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When the heat of an argument begins to die down, it helps to have some burning coals handy. The Enron affair has provided just such kindling to those involved in the debate over multidisciplinary practices. Once Arthur Andersen LLP was in the scandal crosshairs, it was game-over for MDPs — at least as far as MDP critics were concerned. “This should be the death knell of the MDP debate,” says Steven Krane, president of the New York State Bar Association. “Whenever you have professionals taking orders from people who don’t share their professional responsibilities, you run the risk of having that professional responsibility trampled upon.” Many rushed to make the same argument. But is the Andersen-Enron MDP linkage really that definitive? After all, whether MDPs take root is not just a question for the legal profession to answer. Some clients crave the one-stop shopping aspect that an MDP offers. And even without a change in any state’s rules, various forms of MDPs have begun to sprout. “They provide competition,” says Frederick Krebs, president of the American Corporate Counsel Association, “which is to the betterment of the client.” In its condemnation of MDPs, the bar has focused on the Big Five accounting firms, where their size and public role as auditors translate into conflicts. Overlooked, though, are other, less scary, MDP variants. Krebs cites one smaller example: a boutique partnership with architects, land use specialists, and lawyers serving the many client needs in real estate development transactions. Of course, collusion and shady dealings could still occur at these small operations — if lawyers fell prey to undue influence. “That’s why you need ethical rules and effective enforcement measures,” says Ralph Baxter, Jr., chief executive officer of San Francisco’s Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and an advocate of MDPs. But conflicts happen in firms, too, when pressure mounts to bill and keep big clients happy. Banning MDPs on these grounds thus seems a bit hypocritical, and perhaps even protectionist, on the part of the lawyer-opponents. Those already involved in the closest thing to MDPs on these shores, law firms with strategic alliances or joint ventures with other businesses, claim that they apply the strictest conflict of interest checks on all endeavors. “We’ve always been extraordinarily careful, and taken a conservative approach to conflict of interest issues,” says Jay Zimmerman, managing partner of Boston’s Bingham Dana, which runs three nonlegal businesses. Thanks to Enron, and regardless of natural market forces, these existing alliances might remain the nearest that Americans see to an MDP for a while. The Enron scandal, says legal management consultant Gerry Riskin of Edge International, “is absolutely going to freak many, many lawyers.” As the accounting profession comes under the increased scrutiny of outside regulators and scrambles to separate auditing and consulting, Riskin argues, lawyers will fear a similar fate should they adopt MDPs. This is, after all, a war currently waged in the theater of public perception — as evidenced by Andersen Legal, which remains tight-lipped about the future of its overseas legal operations. On the topic, Tony Williams, the firm’s worldwide managing partner, says only that in the United States, “the intellectual debate over the merits of MDPs has already been won” with lawyers now providing a greater range of client services. Williams’ point about the inevitability of change may be the key to a practical victory for MDPs. As lawyers within accounting firms blur the lines, and attorneys in private practice continue to make friends with other professionals through strategic alliances, the merging of professions may become more palatable to everyone involved — someday.

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