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For years now, whenever American lawyers have caught the slightest whiff of government trespassers encroaching on their turf, they’ve begun baying like a pack of bloodhounds hot on the trail of an escaped convict. A proposal floated by the Securities and Exchange Committee requiring lawyers to “report out” misconduct by clients who refuse to take their counsel’s advice was denounced as an Orwellian plot to transform lawyers into government snitches. Efforts to open up the profession to outside competition by allowing nonlawyers to perform certain tasks was viewed as apostasy and beaten back. The profession’s open hostility to outside oversight and competition led one commentator to label it the last of the medieval guilds. But a series of sweeping reforms the British government announced recently may point the way to a radically different future for the legal profession. In an extensive white paper, the government proposes doing away with several centuries-old prerogatives of British lawyers. The proposed reforms would allow the government to license “alternative business structures” for law firms, including outside ownership by private investors and stock exchange listings. The proposed changes would also allow firms to appoint nonlawyers as full partners. The government also plans to strip the profession of the ability to police misconduct, setting up an Office of Legal Complaints which nonlawyers could staff. The reforms are the result of an ongoing effort to make the British legal system more consumer-friendly. In announcing the reforms, Lord Falconer, Britain’s lord chancellor and secretary of state for constitutional affairs, said that he hoped the changes would “change the ethos” of how British lawyers practiced, giving them flexible access to new sources of capital that would allow them to cope with rapidly changing market forces. A central aim of the reforms is also to make legal services, long-governed by the arcane traditions of the British bar, more commoditized and thus accessible to average citizens. Bridget Prentice, a minister at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, said she envisioned a legal system where someone could pick a lawyer “as easily as they can buy a tin of beans.” Indeed, wags have dubbed the reforms the “Tesco Law” after the well-known British supermarket chain. The label is only partly in jest. Lord Falconer told reporters he saw no problem with supermarkets, banks or other businesses selling legal services out of their stores right alongside other products. They could partner with law firms to do so, or buy the firms outright. As you can imagine, the reaction to the proposed changes among U.K. lawyers has been mixed. London’s Magic Circle firms have taken a cautiously positive tack, saying they welcome the increased financing options the revised ownership rules will offer U.K. law firms. However, implementing those changes could be problematic for the firms, as they operate in widely less liberal jurisdictions, including, notably, the U.S. Other lawyers worry that the new Legal Services Board, which will oversee all aspects of the profession, be sufficiently independent of the government. The solicitors’ Law Society, the target of a lot of consumer ire for its slow handling of client complaints, tepidly endorsed the new oversights, but suggested the board should operate with a “light touch.” One initiative in the plan that drew almost universal acclaim was Falconer’s proposal to crack down on ambulance chasing, “claim farming,” contingency compensation and other American imports that have sprung up like weeds in an English garden in recent years. The British reforms are taken from a report undertaken by David Clementi, who was appointed by Lord Falconer in July 2003 to study changes to the profession. Clementi’s suggestions, which included abolishing the British tradition of prohibiting solicitors and barristers from practicing together, were based on putting the needs of clients ahead of the wants of lawyers. “The current regulatory system is focused on those who provide legal services,” Clementi wrote. “The new framework will place the interests of consumers at its centre.” Could such a radical notion take hold on this side of the Atlantic? If anything, the American legal system is less consumer-friendly than that of the Brits. With professional oversight left mainly to individual states, and a powerful bar eternally vigilant in guarding its rice bowl against interlopers, the prospect of any meaningful changes to the American legal industry seem remote. But one reform that could easily be implemented at the state level would be to set up independent complaint boards comprised of nonlawyers to police abuses. It would contribute to a feeling of greater accountability to the public and diminish the profession’s well-earned reputation for insularity. It might cut down on those lawyer jokes as well. Other kinds of regulation, however, seem less adaptable. From colonial days, the American lawyer has occupied a different place in society than his British counterpart. I’ll refrain from the obligatory de Tocqueville quote, but suffice to say that most Americans don’t want to shop for their legal representation next to the produce aisle. Of course, is that really all that different than getting it out of a phone book? Douglas McCollam is a Washington-based legal writer. Copyright �2005 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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