The influential American Bar Association has reluctantly paved the way for more non-lawyer ownership of firms in the US by setting out a checklist of aims for service providers to uphold.
A divided ABA House of Delegates resolved this week to adopt 10 model objectives for the provision of legal services, which should guide each state when it comes to assess regulations on ‘non-traditional legal service providers’.
The guidance is intended for each state’s highest court when they consider legal services regulation and whether to relax rules about who provides advice services.
The ABA has stated in the past its opposition to non-lawyer ownership, and indeed a proposal to reaffirm that stance drew near-unanimous support at the delegates’ meeting in San Diego.
Resolution 105 stated that nothing contained within it ‘abrogates in any manner existing ABA policy prohibiting non-lawyer ownership’.
But in the face of increasing interest from US states in some degree of liberalisation - as well as unmet need for tens of millions of Americans - demands for new legal services models have grown louder, and the ABA has decided to offer guidance for those who do embrace a new model.
‘We must embrace change in terms of how it will help the public that we are sworn to serve,’ said Judy Perry Martinez, who chairs the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services.
Stephen A Saltzburg, a member of the ABA commission on legal services, told Bloomberg the ‘reality’ is that traditional providers cannot provide enough lawyers to represent everyone who needs legal help.
The new objectives include protection of the public, advancement of the administration and the rule of law and ‘meaningful’ access to justice.
They also stipulate transparency regarding the nature and scope of legal services to be provided, the credentials of those who provide them, and the availability of regulatory protections.
There must be ‘accessible civil remedies’ for negligence and breach of other duties, disciplinary sanctions for misconduct, and advancement of ‘appropriate preventative or wellness programs’.
Washington State has already made amendments to allow lawyers and non-lawyers to jointly own a law firm. It is understood the state of California is also considering changes to liberalise its legal market.
The strength of feeling was clear at the ABA mid-year meeting, with 45 requests to speak on behalf of the resolution and another 35 against it.
David P Miranda, president of the New York State Bar Association, said the resolution ‘opens the door to tacit approval’ of non-lawyer services and was a ‘step backwards’.
A statement after the meeting said the association will ‘continue to act to protect the public by working to ensure that lawyers retain their ability to exercise independent judgement free of outside economic influence and that in New York, non-lawyers will not be permitted to provide legal services without being under the supervision of a lawyer’.