Making a move on liberalisation

Liberalisation of legal services is proving a thorny issue for the legal profession worldwide.

In Europe, the debate has taken almost two decades to achieve any type of agreement with the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) leading the way. In the US, many states stubbornly cling to Dark Age views on liberalisation and show no inclination to open up their legal marketplaces.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has avoided making a stand on the issue, excusing itself on grounds that it has no powers to enforce rules on its members. And recently, the Japanese put the brakes on efforts to open up their legal marketplace to foreign lawyers by maintaining a ban the employment of local lawyers by foreign law firms.

Meanwhile, the International Bar Association (IBA) came up with draft proposals over three years ago which have yet to be approved.

In the light of this, it would be foolish to claim that liberalisation is nigh. Hence the surprise at the moves by the ABA, the CCBE and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to set up their own forum on the matter. In view of the history of liberalisation, these three are strange bedfellows.

But it could prove the most positive move yet made on the issue. While the alliance has all the hallmarks of a snub to the IBA, it will be interesting to see what agreement can be reached between the other three. The more debate there is on the issue, the better the chances that some common ground will be found.

One thing looks certain, however: unless the IBA gets its act together, its contribution to the debate will be redundant by the time it is offered.

Liberalisation of legal services is difficult enough to achieve when all the interested parties are co-operating with each other; when they aren't, it is surely doomed.