Law firm ownership and lawyer independence

Malcolm Mercer, who’s been a driving force in the debate around legal service regulation changes in Canada, wrote a terrific post at Slaw titled “A Different Take on ABS – Proponents and Opponents Both Miss the Point.” Malcolm’s post galvanized a lively exchange in the comments section, to which I was drawn and compelled to add some thoughts on two separate but related aspects of legal market liberalization: (a) the affordability and accessibility of legal services, and (b) lawyer ethics, professionalism and independence.

I’ve already written about accessibility elsewhere at Law21, and you can refer to my comments on Malcolm’s article for more. But I thought I’d expand here in some more detail on the second point: the impact of regulatory change on lawyers’ professional conduct. The spectre of “non-lawyers” owning equity in law firms has led some practitioners to express grave concerns about the survival of our ethical standards, and about the wisdom of allowing “non-lawyers” to deliver legal services at all. I think that before we can dive too deeply into these questions, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture first.

Generations ago, lawyers were granted the privilege (not the right) of self-regulation. Using the powers assigned to us through that privilege, we developed, published, and strictly enforce on ourselves several behavioural codes that we refer to collectively as “legal ethics.” (For clarity, “ethics” here refers to explicit normative standards of conduct, rather than the more colloquial sense of “moral behaviour.”) Among the standards we enforce through ethical codes are:

  • service above all to the courts and the rule of law,
  • complete confidentiality of client information,
  • loyalty to client interests, as expressed through conflicts rules, and
  • independence of our counsel from outside influence.

These rules are meant to guarantee to clients and to society generally that we serve the greater good and advance the interests of our clients without partiality. They’re part of the quid pro quo of self-governance: we hold ourselves to very high standards so that no one else feels compelled to step in and hold us to theirs. Nobody, in the continuing debate over liberalization of law firm ownership rules, contends that these standards and goals are obsolete or unnecessary. (Indeed, in the multi-player market that’s coming our way, our ethical standards will nicely double as a competitive advantage.)

Lawyers tend to raise two ethical objections to the changes in legal regulation that have occurred in Australia and Great Britain and that have been proposed in the CBA’s Futures Report. The first is that “non-lawyers” are not bound by lawyers’ ethical standards, and therefore the risk is too great that their clients’ interests will not be protected and may even be abused. The second is that allowing “non-lawyers” to own equity in a law firm fatally compromises our duty of loyalty to the courts and to our clients, because the lawyer will be bound by an additional, higher duty to advance the interests of these “non-lawyer” shareholders. Let’s look at these objections in turn.

1. “Non-lawyer” unfitness: There is, to begin with, a strong case to be made that “non-lawyers” are fully capable of conducting themselves with the integrity and impartiality we expect from lawyers, not least because exploiting or abusing one’s customers is a terrible way to run a business and a good way to wind up in jail. I’ve written before about the specious and self-serving nature of the “non-lawyer” category into which lawyers place everyone in the world except us. But let’s assume, just for argument’s sake, that “non-lawyers” will pose a genuine risk to their clients’ and customers’ interests.

It’s not entirely clear to me why this would be something that should concern the legal profession. Those who hire “non-lawyers,” in the multi-participant legal market of the near future, are not our clients, and we owe them no professional duties. Nor are we their parents or guardians. They’ll have made a choice to hire someone who isn’t a lawyer, and they can reap both the rewards and consequences of that choice. Fundamentally, it’s none of our business.

Lawyers have been granted the privilege of regulating ourselves; nobody, however, has ever granted us the privilege or assigned us the duty to regulate anyone else. (With two exceptions: independent paralegals in Ontario and limited license legal technicians in Washington State.) In almost all cases, law societies, state bars, and other regulatory bodies are not directed in their founding documents to “protect the public.” They are directed to “govern the legal profession in the public interest.” Those are two different mandates. If someone wants to hire a “non-lawyer,” and the “non-lawyer” accepts the engagement, it seems to me that that’s their business, not ours.

