October 17, 2012
The argument may be settled for now, but Professor Paul Paton predicted the debate on alternative business structures in the American legal profession will continue in a speech to the Wisconsin Law Foundation on Oct. 2, in Milwaukee, Wisc.
Paton, the director of McGeorge's Ethics Across the Professions Initiative and the reporter on the ABA Commission in Ethics 20/20, was the keynote speaker at the annual awards dinner of the public-service and legal-education arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
"It's reasonable to expect that 10 years from now, or even sooner, the ABA will have to take another look at this issue," said Paton, who was the reporter on the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 that recently rejected a proposal that would have allowed non-lawyers to hold partnership interests in law firms.
"Technology is breaking down traditional barriers," Paton said. "Both individual and corporate clients are looking globally for solutions. People are searching for answers themselves on the Internet, often from providers who are not regulated."
There are 250 law firms with non-lawyer partners in England where firms can seek external investment. Governments in countries such as England and Australia instituted change in order to response to consumer interests and the need to provide greater access to legal services. There are negative tradeoffs, but American law firms face growing competition.
"One of the biggest concerns for the traditional practitioner, particularly solo and small firm practitioners, has to be an outfit like LegalZoom, which announced plans last spring for an initial public offering," Paton said. "How do we make sure that the increasing numbers of individuals who don't have access to legal services are better able to access them? Does that mean allowing law firm kiosks in book stores and grocery stores as they are starting to see in England? And how do we preserve the best traditions of the legal profession while responding to change?"