The Future of Law (Part Two): New Ethos, New Ethics

Follow this link for a collection of my past three years of blog posts. It’s a FREE download!

For our first prediction, we’ll do an easy one:  the Model Rules of Professional Conduct will be changed to accommodate multijurisdictional practice and nonlawyer ownership of law firms.

This will happen when the tipping point of all the new practice developments we’ve been talking about is reached. The creation and adoption of the new rules will come quickly after that, because a new cultural ethos must have new ethical standards. In the meantime, the snowball is already rolling down the mountain — see, e.g., the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services we talked about last time.

The new Model Rules will trigger a cascade of related and derivative developments. None of these are hard to foresee. Here’s a sampling:

 

  • The process of adopting the new Rules will of course happen state by state, starting slowly, with intense polarization between adopters and non-adopters. The historically progressive states will lead the way.
  • Some states will be opportunistic in the early going, vying for status as the go-to jurisdiction. (Think Delaware corporate law. I saw this in my law practice when domestic asset protection trusts came into vogue, and states like Alaska and South Dakota jumped to the front of the line. The same thing happened when LLC’s first appeared, and Wyoming and Colorado jumped in.)
  • Because the new rules will be vigorously contested, a decision comparable to the lawyer advertising case (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977)) will be required to pave the way.
  • Once the new Rules are in place, professional corporation and similar laws governing law firm ownership will be revised.
  • Confidentiality and privilege will be expanded to nonlawyers in the new organizations.
  • With respect to clients, the earliest versions of implementation will be based on client disclosure, waiver, and consent, and likely will also require registration of the organization and its principals with the state (with background checks required).
  • There will be supervisory mandates governing the roles of the lawyers involved in the new multidisciplinary practice models.
  • BigLaw will jump in with both feet. Mergers with multidisciplinary and multijurisdictional partners will become the news du jour.
  • