October 05, 2011

Oral Remarks of Lora H. Weber - Center for Professional Responsibility

Oral Remarks of Lora H. Weber,

President and Executive Director of the Consumers Alliance of the Southeast

The Commission next heard from Lora H. Weber, President and Executive Director of the Consumers Alliance of the Southeast. She is a consumer advocate veteran who leads an organization, active in 12 southern states, that educates consumers and takes consumer public positions. Her prepared statement was presented to the Commission.

Professor Daly asked Ms. Weber whether she saw, from a consumer perspective, an advantage or disadvantage to either a Model 4 practice setting, the so-called captive law firm, or the Model 5, fully integrated firm. Ms. Weber felt the difference in the two options would be invisible to consumers and either would give them the choices and benefits they desire. When pressed she said she thought the fully integrated model would be the preference. Asked her opinion whether the profession should take some sort of special precaution through a rule amendment to ensure consumers understood that certain services were "legal" and come with an attorney/client privilege whereas other services did not have that sort of protection she said consumers were looking for confidentiality as well as competence and good service from any professionals they use and if attorneys have a special responsibility she thinks that’s something it is "perfectly appropriate" to tell consumers (although she felt it’s something most consumers already know). In response to Judge Bradford’s inquiry how an MDP would alleviate the consumer’s fears of lawyers and the costs of services based on what they’ve seen or read Ms. Weber said having lawyers part of the team from the beginning would make consumers more comfortable with lawyers and their services and their fees as part of the process of doing business with the MDP. Consumers also would not need to worry about whether they’re carrying the right information with them to seek legal services. Dean Powell queried whether there was concern about consumers being steered from one professional in the MDP to another much along the lines of doctors steering business to a pharmaceutical company they owned; Ms. Weber said availability is appreciated and choice is retained as long as the relationship between professionals is described and the ability to go to outside counsel is preserved. She also thought the consumer could appreciate and would not confuse the scope of expertise of the particular professional. If a consumer "mistakenly" communicated information he or she considered confidential to the financial planner rather than the attorney Ms. Weber said the consumer’s expectation and understanding of professional roles would come into play but she doesn’t think it’s possible to impose the rules of one profession on another. She said it is not unreasonable that consumers expect confidentiality and trust in their relationships with professionals. She told Professor Haddon she didn’t know whether creative affiliations or other types of experimentations between lawyers and other professionals were taking place but she thinks MDPs will be more accessible to consumers because when they go to do any transaction lawyers would be available. She thought transparency would be needed in terms of letting the consumer know the relationship and roles of the parties. She told Mr. Mundheim that she wasn’t concerned that pairing law with real estate service or financial planning would make it too bottom line oriented as it was up to each individual whether he or she maintained professional standards. Ms. Katz clarified Ms. Weber’s sense that consumers might use lawyers more if they were in MDPs as it would help alleviate their fear of lawyers. Ms. Katz also highlighted the point Ms. Weber had made that lawyers are problem-solvers - she feels it is something the Commission needs to emphasize.