Written Remarks of Lora H Weber, March 1999 - Center for Professional Responsibility

WRITTEN REMARKS OF LORA H WEBER

President And Executive Director, Consumers Alliance Of The Southeast

March 11, 1999

 Good morning. I am pleased to be here to share my thoughts on the issue of multidisciplinary practices and how individual and small business consumers might benefit from a relaxation of the current rules. It is an honor for me to appear before this distinguished panel today, and I thank you for the opportunity to testify.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Lora Weber, and I am president and executive director of the Consumers Alliance of the Southeast, a coalition of consumer groups, community leaders, and small-business owners. We are based in Texas but are active in a total of 12 southern states. Our organization takes public positions in support of consumers on a variety of issues and seeks to educate consumers about the choices and rights available to them. I am also a board member of the National Consumers League, the oldest consumer advocacy organization in the United States.

Before forming the Alliance I spent 16 years in government positions in the state of Texas, including eight years as Director of Consumer and Public Affairs for the Texas Public Utility Commission. I also served in the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and the Texas Department of Insurance. My career has been devoted to consumer service. Like most consumer advocates, I am dedicated to ensuring that consumers have choices and are educated and informed about those choices.

You may or may not be aware that the Commission’s work is attracting attention within the consumer community. I first heard about it through a friend of mine, a consumer activist in California named Jim Conran. Jim shared with me his written testimony for this Commission — testimony that I understand he submitted to you before the Los Angeles hearings and that is to be made a part of the written record of the Commission’s deliberations. After reading his comments and looking at the comments of others on the Commission’s web page, as well as reading the Commission’s mission, I decided to ask to testify in person.

As I looked at the testimony posted on your web site, it struck me that this Commission has heard plenty about the need of large, multi-national corporations for integrated professional services. It seems to me, in fact, that the debate has been far too focused on that aspect of the issue. The question of whether a Fortune 500 company could save money if one of the giant accounting firms could offer legal services, tax advice and other types of business services under one roof just doesn’t necessarily resonate with ordinary people. To me, that misses the point. Rather, I come before you today to offer the perspective of the individual consumer and the small business consumer — two groups that I think have been under-represented thus far in your deliberations.

When I spoke with Mr. Garwin about testifying a month or so ago, he told me the Commission was very interested in hearing whether there truly is a consumer demand for integrated professional services. I took that to mean that the Commission is skeptical that consumers want these kinds of professional relationships.

Ladies and gentlemen, there most certainly is a demand. But I will concede that it’s not demand that manifests itself in obvious ways. There aren’t crowds of consumers picketing the hotel right now. I suspect you haven’t been inundated with consumer complaints. This isn’t an issue that galvanizes the public into demanding action. But I don’t think you should interpret the lack of organized outrage as a sign that consumers don’t care about this issue.

The fact is that the average consumer isn’t aware that there is the possibility of getting legal services any way other than the current way — walking into a law firm or calling a lawyer and asking for help. Most consumers, in other words, aren’t aware of what they are missing. But if you lift the restrictions barring multidisciplinary practices, I think you’ll find just how great that hidden demand is. And I think you’ll help improve the image of the legal profession, too.

When I begin to talk to consumers and small business owners about this issue, when I explain the advantages that would result from having access to integrated professional services, you can see the light bulb go on in them. Most of the people I speak with have never thought about the possibility of having different kinds of professionals working together with a lawyer on their behalf. But it is clearly an idea that appeals to most people.

Let me give you some examples. Statistics vary, but by most estimates more than half the adults in the United States don’t have a will. I suspect that one reason is that people don’t want to go through the hassle or expense of hiring a lawyer to help them prepare a will. But what if an individual’s financial advisor could pair with a lawyer to provide this service? That individual could get advice on how to invest for his or her retirement and then step down the hall to work with a lawyer on his or her will. It could be a package service, provided at a reasonable cost to the consumer. Consumers would get more value for their money and make life a lot easier for their heirs. It’s hard for me to see the objections to those kinds of outcomes.

What about purchasing a home? In the span of a few weeks after you decide to buy a house, you’re on the phone talking to title searchers and inspectors, radon testers and appraisers, mortgage lenders, insurance agents, lawyers and Lord knows who else. It’s virtually impossible to keep track of how much you owe to whom, who’s working on your side and who’s on the seller’s side and who isn’t on anyone’s side. By the time it’s over, the joy of owning your own home is tempered a little by a nagging fear that someone charged you too much or sold you a service you didn’t need. But if you could visit one office and the professionals there could offer a complete package of services to buy a home, wouldn’t many people want to take advantage of it?

The same kind of innovative solution would apply to adding on to an existing home. Say you’ve talked to an architect about expanding the kitchen and adding a family room on the back of your house. But then you need to consult a structural engineer to look at the plans, you need a landscaper to help you figure out where to move the garden, a tax advisor to help you understand the tax implications of putting money into your home, and you need a lawyer with expertise in zoning laws to make sure the whole idea doesn’t get rejected by the town zoning board. Again, the best possible outcome for many consumers is an operation that provides all these services in one package.

Finally, let’s take a look at small business owners. One of the backbones of America is the way in which we encourage entrepreneurship, and we are in an era when more people are starting their own business than ever before. But starting a business is a complex process. It requires lawyers, accountants, financial planners, tax advisors, experts in information technology resources, perhaps even such things as printers, graphic designers and web page designers. Again, an entity that provides these and other types of services in a package would be very interesting to entrepreneurs.

These are just a couple of examples of partnerships between lawyers and non-lawyers that would, quite frankly, make people’s lives easier. In the end, I believe that should be the goal of this Commission: what can you do to make consumers’ lives easier? You need to acknowledge that lawyers are scary to the average person. Most people only visit a lawyer in a hostile, adversarial situation — they find themselves in some legal entanglement and they need help. Often, consulting a lawyer is an individual’s last resort. The average person is intimidated by lawyers, worries about being taken advantage of, is concerned about the expense of just talking to a lawyer, and generally can’t see the positive benefits of having any kind of relationship with a lawyer. But you have an opportunity here to re-cast the legal profession as part of a problem-solving team whose primary goal is finding integrated, efficient and effective solutions to the everyday problems that confront all of us.

The fact is, this is not a debate about lawyers and where they can or cannot practice their trade. This is — or at least it should be — a debate about the best way to provide services to consumers. And from that perspective, it is clear that integrated services — multidisciplinary practices — are the wave of the future. Consumers want more choices. They want choices of which phone service they can choose, which Internet provider they use, which grocery store they shop at, which kind of gas they buy. It’s how American business thrives.

It’s time for the legal profession to recognize that the average person doesn’t care whether his or her lawyer practices in a downtown office building with a bunch of names on the door or in some other arrangement. They just want choices.

I urge this Commission to move in the direction that so many other professions have moved in the last two decades. Give consumers more choices by permitting lawyers to work side by side with non-lawyers who have different kinds of expertise. The end result, I believe, will be a legal system that is strengthened, not weakened; more consumer-friendly, not less.

Thank you very much.

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