US task force to consider lifting blanket MDP ban

A NEW American Bar Association task force on multidisciplinary partnerships (MDPs) is to investigate whether the current blanket ban on MDPs in all but one US state could be lifted.

But the head of the three person task force, which held its first meeting last week, has told The Lawyer that he is approaching the possibility that client confidentiality can be preserved, and conflicts of interest avoided under MDPs with a “healthy scepticism”.

“Something must be done about this issue in one direction or another this is one possible route,” said the New York lawyer and ABA governor Seth Rosner.

“I'm not saying how it could happen, but what I am saying is that the group will be looking at this issue.”

The task force was set up by the ABA president, Jerome J Shestack, after the ABA's mid-year meeting in Nashville in February, when he won backing from the organisation's board of governors for the project.

When he announced the task force, Shestack said he believed the primary threat posed by the accountants was not economic but related to the traditional independence of the legal profession.

Shestack wants the task force to report in time for the ABA's annual conference in Toronto this August but Rosner said he thought this was an unrealistic deadline.

The setting up of the task force marks the first serious attempt by the ABA to address the issue of MDPs and takes place against the backdrop of growing concern among many lawyers at the advances the accountants have made in other parts of the world, including the UK.

The issue looks set to dominate an ABA conference on professional ethics in Montreal in May where a plenary session will “focus on the stress that multidisciplinary partnerships between accounting firms and lawyers can place on lawyers' exercising independent professional judgement”.

One of the speakers at the conference, Joel Henning of the US consultants Hildebrandt, said he was already advising several US firms on how to respond to the accountants' threat.

He said it was inevitable the Big Six would move into the legal marketplace and any attempt to stop them would fail. However, another leading light at the ABA predicted a period of “guerrilla warfare” between lawyers and accountants.