Time for action on the MDPs question

The thorny issue of multidisciplinary practices (MDPs) is one which has occupied the legal profession for some years now. But while the philosophical arguments have provided much fodder for debate, the reality is that MDPs are a fact of life, thanks to the proactive approach of the Big Six accountancy firms, most of whom have now built large pan-European law practices.

Coopers & Lybrand, for example, is reckoned to have the seventeenth-largest firm in Europe, whilst Arthur Andersen has over 1,000 lawyers in place. The recent moves by AA in Scotland and speculation over the firms it has approached in England show the accountancy firm's rock-solid determination to create a major legal practice. Others are looking on whilst it tests the waters. The real test, they say, is whether AA can succeed in hooking a top 10 City firm, a feat which it has not yet managed, despite rumours of talks with the big fish.

The legal profession, despite countless hours of discussion on the finer points of MDPs has, in reality, had little practical input to the debate so far. In Europe, the profession has challenged various MDP arrangements with no real success. Indeed, while they are intrigued by the accountancy moves, the major firms are more anxious about the impact of US firms, with which they are competing here and now.

There is no sense of urgency on the issue, although the Union Internationale des Avocats has come out against MDPs at its latest meeting and is planning to put together a Code of Conduct on the issue.

Meanwhile, the Law Society is looking at the regulatory issues and plans to make a report to Council in December, whilst the International Bar Association is looking at the whole area. However, it would seem that whilst the profession drags its feet, the Big Six are dictating the agenda.