In reading this article about physicians feeling pressure to join hospital or health network systems, I wondered whether this might be the future for the practice of law as well. The article describes the experience of Dean Pollack, an OBGYN, in practice for thirty years, who is committed to maintain an independent practice – notwithstanding that he competes with well-funded corporate networks, which have the money to advertise on billboards and the leverage to keep him relegated to less prominent listings in physician referral directories.
Although a health network has offered Pollack a significant amount of money to acquire his practice, Pollack declined. According to the article, Pollack wants to practice medicine rather than be an “assembly line physician.” He’s also concerned that network membership is not in the best interest of his patients because the networks rely on lower cost but less experienced new doctors to provide services. In addition, physicians employed by the network are, with limited exceptions (emergency or stated patient preference) obligated to refer all patient services within that system rather than based on the physician’s belief on who is the best quality.
Is this what we want for the practice of law – because that’s exactly what many of the branded networks will deliver. Although current ethics rules theoretically protect against mandatory in-network referrals since clients have an “unfettered” right to the lawyer of their choosing, you can bet that if rules on outside investment are changed, we’ll see a relaxation of other rules as well.
Our profession must think long and hard before going down this path. In the short run, branded platforms might help lawyers, particularly those starting out, find a few clients, albeit at capped or bargain fees. But if we reach the point that the medical profession has – where network services are the only option, clients are in trouble – because our system of justice depends upon the independence of solos.
Of course, the future needn’t be as grim. And in fact, there are plenty of business models also from the medical profession – like concierge services, independent, hyperlocal clinics and techno-powered patient-focused practice – that can make solos sustainable, as well as accessible and affordable to a wider range of clients.