Written Remarks of James L. Brown - Center for Professional Responsibility

Written Remarks of James L. Brown

Statement of James L. Brown
Director, Center for Consumer Affairs
University Center for Continuing Education
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Submitted to the ABA Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice

March 10, 1999 Thank you for giving me the opportunity to offer my comments for the record. I submit these comments wearing a couple of different hats. First, I am a lawyer, an active member of the American Bar Association, and a fellow with the Consumer Financial Services Committee within the Business Law Section of the ABA. Second, I have been the Director of the Center for Consumer Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1977. I teach a number of courses both within the Center and in several different schools and departments at the various campuses within the University of Wisconsin system, focusing on consumer law matters, and on consumers’ expectations, needs, and behaviors. I have been very active within the consumer community for some time, having served as president of the Wisconsin Consumers League since 1983 and as a board member to the Consumer Federation of America since 1992, among other posts.

I’ve been thinking about the issue with which this Commission is wrestling from both those perspectives: as a lawyer, and as an advocate for consumer rights. In some ways, those two perspectives are often in tension, if not direct conflict. But the reality is that there can ultimately be only one perspective to take into consideration: that of the client. The question every professional must constantly ask him or herself is whether the services he or she is providing meet the client’s needs as efficiently and effectively as possible. If the answer is no, that professional - and that profession -- must evolve or else be rendered obsolete and out of business.

That’s the way the legal profession must approach this issue. The bottom line for consumers is that when they approach a professional - any professional - they are seeking solutions to problems. They aren’t necessarily seeking any particular type of expertise - they are simply seeking whatever combination of expertise offers the best possible solution to their problem. But what is changing in the waning days of the 20th century, in my view, is the complexity of those problems. People’s situations -- and thus, their problems --are more complex and multi-faceted as a direct result of our lives evolving in the same direction. As such, these problems demand more complex, more multi-faceted solutions. Couple this societal phenomenon with the mushrooming specialization within the traditional professions, and the benefits of multi-disciplinary problem-solving are overwhelming for consumers.

Let me explain. What we’ve witnessed in the last 10-15 years is a dramatic acceleration in the pace of the crumbling of the previously distinctive, largely balkanized nature of "professional" services. In financial services, in medical services, in telecommunications, in virtually every major professional service area, the watchwords are now "collaboration" and "interdisciplinary." In my own career of adult education, interdisciplinary educational efforts are the hottest thing going. Adults are coming back to school to learn new ways to analyze situations and to solve problems from teams or groups of instructors melding their various skills and knowledge bases - the specialized training of yesteryear is giving way to broader educational approaches to instruction.

My wife is directly involved in another example of this evolving approach. As a sports physical therapist, she works in a model utilizing a host of other professionals - nurses, doctors, therapists, counselors, pharmacists, alternative medicine practitioners, sports psychologists, and others. Their skills complement hers - to the crucial end of serving the needs of their patients. This group works collaboratively to offer a range of services to meet the needs of various people engaged in athletic endeavors, from Olympic-caliber speedskaters to professional ballet dancers to high school basketball players to "weekend warriors" who pull a muscle during their weekend jog. This collaborative approach allows the group to meet the wildly divergent needs of Milwaukee-area athletes. Obviously, a speedskater training six to eight hours a day for a two-minute race in Salt Lake City a year from now has very different needs than a 40-year-old playing on his office softball team once a week. The point is that both these individuals - and everyone in between - can get the services they need at one location, and from a team of service-providers whose particular special kinds of expertise serve the needs of the patient, either individually or collectively. That’s good for the consumer, and what is good for the consumer is good for business.

The bar has been resistant to this concept and I think that is to the profession’s long-term detriment. The splendid isolation in which the traditionalists would have us view legal notions simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the needs of many consumers - and their situations and problems -- today. At a minimum then, the burden in this debate is seemingly on those who would retain the distinctive, traditional, balkanized model of professional service provision to demonstrate that the types of restrictions they advocate are of the least restrictive nature. I think that’s likely to be a difficult case to make. But, at the very least, the burden is on them to make it. It seems to me that the Model Rules are, in fact, excessively restrictive - they limit the options and the combinations available to consumers. The rules of any profession should be designed so as to serve the needs of consumers of that profession’s services, and only then the interests of the service providers.

A major problem within the law profession, in my view, is that it continues to hold on to the archaic notion that people have only distinctly, uniquely legal problems that can be solved only by lawyers. While this may be true in some cases, I’d be willing to guess that the overwhelming majority of problems in people’s lives today are only partly legal, and generally have other aspects to them - aspects necessitating other types of professionals to help devise an accurate analysis and an effective solution. Doctors, for example, are increasingly working in a variety of milieus and collaborative arrangements designed to serve the overarching needs of consumers, whose problems may be only be partially medical. Why shouldn’t lawyers do the same?

In the end, what matters to consumers is that whatever problems they have get solved. How they get solved is much less important. Consumers often don’t make fine distinctions between the legal aspects of their problem and the financial aspects, the psychological aspects, and the other aspects. No one wants to spend all day driving around town stopping at the offices of four different professionals to get advice and then struggling with the often difficult task of coordinating the disparate advice or services they may have received. But by keeping lawyers out of the mix of service providers that can work together in a single entity, you are limiting the ability of consumers to get efficient, comprehensive, coordinated solutions to their problems.

As the world grows more complex, the problems grow more complex but the traditionalists in the legal profession would stay the same. That kind of approach not only is counterproductive when it comes to offering the best solutions, it also runs the risk of embittering consumers against the legal profession and its practitioners.

The legal profession needs to react to and embrace this evolution. It should change the Model Rules to ensure that the needs of consumers of legal services come first, not the interests of the providers of legal services.

Thank you very much.