When Lawyers Don't Get All the Profits: Non-Lawyer Ownership of Legal Services, Access, and Professionalism
Article by Nick Robinson, Fellow, Harvard Law School, Program on the Legal Profession
Abstract With multiple countries now allowing for non-lawyer ownership of legal services, and other jurisdictions considering a similar shift, the legal profession is in the midst of a global regulatory moment. Where non-lawyer ownership has been allowed, personal injury firms have listed on stock exchanges, major insurance companies have bought law firms, and brands best known for their grocery stores have started offering legal services.
While there has been much debate over the merits of non-lawyer ownership, with some claiming it will increase access to justice and others that it will undermine lawyers’ professionalism, most of this debate has been theoretical, making claims with little or no empirical support. This paper uses qualitative case studies and other empirical research to explore non-lawyer ownership in civil legal services for poor and moderate-income populations in England and Australia, which now allow for non-lawyer ownership, and in the U.S., where parallels to such ownership have developed in online and administrative law legal services. It finds that the access to justice benefits of non-lawyer ownership, and perhaps deregulation more generally, have likely been oversold with respect to legal services for poor and moderate-income populations. It also argues that non-lawyer ownership raises a unique set of professionalism concerns that have been under-appreciated in the literature. Given its foothold in key jurisdictions, non-lawyer ownership will likely continue to spread, including in the United States, but these conclusions point towards the need to carefully regulate reforms like non-lawyer ownership and to better equip regulators to predict how the economics and normative commitments of the profession will interact with the wider market.