STATEMENT OF PHILIP MATTHEW STINSON, SR.
BEFORE THE AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION
COMMISSION ON MULTIDISCIPLINARY PRACTICE
October 9, 1999
Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the Commission, good morning. My name is Phil Stinson, I am a member of the American Bar Association, and its' General Practice, Solo, and Small Law Firm Section. and I am a principal in the Philadelphia-based law firm of Stinson Law Associates, P.C. I welcome the opportunity to share my perspective with you today, because in my review of the testimony, reports, and scholarly debate considered to date by the Commission, I note one common theme: throughout the bulk of your deliberation, most of the debate has centered on the relationship between the accountancy profession and the legal profession. Upon reflection, I am sure that you will realize that such a debate is not truly of a multidisciplinary nature, but, rather, at times, it has degenerated into the perception of simply two professions jockeying for a position of power in a fast changing consumer-driven marketplace.
I offer today the experiences of my law firm, because I think that our view of a multidisciplinary practice might well reflect the view of many members of this Section gathered in Ohio today, which, I submit, includes multidisciplinary professional relationships of a different type than that of our distinguished colleagues who have previously addressed the Commission.
Stinson Law Associates is a small law firm -- with four attorneys-- in two offices, suburban Philadelphia, on the Main Line in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and in Wilmington, Delaware. We also operate an urban Special Education law clinic for low income residents of the Chester Upland School District, in Chester, Pennsylvania. In the next year, it is our intent to expand our practice with the addition of law offices in Pittsburgh and San Diego, and possibly, in Baltimore. This will only be financially possible if we are able to deliver our legal services in a multidisciplinary environment as a product of a market driven economy. Our firm is dedicated to representing the needs of parents of disabled children in Special Education matters, disability rights litigation, and disputes involving health insurance providers and the care of chronically ill and disabled children. As such, we view our role as attorneys to be that of zealous advocates striving to achieve, most often, the delivery of services from public agencies necessary to sustain the life and viability of a disabled child. It might be of interest to you that in ancillary roles, I serve on the Board of HALO Centers, a multidisciplinary medical practice serving the diagnostic needs of learning disabled children in Philadelphia, am also the founder of an internet-based multidisciplinary web portal, www.specialedlaw.net, and enjoy a professional affiliation with psychologists at the Child Study Institute of Bryn Mawr College.
On a daily basis, the attorneys in my firm are confronted with many multidisciplinary interactions. For example, each exceptional child of school age in the United Sates is legally entitled to receive a free appropriate public education pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known more commonly as the IDEA. Each such child is evaluated through their local public school district by a multidisciplinary team of professionals charged with the responsibility of developing an individualized education plan, or an IEP, for that child. Our job, most frequently, as attorneys, is to represent the parents of such children when there is a breakdown between the parents and the respective school district, resulting in a need to resolve the dispute through an administrative remedy pursuant to the IDEA known as a Special Education Due Process Hearing. In our firm, we attend several hundred such hearings each year.
In order to obtain the Special Education and related services sought by the parents of an exceptional child, it is quite often necessary to obtain the assistance of other professionals, such as clinical psychologists with a certification in school psychology. Under the current rules, our firm must stay at arms-length from the psychologists that are working side-by-side with us on behalf of our mutual clients as we endeavor to fulfil the multidisciplinary mandate of the IDEA. In a consumer-driven market economy, we would best be able to provide the legal services required by the parents of disabled children that our law firm represents if we were able to join forces with the clinical psychologists that are integral components of the multidisciplinary team advocating on behalf of the child in developing an individualized education plan offering a free appropriate public education for that child pursuant to the IDEA.
It is interesting to note that sometimes zealous advocacy by non-attorneys working with parents on behalf of their disabled children results in sanctions by the Bar. Just last week, the Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law in the State of Delaware recommended the imposition of sanctions against two (2) non-attorney advocates who had been assisting parents of disabled children as the parents attempted to navigate the maze of administrative hearings pursuant to the regulatory framework of the IDEA. It has been suggested in some news reports that the recommended sanctions were nothing more than the result of successful advocacy, as the two non-attorney advocates had yet to lose a case before the Delaware Special Education Hearing Panel, and, at the time of their advocacy, there were no law firms anywhere in the State of Delaware that regularly provided representation to parents of disabled children in Special Education matters as a primary law practice area. Since these non-attorney advocates, while seemingly successful thus far in pursuit of enforcement of the rights of several disabled children, do not fall under the auspices of any recognized standards of conduct or other professional ethical standards, while not commenting on the merits of the now-pending proceedings in Delaware, I think that it is important for us to focus on ensuring that any multidisciplinary practice be limited to those persons with professional licences who are subject to public penalty when found to have committed an infraction of recognized ethical standards.
When comparing the ethical rules for attorneys -- either the Code or the Rules -- with the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct promulgated by the American Psychological Association, we find some interesting comparisons. For example, a psychologist is forbidden from abandoning a patient or client, whereas an attorney may often withdraw from representation of a client at will, especially when not then engaged in active litigation on behalf of that client in a Court. In my law practice, I can't think of any circumstance whereby a termination of the attorney/client relationship by the attorney prior to completion of the assignment would not objectively be considered to be abandonment of a client with a true need, that is, the provision of services that had been thus far denied for a disabled child. Likewise, it is interesting, while awkward, to note that psychologists are barred from engaging in sexual relationships with current clients or patients, and, in most circumstances, former clients or patients, whereas in most jurisdictions there is no ethical bar -- at least so far as the Code and Rules are concerned -- that would prohibit an attorney from engaging in a similarly intimate relationship of a sexual nature with either a current or former client. Additionally, I note that psychologists are barred from engaging in exploitative sexual relationships with students or interns in their employ or under their supervision, whereas, again, there is no specific prohibition from an attorney engaging in a sexual relationship with a law clerk or impressionable associate that he or she is mentoring. Regarding the oft-heard concern that the development of multidisciplinary practices will result in the erosion of independence of professional judgment by attorneys, I note that psychologists are specifically under the mandate to resolve any such conflict in favor of the Code of Conduct, and to the detriment of the organization. Perhaps we should not be so quick to assume that other disciplines lack professional standards regarding ethics, and that the evolution of multidisciplinary practices will somehow cause the Model Rules to erode. Maybe, instead, the American Bar Association could take guidance from the ethical rules of conduct that regulate other licensed learned professionals.
Mr. Chairman, I am honored to have been invited to participate in a debate which I believe will serve as the foundation for developing delivery models of legal services in a client-driven market economy as we enter the twenty-first century. I encourage the Commission to continue its' work, and am hopeful that this healthy dialogue will result in the development of standards that allow for fully integrated service delivery models in multidisciplinary practices.
Philip Matthew Stinson, Sr., Esquire
Stinson Law Associates, P.C.