Friday, 12 October 2012

Lisbon-bound for the NYSBA seasonal meeting


Today, I’m Lisbon-bound for a conference hosted by the New York State Bar Association at the Pestana Palace hotel. By all accounts this is a fine, city centre hotel, though I’ve opted to stay away from the hustle and bustle at The Oitavos Hotel, some 40 minutes drive from Lisbon.

This is my first trip to Lisbon, and next week I’ll post a snapshot of my impressions of this venerable and historic city. As I write, however, the task in hand is preparing a short speech I’ll give on Saturday morning, as well as a panel discussion. Between 9.00 and 11.00am, debate will centre on Alternative Law Firm Structures around the world, in a plenary session chaired by Kenneth G. Standard of New York firm Epstein Becker & Green. Other panellists include Vasco Marques Correia, the president of the Lisbon District Council of the Portuguese Bar Association; Junlu Jiang, of King & Wood Mallesons, Beijing; and Steven Younger, from Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP, New York.

I will be talking about Alternative Business Structures (ABSs), first proposed in Britain six years ago by Sir David Clementi, then given statutory footing in 2007 by the Legal Services Act and finally ushered in by the Solicitors Regulation Authority earlier this year. ABSs were much touted prior to their arrival as heralding a brave new world that would be of great benefit to consumers. They would allow non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms, thus revolutionising the legal profession because clients would have a cheaper, one-stop option for their legal needs.

Among those who sounded cautionary notes about ABSs were sole practitioners and small firms, who were wary of the notion of ‘Tesco law’ and ‘one size fits all’ for legal problems. I was also dubious about ABSs given the way in which they could be deployed to circumvent the Ministry of Justice’s  ban on referral fees in personal injury cases to be implemented in April 2013.  Because ABSs enable insurers and claims management companies to own and invest in law firms they can sidestep the MoJ’s efforts. It cannot be good for the consumer for a culture to arise which sees insurers start handling PI claims from start to finish.

In Britain, the take-up for ABS licences has been relatively slow, but the bandwagon is moving. More and more law firms are set to form alliances with other businesses, creating more ABSs. I do not object per se to the idea of ABSs, provided not only that a watchful eye is maintained on their ability to sidestep the ban on referral fees but also that the profession as a whole abides by its age-old principles. By this I mean that professionalism and ethical conduct must not be allowed to play second fiddle to the commercial dictates of outside ownership or too obsessive a focus on shareholder value.

The danger, with ABSs, is that he who pays the piper calls the tune. As lawyers, our tune must sing to the client’s good, first and foremost. ABSs are acceptable, so long as this is not forgotten. This is the most serious issue for debate.