Accountants add to uncertainty

Nero is widely credited with fiddling while Rome burned, although serious classicists doubt the accuracy of that story. While events at The Law Society represent an almost weekly soap opera, important issues remain unresolved and the picture is akin to ancient Rome's fate during Nero's reign.

Multi-disciplinary partnerships are about to become a hot topic once again. The Labour Party is wedded to the idea, according to its most recent thoughts on the matter, although since its ideas on law reform tend to change fairly frequently perhaps we should not put too much reliance on that.

More seriously, however, the Big Six accountancy firms are becoming keenly interested in the idea. Arthur Anderson paved the way and Price Waterhouse is now reported to be following.

Ernst & Young and Coopers & Lybrand are also reported to be pursuing the issue actively, although how actively has yet to be announced. Plainly these matters pose a real threat for a number of firms.

Probably, in the context of the major City firms, the threat can be brushed aside, although perhaps not indefinitely.

It only needs one large City firm to take a different turn from the rest for the whole kaleidoscope to change.

However, the medium-sized City firms and the regional commercial practices are more likely to be affected. Either they will fall victims to an unwilling takeover or, more likely, will find their key commercial staff are cherry-picked, leaving behind a rag bag of departments which in isolation are barely profitable.

Any firm looking to prepare a strategic plan for the next five years, and taking into account the uncertainty of the political climate, will have the added uncertainty of how to cope with this possibility.

And what has The Law Society been doing about the matter? Precious little, both today and in the past.

Some three or four years ago the issue was put on the back burner by the council, refusing to face the fact that putting hot potatoes on the back burner does not necessarily mean that they cool off. It resolved, however, to give the matter an annual airing. Clearly it must be sooner rather than later.

The council must come to grips with the matter – it is no good hoping it will go away because it is not going to nor will it for the foreseeable future.

The council has to arrive at a policy which will gain the approval, not only of the larger firms, but the smaller firms as well because even at the smaller firm level the concept of multi-disciplinary partnerships can have an impact.

It will do no good for a small town firm which has sensibly diversified into commercial work to see the fruits of its five years' hard effort plundered by a local accountancy practice, least of all those other areas of legal practice that depend upon the viability of that firm.

One can only hope the council on this issue alone will come to a clear policy and will manage to achieve the success that so far has eluded it over everything it has put its hands to over the past few months.