Written Comments Of Al Sterman - Center for Professional Responsibility

WRITTEN COMMENTS OF
AL STERMAN
TO THE COMMISSION ON MULTIDISCIPLINARY PRACTICE

Submitted March 26, 1999

Thank you very much for the opportunity to submit written comments as the Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice considers the complex issue of how to change the rules of the legal profession to allow lawyers to partner with other types of professionals. As a long-time consumer activist, I believe I can add to the growing body of opinion on this issue from the consumer community.

My experience in consumer advocacy dates back more than 30 years. I have been a member of the Arizona Consumers Council since 1969. I am currently vice president and a board member of the Electric Consumers Alliance, a national organization committed to helping residential and small business consumers in developing proposals in electric deregulation and competition rules. I also service as chairperson of the Telecommunications Subcommittee for the Consumer Federation of American and am a board member of Americans for Competitive Telecommunications.

I believe that both consumers and lawyers would benefit from changes to the rules that would allow more opportunities for lawyers to partner with other types of professionals. One benefit is that allowing lawyers to practice in different kinds of arrangements would help make consumers more comfortable with lawyers and would make lawyers more approachable. Whether rightly or wrongly, the reality is that individuals tend to be intimidated by lawyers. They typically see lawyers only when they are in some sort of trouble, so the average person’s experience with a lawyer is often tainted by an overarching sense of fear and hostility. But a lawyer operating within a multidisciplinary practice would be less intimidating and more user-friendly to the individual consumer. An integrated services firm would bring legal services a step closer to ordinary people.

Such an outcome would be a great benefit to individuals, who would be more likely to take advantage of legal services if they were more easily available. Will preparation comes to mind in this context, of course. Millions of American adults do not have a will, and I suspect that a major reason is because they don’t have the time or the inclination to visit a lawyer to have one prepared. But a firm that could provide will preparation and two or three other services to a consumer in a single visit would be attractive to many people – and would, I think, result in more adults having an up-to-date will. The same would be true for other types of legal documents and consultations.

But I think the legal profession would benefit in another tangible way from broadening the ways in which a consumer might seek out the counsel of a lawyer – lawyers will get more business. The fewer people that are afraid to see a lawyer, the more people will be willing to see one to get things done.

Another important point in this debate, I believe, is the changing nature of people’s problems. Few, if any, problems are solely legal in nature. But if you go to a law firm, lawyers tend to seek only a legal solution. That’s what they are trained to do, that’s what is in their interest. It is not always, however, in the consumer’s interest. There needs to be a recognition on the part of the legal profession that many problems have only a legal component, and that other professionals may be needed to bring their expertise to bear on other components of a particular problem. People’s problems today are complicated. They often demand the expertise of a number of different professionals. I believe the legal profession is too often focused on "I can do that," which ignores the fact that teams can be more effective problem solvers. Teams of professionals can suggest other – perhaps better – solutions.

Let me cite just two examples of how multidisciplinary practices would be of enormous help. While teaching, I became involved with the teachers’ union (the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO). I was both local president and State Vice President. During my tenure, we were forced to seek the services of lawyers to protect the rights of our colleagues. At that time, there were few lawyers who had the expertise or the experience to carry these highly technical and complicated cases to fruition. Consequently, we were forced, at added expense and time, to educate our own lawyers concerning the intricacies of public education. If the lawyer were in a multidisciplinary practice, there might have been professionals who could have helped guide all to a successful conclusion.

Another example arises from my work with the Democratic Processes Center, Inc., in Tucson, non-profit education corporation that works with "youth in trouble." I and my associates are constantly faced with attempting to develop strategies to solve the myriad problems of these youth so that they can lead productive lives. Although a majority of our work is within the public school setting, often our first contact will be with lawyers through the courts. In attempting to solve the individual problems of these young people, we must work with professionals from accountants to welfare workers. The lawyer, as does the teacher, becomes part of a multi-faceted team, each member using his or her own expertise to solve the issues confronting these youth.

These are just two examples I have encountered that require a multidisciplinary approach.

I don’t think anyone out there is advocating that all lawyers should become part of a multidisciplinary practice. There are many situations in which it would be appropriate, even necessary, to work with a lawyer not affiliated with other professionals. Many people, for instance, have a pre-existing relationship with a lawyer with whom they have established a comfort level. They may not want to go to a particular lawyer just because he happens to be in partnership with their accountant.

The point is, though, that under the legal profession’s current rules, it is the legal profession itself that is making that choice on behalf of consumers. The right thing to do is to turn that choice over to the consumer. Let the individual make the decision about what kind of lawyer, practicing in what kind of setting, he or she wants to hire. There’s something paternalistic about lawyers precluding consumers from having this kind of choice, as though members of the legal profession have the omniscience to tell what is best for their clients without even knowing the particulars.

In the end, as you have heard from other consumer advocates, this should be a debate about giving consumers more choices. If you relax the current restrictions on multidisciplinary practices, some consumers will choose to visit a lawyer who is in the same firm as their tax planner and their financial manager. Some consumers won’t. Some consumers will want all their services under one roof, with a variety of different professionals bringing their expertise together to solve a problem. Some consumers won’t. The choice, however, should always be the consumer’s.

One final point. One of the primary concerns expressed by the opposition, as I understand it, is that the various ethical standards of the legal profession will go out the window if lawyers begin partnering with other professionals to provide the kind of integrated services that consumers are demanding. I find this argument strange and, frankly, rather offensive.

I practiced my profession (public school teacher) for 25 years before retiring. My ethics and responsibilities did not end when I retired, nor did they end each day when I left school or locked my classroom door. Ethics are a part of a person’s being and are not discarded at the end of the day.

There are two implications to the argument, both of which I believe are erroneous. The first is that a lawyer who leaves a large law firm to practice in a multidisciplinary firm is suddenly freed of the ethical constraints of the law firm. That’s simply not the case. Issues like confidentiality, avoiding conflicts of interest and other ethical standards are the foundations of the legal profession. A lawyer takes an oath to uphold these ethical standards in his or her practice, and that obligation is not waived simply because he or she works in some other kind of professional arrangement. The notion that a lawyer will only maintain the standards of his or her profession by working in a law firm is simply ridiculous and, I would think, offensive to most members of the bar.

The second implication is that somehow consumers will be unable, unwilling or uninterested in demanding that their lawyer maintain the ethical standards on which consumers have come to rely. Again, that’s simply not true. People understand that their relationship with a lawyer is bound by certain ethical standards – they come to a meeting with a lawyer, for example, with the expectation that the subject and content of that meeting will remain privileged and confidential. Consumers care very much that ethical standards are maintained when it comes to their relationship with a lawyer. A lawyer who shirks those responsibilities will soon be out of business, if not disbarred. I think the idea that consumers are not willing or able to demand that their lawyer preserve confidentiality and other ethical standards is also ridiculous. Concern on this point again stems from a paternalistic view of consumers on the part of lawyers.

I respectfully submit to this Commission that the time has come to allow lawyers to form other types of working arrangements, both to suit their own professional needs and goals and to meet the needs of consumers. I know the Commission has put forth a range of hypothetical solutions, ranging from maintaining the status quo to allowing fully integrated firms. I strongly favor the latter approach, which I believe will give consumers the freedom to choose the type of legal services delivery that best suits their particular needs.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to contribute my views to this debate.

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