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Proponents of multidisciplinary partnerships (MDPs) have consistently downplayed the risks involved in combining different professions within a single firm. Dismissing the concerns of those who feared that MDPs involving lawyers would result in compromised professional standards, they urged that internal safeguards such as screening measures would adequately safeguard the independence of the combined professions and that business pressures would be no greater in a multidisciplinary firm than in any other professional organization. The Enron collapse and the alleged role of their auditors in presenting a distorted financial picture should put an end to the MDP debate. According to published reports, Arthur Andersen earned tens of millions of dollars from consulting work done for Enron, in addition to the tens of millions of dollars it was paid by the company for its audit work. It has been suggested by some that this created for Arthur Andersen an irreconcilable conflict of interest, the desire to retain the lucrative consulting work giving rise to a financial disincentive to assert aggressively its obligations of public disclosure. If such conflicts can exist within the framework of an accounting firm that does not provide legal services to the public, there can no longer be any serious question that allowing lawyers to practice under the same roof, with their duties of client confidentiality and loyalty, would be a colossal mistake. It is in this context that, in the days ahead, the American Bar Association House of Delegates will consider the proposal of the New York State Bar Association to amend the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to include provisions corresponding to those recently added to the New York attorney ethics rules. These provisions will circumscribe and limit the ability of lawyers to form relationships with nonlawyer professionals. The fundamental premise of the New York Bar Association amendments is that while professions may cooperate and provide integrated services to their clients, the integrity of the respective professions must be maintained, with strict separation and independence being preserved at all times. SPLITTING P’S Would the New York Bar proposal permit lawyers to participate in MDPs? Yes, provided that “MDP” is understood to mean multidisciplinary practice, and not multidisciplinary partnerships. As the MacCrate Committee Report of April 2000 documented, lawyers have engaged in multidisciplinary practice for decades. Indeed, in many forms, lawyers and nonlawyer professionals historically have worked together to provide services to mutual clients. In contrast, advocates of multidisciplinary partnerships have envisioned everything from allowing individual nonlawyers to become partners in law firms to the “full-blown” MDP, in which legal services become just another line item on the firm’s balance sheet. The end result to the client — coordination of professional services — is essentially the same in either case. The financial interrelationship among the professionals is immaterial to the recipient of the services. So what are we spared by interring multidisciplinary partnership and putting the MDP issue to rest? We are spared the substantial risk that nonlawyers, those not inculcated in the culture and morals of the legal profession, will have the power to dictate the way in which law is practiced and legal clients are served. While it is true that lawyers practicing in isolation face financial pressures that can push or pull them toward certain professional decisions, such as whether to discontinue representation of a client who fails repeatedly to pay legal bills, or whether to tell an important but dishonest client that it should look elsewhere for legal services, at least in those circumstances it is a lawyer, not a lay person, making the call. Permitting nonlawyers — those who have not been grounded in the professional responsibility of the legal profession — to participate in those difficult decisions places the clients at risk of having these critical decisions dictated solely by the morals of the marketplace. It is hard enough for a lawyer, sitting alone, to make those determinations; it would be virtually impossible for a lawyer to exercise independent professional judgment in the face of a nonlawyer boss who is ordering the lawyer’s conduct on the basis of cold numbers printed on a balance sheet. Just as it is inconceivable that the planet Earth is home to the only intelligent life in the universe, it is a virtual certainty that there are other Enrons, large and small, just a few small steps away from collapse. The legal and nonlegal professionals who serve those firms stand in a unique position, by virtue of their training, judgment, independence and ethical responsibilities, to prevent these debacles-in-waiting. Our best course is to ensure that these professionals have the unrestricted opportunity to bring their skills to bear and help their clients see the straight path. By combining these professions into a single enterprise we risk an endless chain of Enrons. The choice is clear, and the time is now to bring a final resolution to the MDP debate. Steven Krane is president of the New York State Bar Association and a member of New York’s Proskauer Rose.

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