Farmers Insurance and the company’s Los Angeles law firm, Early, Maslach & Price, engaged in the illegal practice of law when they used claims adjusters to direct attorneys defending policyholders, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge has ruled.

The ruling — in a wrongful termination suit against Farmers brought by a former Early, Maslach litigator — goes to the heart of a national debate over the professional independence of attorneys paid by insurance companies.