After three consultation processes spanning more than a decade, the Law Society council has finally opened the door to multidisciplinary practices (MDPs).
An overwhelming council majority has voted to work towards “allowing solicitors… to provide any legal service through any medium to anyone”.
This would include lawyers from partnerships within other professions. Financial advisers and accountants are obvious targets but as the society's MDP paper stresses, even links with, say Boots are possible.
The move will bring the UK into line with Canada and Australia – which allow limited MDPs – and make it more progressive than the US. The American Bar Association recently deferred making a decision on the issue.
Recognising that full MDPs require legislation and time to implement, the council plans two interim solutions. The models which the working party hopes to implement in a matter of months are a “legal practice plus” and a “linked partnership”. The former would not allow fully-fledged one-stop-shops, but would enable law firms to have a minority of non-solicitor partners.
The linked partnership is based on the alliances many big accountancy firms already have with law firms, although the working party is to explore whether the ban on fees-sharing could be relaxed entirely or only in specified alliances.
James Hodgson, partner at KLegal, the law firm associated with KPMG, says: “This is very good news. It's certainly a step in the right direction.”
KPMG and KLegal are not under the same roof but Hodgson admits it is “likely they would all get together” if the anti-MDP rules are lifted, providing a single point of contact for clients and what he sees as numerous benefits to lawyers. He says: “It has enormous implications for the profession. Lawyers will be getting involved at the strategic business stage. Our lawyers will be able to share profits and become partners in KPMG.”
David Temporal, who heads the London office of US management consultancy Altman Weil, says: “It was bound to happen sooner rather than later.”
Former Law Society President and Clifford Chance partner Michael Mathews, one of the driving forces behind MDPs, says: “Big city firms will have more to offer by differentiating themselves from the accountants, [rather than] going in with them.
“Judging by Slaughter and May's current strategy, you wouldn't expect them to think about it at all. I would be surprised if any of the others would immediately. I can tell you, I have not been put under any pressure from Clifford Chance partners to get [MDPs] through.”
He adds: “I have no particular desire to practice in an MDP but I believe there should be as many business opportunities open to lawyers as possible.”
Cameron McKenna partner and head of energy Fiona Woolf told the council meeting that some resistance to MDPs stemmed from a fear that accountants would steal law firms' best people.
She says: “As much as 50 per cent of staff at some accountancy firms are not accountants. They are now my main competitors. I say if you can't beat them, join them.”
Peter Raymond, partner at medium-size firm Cripps Harries Hall, says: “I see nothing wrong with having someone on board who is buying into our beliefs. Better that than have them foisted upon us from elsewhere.”
Such “foisting” could come from the Government – which says it approves of MDPs – or from the European Court, through which PricewaterhouseCoopers and Arthur Andersen are challenging the Dutch Bar Association's ban on MDPs.
David Keating, one of the meeting's dissenters says: “We as a profession have the Rule of Law as part of our ethos. It is not part of any other businesses' ethos and if you are yoked into partnership with others, it will dilute it.”
No-one can say when MDPs will be introduced, but their introduction will no doubt open a Pandora's Jar.