Legal profession is a business too

I have just returned from the International Bar Association (IBA) conference on Business Law where I attended the showcase programme, The Future of the Legal Profession.

The discussions which set the session alight were on multi-disciplinary partnerships (MDPs) and the effect of IT on the practice of law.

I have to admit that MDPs were, until that meeting, not something that featured very strongly on my radar screen.

It came as a surprise therefore to learn that the American Bar Association had set up a commission to come up with recommendations on MDPs, which have engendered such hostility that they have been referred for another year.

It was clear from the various US speakers at the conference that passions run high on this subject.

What was also interesting were two speeches by distinguished Spanish and German lawyers arguing against any allowance of MDPs. Their premise was preservation of the “core values” of the legal profession – professional independence, client confidentiality and loyalty to clients.

Judging by the applause, these views have considerable support, but is this a good reason not to permit MDPs?

A few speakers were bold enough to raise doubts. My partner, Christopher Rees, argued in favour of the core values but urged the IBA to publicise the benefit of these core values for protecting the interests of the client. He also warned of the investment that law firms need to make in IT and how many cannot afford such investment on their own.

My concern is that the debate on MDPs has been overshadowed by the fear of the big five.

I cannot believe that we are unable to devise a model MDP which preserves the essentials of the legal profession while giving lawyers the opportunity to join with others to offer mixed services to the public.

In answer to whether the public wants one-stop shops, if they do, such firms will flourish and if they don't, they will fail – but that is not a reason for not allowing MDPs.

In my own field of intellectual property, I might want to provide filing of patents and trademarks as well as litigation and legal advice. However, I cannot form a partnership with patent or trademark agents, even though patent agents (and soon trademark agents) now have rights to conduct High Court litigation and have rules of conduct which have satisfied the Lord Chancellor.

Likewise, my firm has a finance director who is a chartered accountant. He is key to the strategic development of the firm, knows more about its finances than any partner and is treated for all intents and purposes as a partner.

Why should he not have a stake in the business to which he devotes so much effort?

It is time to recognise that the practice of law is a business as well as a profession and to take a sensible view of MDPs.