Square Mile

What do you have when you've got a lawyer up to his neck in sand?

One answer is not enough sand. Another is that you've got the situation existing at the moment – a lawyer deep in the sand of a rule book no longer suited to today's business climate.

And at the heart of it lies the rule preventing lawyers sharing fees and profits with professionals from other disciplines.

So the Law Society has explored how these rules might be changed to permit multidisciplinary partnerships (MDPs). Also, earlier this month, the American Bar Association took a significant step towards recommending similar changes to US bar rules.

But the real pressure for change is not coming from the regulators or the regulated. It is coming from somewhere far more important – the clients.

Just as clients are facing the challenges of doing business in a global marketplace, they are demanding that their professional advisers be increasingly efficient, cost effective and comprehensive in the services they offer.

They expect their lawyers to work closely with accountants, tax specialists, corporate finance experts and other consultants and they like getting those services under one roof.

In the current MDP debate, the issue is often framed as a fight between the defenders of the legal profession (those who oppose MDPs) and those who seek to undermine it (those who favour MDPs).

In the latter category some would place accountants, business consultants and lawyers working in law firms in parallel with accounting firms. But such characterisation would be misrepresenting reality.

The opportunities a rule change will unlock will not only benefit the consumer or the big accounting firms, but the legal profession as a whole.

Call me an unruly modernist, but we need to blow away the cobwebs of traditional lawyering in a way which does not detract from the core principles to which we all adhere, signalling that lawyers are not living in a world of their own, immune from the pressures of business.

It is not just about the high street law firm which wants to combine with local surveyors, accountants and the like.

At the other end of the spectrum there is the large international firm where partners might want to unlock some of their equity. Why shouldn't a firm like that be able to admit external investors, particularly where some real business synergies could be created through an equity relationship?

We cannot insulate ourselves from the market's demands, and the people who pay our bills are getting restless.

Ultimately they will decide which services they buy from lawyers and other professionals and the changes being debated on both sides of the Atlantic are a recognition of that.