July 15, 1999
Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice
Center for Professional Responsibility
American Bar Association
541 North Fairbanks Court
Chicago, Illinois 60611-3314
Dear Members of the Commission:
We are representatives of the consumer advocacy community who previously submitted written testimony to or testified in person before the Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice. We write to provide our reaction to the recommendations that have emerged from your deliberations. While we wholeheartedly embrace the Commission's stated goal of providing more choices to consumers, we believe the proposal falls far short of accomplishing that goal. In our view, consumer choice may be further restricted, rather than enhanced, as a result of new regulatory demands imposed upon both existing service providers and future MDPs that are not controlled by lawyers.
The Commission proposes to allow MDPs, in which lawyers can team with non-lawyers to provide comprehensive, coordinated services, by lifting the ban on fee-sharing between lawyers and non-lawyers. In theory, this should open the door to more cost-efficient and convenient services for consumers. Unfortunately, by imposing a new series of regulatory hurdles on MDPs controlled by non-lawyers (but not on MDPs controlled by lawyers), the Commission has removed any real incentive a non-law firm might have to form an MDP in the first place. The cost and inconvenience of complying with the Commission's regulatory scheme will discourage organizations from offering the type of coordinated services we envisioned. While we support the concept of providing reasonable protections for consumers in areas such as conflicts of interest, we do not believe it is appropriate to impose unnecessarily burdensome regulations, especially when they are applied to one type of organization but not to all.
Furthermore, our interpretation of the Commission's recommended new definition of the "practice of law" is that it will affect any organization that employs lawyers engaged in activities that could be performed in a law firm by bringing that entity under control of the bar. Lawyers work in a variety of settings, providing a vast array of services to consumers. Many lawyers work in tax preparation firms, offering tax advice to consumers based on their understanding of and experience with our tax system. Stock brokerages employ lawyers to provide investment advice to consumers. Architectural and engineering offices often employ a lawyer with experience in zoning and environmental issues to help them design an addition to a house. An adoption agency may employ a lawyer to help advise clients on procedural issues. There are countless examples of lawyers working outside of law firms today, providing services to consumers that in no way create the expectation that the advice is "legal advice" or that the individual is "practicing law." We do not believe that there is any basis for the bar to unilaterally impose its rules on these individuals or the organizations within which they work.
We are concerned that the Commission's attempt to extend the bar's regulatory reach to areas in which it has not previously had control may, in fact, be counter to the Commission's stated goal of expanding consumer choice. If existing organizations that employ lawyers are to come under new regulation, some of those organizations may opt to stop offering services that they have been providing to consumers for years -- services from which consumers have benefitted greatly. That would be an extremely disappointing outcome for consumers throughout the United States.
True multidisciplinary practices are the best way to meet the complex needs of today's consumers. We hope that the Commission will revisit its recommendations with an eye toward ensuring that consumers have more choices, not fewer. We appreciate the Commission's enthusiastic embrace of consumer participation in the process and look forward to working with you and the American Bar Association as this issue moves forward.
Lora H. Weber, President
Consumers Alliance of the Southeast
Jim Conran, President
Mark Phigler, President
Americans for Competitive Telecommunications
Walnut Creek, California
James Brown, Director
Center for Consumer Affairs
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
David Swankin, President
Citizen Advocacy Center
Al Sterman, Vice President
Electric Consumers Alliance