by Basil R Hobbs
Last year, the Branch Solicitors’ Issues Committee identified multi-disciplinary practices (MDP’s) as a subject worthy of inquiry. This year, MDP’s were a feature topic at the President’s Forum on the Business of Law. In April, Provincial Council established an MDP Task Force under co-chairs Basil Hobbs and Carman Overholt. Its mandate is to investigate MDP’s and to make recommendations to Council to enable the Branch to contribute usefully to the MDP debate.
MDP’s are business arrangements where people with different professional qualifications practise together in partnerships or in other business arrangements, combining their distinct skills to provide a broad range of services to their clients. In theory, BC lawyers can join any other professional or group of professionals in practice as long as they do not share professional fees.
MDP’s result from new public demands for legal advice and advocacy: people are more aware of their rights; special interest groups compete for recognition; and the complexities and economics of modern life drive professionals increasingly towards specialization. While many clients already use teams of specialists drawn from different professions and offices to get the omnibus advice they need to respond to today’s instant communications, information-sharing and increased government regulation of practice and commercial activities, those arrangements may be out-moded: MDP’s have arrived and are likely to become a familiar and important fact of business.
The complexity and urgency of the MDP issue is heightened by the emergence of firms of non-lawyers who want to broaden their economic bases by aggressively soliciting clients and offering services that for historical and important reasons have traditionally been offered by lawyers. These “multi-service” institutions include, or will come to include, banks and trust companies, investment firms, firms of accountants, Realtors and insurance companies. The current debate over MDP’s is driven by the relationship between lawyers and accountants. In 1997, Ernst & Young launched a captive law firm by establishing Donahue & Partners, which now has more than 40 lawyers with offices in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Other large accounting firms are rumored to be considering similar steps.
The real question is whether to permit fee-sharing in BC and, if so, how to ensure that clients and the public interest are protected. Proponents of MDP’s argue that current restrictions on lawyer and non-lawyer partnerships and the prohibition of shared fees are outdated and unnecessarily impede the delivery of efficient and reasonably priced professional services. Opponents of so-called “one-stop shopping” argue that restrictions are necessary to preserve the core values of the profession of law: self-government; independence; avoidance of conflicts of interest; preservation of client confidentiality and of the solicitor and client privilege; and protection against the unauthorized practice of law by unqualified people.
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada is reviewing the regulatory issues raised by MDP’s and will probably propose a national licensing standard. A report on MDP’s will be presented at the Annual Convention in Edmonton this year. Its contents will likely be debated by National Council at the Mid-Winter meeting in Brandon in February 2000.
The BC Branch wants BC lawyers to have the opportunity to participate fully in the MDP discussions. For that reason, the MDP task force will distribute a questionnaire to BC lawyers.
Thanks to Gordon Turriff, an MDP Task Force member, for his help in preparing this BarTalk report.
Basil R Hobbs is co-chair of the Multi-Disciplinary Practices Task Force, Canadian Bar Association, British Columbia.
This article was published in the June 1999 issue of BarTalk. © 1999 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.