Ever since Australia, and now the UK have opened the gates to non-lawyer membership of law firms, the question has been percolating here in the US about whether, and when it can happen here. Currently, the DC Bar, where I practice permits a limited degree of non-lawyer ownership, most likely to accommodate partnerships between law firms and lucrative lobbying practices which are also indispensable to many clients with business in the nation’s capitol. (in my own case, I’ve teamed up with a lobbying firm to serve my clients’ needs). Even so, DC’s rule has always seemed relatively benign, limiting the decisional role of non-lawyers in management and again, implemented for the special purpose of luring quality lobbyists to a practice.
But the non-lawyer ownership that’s currently being discussed – well, that’s a whole different animal. As summarized by Jordan Furlong, we’re talking about publicly funded law firms that are trading in personal injury cases. We’re talking about supermarkets hiring attorneys to man kiosks to dispense legal services to shoppers. We’re talking about law firms raising money to build national brands.
I don’t consider Jay Foonberg much of a futurist – but damn, was he prescient when he advised lawyers to set rates with reference to the cost of a Big Mac. Because where outside ownership of law firms will inevitably lead is to the franchising of legal services. In other words, welcome to the McLaw firm.
But what’s different about the call for open ownership this time around is that it’s supported by several in the legal services community who want to expand access to law. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, folks like Thomas Morgan, a GWU Professor believes that outside ownership will enable social services agencies to offer packages of services, including legal, to their clients.
What troubles me is this: where are the voices of solo and small firm lawyers in the debate? Sorry, but I do not believe that the bar associations – the ABA, or the state bars – speak for me. They are often dominated by large firm interests and they do not have a clue about what we solo and small firm lawyers do and how much we matter .
As a practicing lawyer of 23 years (18 as a solo), I feel trapped with a foot in the past and an eye towards the future. I want to start without a template, if you will but I can’t escape my past or the reality that is the present. The fact that clients who are represented by lawyers do better in court. The fact that selling a law license and letting others call the shots is deceptive and rarely, if ever does any good come of it. But mostly, I am fearful that allowing unfettered outside ownership of law firms will open the gates for these types of ventures that will act as middlemen, selling bargain-basement legal services under a brand name, while hiring paralegals or unemployed lawyers to do the work at $25 a piece. That may be our future – but is it a future we are willing to accept?
On the other hand, the reality is that we’re already heading down that path. Legal Zoom offers assistance and/or unbundled services from lawyers, as does Rocket Lawyer. What is the best way for solo and small firms to compete? Is it to permit lawyers to accept outside investment to run the same ads all over the radio? Or should we allow outside ownership of law firms – and then subjecting them to the same onerous regulation that attorneys must abide – trust accounting, advertising and confidentiality rules – be the way to go? I mean, what if Legal Zoom were subject to the same requirements as lawyers – could they still keep their costs as low?
But most of all, what makes the most sense for solo and small firm lawyers and our clients? The Ethics 2020 show will be in DC April 12 and 13, and I believe that solo and small firm lawyers must attend and speak on our behalf. If you have something to say, please plan to attend – I’ll post the information about the details.
For now, I want to know your views – please post in comments or email me at email@example.com on your views of outside ownership of law firms by non-lawyers. Our future is on the line – shouldn’t we play a part in the outcome?