On Friday afternoon, we were treated to an interesting panel discussion about changing law firm structures in other countries. Two guests from the UK, Frank Maher and Richard Harrison, shared details about their country's system for establishing and regulating alternative business structures (ABS's) that provide legal services - in other words, law firms with non-lawyer owners and managers. I think many of us were surprised to learn how strictly these non-lawyer entities are regulated. Not only is there an extensive application process to get a license to operate an ABS, but the reporting requirements, oversight, and penalties for violating ABS regulations seem practically draconian.
Also discussed was a study conducted by Hofstra University professor Susan Fortney on an Australian compliance system, which requires ABS entities to conduct "self-assessment" tests. The law firms fill out forms based on a list of "good management practices," which were derived from analyzing client complaints. The forms are evaluated by a compliance officer who determines whether the firm is either compliant, non-compliant, or partially compliant. The officer then works collaboratively with the firm to implement procedures that will bring the firm into compliance. So far, the results of Professor Fortney's study indicate that the self-assessment tests have directly affected management decisions and led to a significant reduction in client complaints. She suggested that aspects of Australia's self-assessment program may be transferrable to the United States and may be useful, not just for ABS's, but for traditional law firms as well.
After the ABS panel, Jim Ham (California) and Don Campbell (Michigan) led a group discussion concerning an effort by the ABA to revise the model rules of disciplinary procedure. Jim is APRL's liaison to the ABA committee that is studying this issue, which is seeking comments from APRL and the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC) about how to improve disciplinary procedures. The main purpose of this preliminary discussion was to hear what APRL members think about the rules and start identifying the issues on which we will provide comments. One concern that was raised is that very few jurisdictions have adopted these model rules, so there is a lack of consistency among the states. Since the group is still very much in the preliminary stages of evaluating this issue, I think it is premature to share more details about the discussion. See what you miss when you don't attend the APRL meetings in person?
What about you? How do you think the model disciplinary procedures could be improved? Is this even a productive exercise if so few jurisdictions have adopted the model rules?
Should more US jurisdictions allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms? Would your law firm be interested in taking Australia's self-assessment test?
See my previous posts about the APRL conference here and here.