2. Corruption of lawyer ethics. This objection, on its face at least, has more merit. It’s reasonable to be concerned that the presence of “non-lawyers” in the ownership structure of law firms could pose a threat to our duties to clients and our independence from outside interests. Even a small risk in this area should be taken seriously, because of the enormous importance of lawyer independence to our professional existence and to the rule of law. But simply because this risk is real and serious doesn’t automatically mean that identifying it is enough to end the discussion. If it’s a risk, let’s look at whether and how it can be managed.  [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

We should isolate, for this discussion, the operation of in-house or public-sector law departments, which very clearly are owned and operated by “non-lawyers.” We’re concerned here with the private bar, providing services to lay clients for whom we assume (though not always correctly) a low level of sophistication. The principles at play in these workplaces are not fully applicable to this conversation — although it’s at least helpful to note that the mere presence of “non-lawyers” in the ownership and financial structure of their “clients” has not been fatal to the independence of these lawyers. “Non-lawyer” status is not an airborne disease.

As it happens, we have an example of a large, multi-national law firm with “non-lawyer” equity owners: Slater & Gordon. If you review the firm’s initial public offering prospectus, you’ll find that among the “risks” disclosed to potential share-buyers was their tertiary position in the firm’s loyalties: the courts first, clients second, shareholders third. Those who buy stock in Slater & Gordon acknowledge and accept that, unlike other businesses where “shareholder value” is (perversely, in my opinion) the only objective, investing in a law firm means accepting a much-reduced level of influence and importance.

I’m not aware of any ethical difficulties Slater & Gordon has experienced, or any accusations that have been made by clients or judges, that public ownership of the firm has corrupted its lawyers’ professional duties or harmed their clients’ interests. The emergence or revelation of such problems or accusations could indeed pose a serious challenge to advocates of “non-lawyer” ownership. But equally, the absence of such problems or accusations, over a period of several years, in two different countries, ought to be factor in the discussion as well.

It seems to me that whether a law firm is owned by lawyers, by “non-lawyers,” or by Martians, the lawyers in the firm still operate under the auspices of lawyer regulation. (Under “entity-based” regulation, which is already in place in Australia and the UK and appears to be coming to Nova Scotia, the firm itself will be bound as well.) If a  regulated lawyer breaks a professional standard, for whatever reason, she will be investigated and punished. Whether her cheques are signed by the managing partner lawyer or by a corporate payroll employee, she is still on the hook for what she does and doesn’t do to advance her clients’ interests and serve the rule of law. There will be no exception granted to a law firm owned in whole or in part by “non-lawyers”; if anything, I expect that ethical scrutiny of such a firm would be several degrees more intense than for lawyer-owned firms.

Now, it might be objected that the influence of a “non-lawyer” equity owner would be more subtle and pervasive than that. The “non-lawyer” would not directly order a lawyer to drop a case or reveal a client confidence on the record; instead, he or she would influence, by their very presence and through various innocuous but well-timed remarks, that perhaps the firm should pursue a different course or be more open about a client’s position. I have two responses to this objection.

First, if we’re now guarding against invisible, inaudible, and theoretical risks to lawyer independence — “this might happen and there’d be no way to prove that it didn’t” — then I think we can concede that the clear and present danger of this risk is not readily apparent. We’re now moving out of the zone of probability, which is a fair and legitimate battleground, to one of possibility, which is unanswerable: no one can ever prove that something undetectable will never happen. And secondly, the assumption at the heart of this objection is the same as the the one above: that “non-lawyers” are less trustworthy, less honourable, and more mercenary than lawyers are — and conversely, that lawyers have more integrity, character, and selflessness than “non-lawyers” do.  I don’t find this line of reasoning especially sound or especially attractive.

As I’ve already noted, I’m not dismissing out of hand the risks posed by regulatory overhaul to lawyer independence: the concern is legitimate, and the stakes for the legal profession are stratospherically high. The case for either side of the debate is not so slam-dunk obvious that further discussion is unnecessary. We should continue to engage on these issues. But let’s engage on probabilities, not possibilities; evidence, not worries; what we know and can reasonably, sensibly anticipate, rather than on what we fear. The right answer is out there. Let’s go find it.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.


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