Benchers look at opening the door to multidisciplinary practice

Lawyers and engineers … future partners?

B.C. lawyers may have the opportunity to work with other professionals, including accountants, health professionals and engineers, and other non-lawyers such as therapists, estate planners and litigation support consultants. Multidisciplinary practice has received approval in principle from the Benchers … provided it can be regulated in a way that lawyers remain faithful to such core values as solicitor-client privilege, confidentiality and professional independence. More detailed options are expected back before the Benchers for discussion in June.

Multidisciplinary practice could offer B.C. consumers the convenience of one-stop shopping for professional services, and lawyers the opportunity to share their overhead costs, share profits from a variety of services and do more cross-referral of services.

Although multidisciplinary practice (MDP) is already a reality in some professions, the legal profession has resisted — perhaps because MDPs evoke the image of a takeover rather than an opportunity for lawyers to broaden their own horizons. More importantly, there are regulatory problems to overcome.

Lawyers in the United States cannot yet practise in multidisciplinary practices, except in the District of Columbia. Ontario only recently allowed a limited form of MDPs — lawyers must control the firm or other entity in which they practise and all services must be legal services or directly connected with the provision of legal services.

The Benchers have spent some time reflecting on the future of the profession and considering whether B.C. lawyers have fair opportunities to compete. Last Fall, they agreed in general terms to look at relaxing the restrictions on fee-splitting so that lawyers could practise with non-lawyers — provided the regulatory scheme properly protects the core values of the legal profession.

A Multidisciplinary Working Group chaired by Nanaimo Bencher Peter Ramsay, Q.C. was charged with studying the issue as part of the work of the Access to Justice Committee. The other Working Group members are Bencher William Sullivan, Q.C. and Vancouver lawyer Ross Tunnicliffe, with staff support from General Counsel Jeff Hoskins and Staff Lawyer – Ethics Jack Olsen.

While the model of multidisciplinary practice is still to be decided, the Benchers gave the Working Group some general direction in March (through informal "straw votes") and expect to consider more details when the Working Group reports again in June.

Should the Law Society regulate lawyers or the MDP itself?

At present, most Benchers favour regulating lawyers directly to ensure that non-lawyer members of the firm do not contravene ethical standards of the profession — such as the marketing, confidentiality or conflicts rules. The Law Society could require, as a condition of lawyer participation in an MDP, that the non-lawyers contract in the partnership to adhere to certain professional standards.

The Benchers are less favourable to directly regulating the MDP as an entity in order to control the conduct of non-lawyers in the MDP, and it is unclear whether the Law Society would have jurisdiction to do so.

Would lawyers need an MDP licence?

The Benchers expect to pass rules governing lawyers’ participation in MDPs. Most Benchers, however, do not currently favour a licensing scheme that would require lawyers to satisfy the Law Society in advance that they will be able to comply with core ethical standards.

Who could participate in an MDP?

Most Benchers currently favour permitting lawyers to associate in partnership, not only with other self-regulating professionals, but with non-lawyers in other businesses as well. Under this approach, a lawyer could enter a partnership with a person who works in media relations or labour relations or who manages entertainers, as well as self-regulated professionals such as chartered accountants, psychologists, architects and engineers. Restricting lawyers to partnering with other self-regulating professionals is not seen as necessary since all non-lawyer partners would have to undertake to respect lawyers’ professional conduct obligations. As pointed out by the MDP Working Group, any alliances incompatible with a lawyer’s professional independence could be excluded.

Most Benchers do not favour a completely open ownership model that would allow non-lawyers who are not partners in the MDP to contribute capital and share in profits. As noted by the Working Group, this model would be a significant departure from the partnership structure that is characteristic of the practice of lawyers and other professionals. It is also questionable whether the professional independence of lawyers could be preserved under this model, since non-lawyers whose only interest in the MDP is a financial one would influence its operations.

What services might an MDP provide?

Most Benchers currently favour no restrictions. Accordingly, a multidisciplinary practice could provide any services its members are competent and licensed to provide.

The Benchers expressed little interest in a model of MDP — such as the one permitted in Ontario — that restricts the scope of services to those directly related to the practice of law. As noted by the Working Group, a client’s problems can cut across professional boundaries, and it is the potential convenience, lower costs and better advice that may attract consumers to a multidisciplinary practice. By way of example, a lawyer, a social worker and a financial advisor might form an MDP to provide legal and non-legal services in connection with counselling older clients about estate planning, nursing home care and living wills.

Who would control the MDP?

The majority of Benchers are not currently favourable to restricting the control of MDPs to lawyers. This approach does not resolve the profession’s interest in protecting core values and may provoke other professions to seek similar control.

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The MDP Working Group is consulting with the Ethics Committee, and plans to bring more specific options before the Benchers in June. Your comments or concerns about multidisciplinary practice are welcome. Please contact the MDP Working Group, c/o Jack Olsen, Staff Lawyer – Ethics, by fax to (604) 646-5902, by email to jolsen@lsbc.org or by mail to the Law Society office, 845 Cambie Street, Vancouver, B.C. V6B 4Z9.