was given a reprieve. It will not be disbanded just yet – its solicitors, accountants, and police officers will continue to offer an example of people from different professions struggling to work together.

Simons Muirhead & Burton partner David Kirk was one of the architects of the SFO. He believes that the concept of an MDP can, and must, work in this field, even if there are some difficulties.

“There probably are some strains between the various disciplines at the SFO,” he says. “but I believe this is a sensible way of proceeding. They should have accountants and solicitors working together on fraud cases. If you have one without the other, you'll go off in the wrong direction.”

Kirk believes that accountants will start showing their muscle on the defence side of fraud cases, as well as in the prosecution. He says: “The accountants are probably just biding their time. At some stage they will start saying to clients: 'What role does a solicitor play?' A situation could eventually develop where you have an important director of a company who is an accountant and wants to promote his own former colleagues.”

Still restricted from entering into MDPs with lawyers in the UK, accountants are nevertheless making inroads. Arthur Andersen's Garrett & Co (officially a separate practice from the accountancy firm) is the prime example. There will be many more – particularly if a future Labour government decides (as it has indicated) that it will allow MDPs.

The other large accountancy firms are usually reluctant to give details of their associations with law firms. But Ernst & Young accepts that its new representatives on the Isle of Man will be the former Jaques & Lewis firm, Stuart Smalley & Co. Senior partner Jonathan Smalley is expected to become a partner in Ernst & Young in what is likely to be a UK first.

There have been similar ventures in the past but they have not always lasted very long. Three years ago the three-partner London firm of Slingsby Farmiloe and Greenfield moved into the same building as accountants Nash Broad Wesson. The two firms worked closely together in what they described as an “association”.

Senior partner Anthony Slingsby said at the time: “As and when MDPs are permitted, we'll be in a good position to take advantage of legislation.”

But the association came to a premature end last year. “It went successfully,” Slingsby said, “but we are now working with Howard Kennedy.”

David Temporal of consultants Hodgart Temporal believes that accountants will have to change their management style if they are to form successful relationships with law firms.

He says: “Their ethos is not conducive for highly intelligent, independent and creative people. If they don't find a way of managing these people and giving them a fair degree of autonomy, they will manage out what they are trying to buy.”