Free trade talks opening today between the EU and US are likely to end with agreements to open legal services – but lawyers in England and Wales will notice little difference in practice. Ambitions for a free trade agreement were announced at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland last month.

The Law Society, which said it is discussing the UK position with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), noted that the free trade agreement is negotiated at federal level whereas the US legal profession is regulated at state level.

‘In any case, the US is already a very open market for our members – they can open offices and in many states they can either register as a consultant to advise on English law, or they can take the bar,’ Charlotte Ford, international policy adviser at the Society, said.

Louis-Bernard Buchman, chair of the international legal services committee of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), said that the legal services component of the agreement is likely to take the form of allowing lawyers to operate as foreign legal consultants, with restrictions on audience rights and on giving advice on host-country law.

However, he noted that 31 US states already have such provisions in place.

Buchman added that the question of England and Wales’ alternative business structures – ‘anathema to the US’ – had already come up in preliminary talks. ‘Any UK law firm contemplating a move in that direction should be very cautious of the dangers in future in terms of merger or co-operation with US law firms,’ he said.

The Law Society said it has discussed the ABS issue with the American Bar Association, which last year rejected a model rule that would have allowed a limited form of non-lawyer involvement in firms. President-elect Nicholas Fluck is expected to speak on the matter at the ABA annual meeting in San Francisco next month.