Multi-disciplinary partnerships

British Columbia lawyers will soon be allowed to participate in multi-disciplinary partnerships.

Beginning this summer, lawyers may enter into partnership with non-lawyers, provided the partnership can comply with the Law Society Rules and rules of professional conduct governing such practices.

Those advocating MDPs say these business arrangements provide both convenience and wider choice to the public. Consumers looking for a wide range of professional services have the added advantage of one-stop shopping. And firms embracing MDPs would be in a position to reduce overhead and share profits.

Initially, there were concerns about potential conflicts of interest in these businesses. If power was equally shared between a lawyer and an accountant, who would have the final word? Would it be the lawyer’s need for client/solicitor privilege or the auditor’s requirement for complete independence from a client?

Gavin Hume, QC, the Chair of the Ethics Committee, says the new rules offer plenty of safeguards to protect the core values of the legal profession. “We are very specific that non-lawyer partners comply in ensuring that privilege and confidentiality is properly looked after. All obligations to comply with the Professional Conduct Handbook continue to exist.”

Not only must the lawyers involved in the partnership have effective control over the legal services the partnership provides, but non-lawyer partners will not be able to provide services to the public unless “they support or supplement the practice of law by the MDP.”

As Hume puts it, a lawyer could form an MDP with a realtor, if the realtor supports the practice of law, but not for the purposes of fronting a real estate practice.

So just what type of practice might benefit from an MDP?

“I think you may see partnerships involving patent agents and trademark agents,” says Hume. “Boutique firms practising in the IP area might be particularly interested. And in an estate practice, there may be a very skilled accountant who you want to include as a partner in the firm.”

Hume adds that some small practices may benefit from MDPs. “Firms that restrict their practice to conveyancing might want to form a partnership with notaries or paralegals, as long as their work supports the practice of law.”

Non-lawyer partners will be required to purchase liability insurance from the Law Society. Some Benchers questioned whether this might put the fund at risk. But Su Forbes, QC, the Director of Insurance, says in the nine years that MDPs have been allowed in Ontario there have been very few claims, and most have been resolved without payment.

Some of the details of the new policy are still being worked out, including application fees, investigation fees and marketing rules.