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Despite their eagerness to expand into the United States, several of the Big Five’s international law affiliates have by and large stood by politely and watched the debate over multidisciplinary practices (MDPs) unfold here. Until now. With the American Bar Association’s recent recommendation against MDPs, some Big Five-affiliated lawyers abroad are charging that the MDP debate is little more than a turf war in which U.S. lawyers are seeking to keep big corporations, and most notably the Big Five, out of the legal services marketplace. They condemned the MDP recommendation, which calls for preserving the “core values” of the legal profession, as a thinly disguised effort to protect the legal profession’s commercial interests in the name of professional values. “This rather sterile debate over professionalism vs. commercialism is just so much nonsense,” says Tony Williams, worldwide managing partner at Andersen Legal, the legal network associated with Arthur Andersen. “I’m not sure whether it’s irrelevant or insulting, but it’s certainly one or the other.” The Big Five are big proponents of the “new economy” and the globalization of businesses, all of which tie into their plan to deliver multidisciplinary professional services to their clients on a multinational level. That’s a huge motivating force behind the international law networks that are being rolled out by each of the Big Five, except Deloitte & Touche. Along these lines, a major strategic goal for the Big Five law affiliates has been to extend their MDP approach to the United States — and particularly New York, given its status as the world’s leading financial center. Big Five legal services strategists were hoping that the ABA would forestall any decision on MDPs until the state bars considering the issue had a chance to complete their own study. By then, they hoped, the tide would have turned in favor of the MDP approach. But now, in the wake of the vote, some lawyers at Big Five legal affiliates are talking about federal regulatory intervention. “The essential issue is whether the lawyers can determine the future of their marketplace alone, or whether there’s any weight or interest within the United States in consumer choice,” says Andrew Jones, Ernst & Young International’s London-based vice chair of tax and legal services. Comparing the legal profession to Microsoft, he says, “I wonder at what point the trade commission becomes involved in these discussions.” The July 11 ABA recommendation not only was a setback for the Big Five firms interested in expanding into the legal services market, but it also created something of a logistical nightmare. Not only did the ABA House of Delegates strongly reject the notion of MDPs, it also sent the issue back to the individual state bars with the recommendation that they essentially take measures to restrict MDPs. Thus, the ABA House appears to have fractionalized the debate. That will make it harder than ever for the Big Five or the accounting industry as a whole to try to lobby for their pro-MDP position. Robert MacCrate, former ABA president — as well as senior counsel at Sullivan & Cromwell, chair of the New York State Bar’s Committee on the Law Governing Firm Structure and Operation and the person behind the ABA’s anti-MDP recommendation — says that he plans to push forward. MacCrate, who got something of a hero’s reception after the 314 to 106 ABA House vote against MDPs — complete with handshakes and at least one hug — says that his next move is to work to amend New York’s disciplinary and the ABA’s model rules concerning lawyers. The amendments he advocates would essentially codify the anti-MDP principles that the ABA has now embraced and would make it difficult for the Big Five and others to enter the legal services market. This comes at a time when the Big Five are debating the Securities and Exchange Commission’s proposed rules on auditor independence. The proposal is potentially problematic not just for their global legal services, but even more so for their consulting and, perhaps, tax practices.

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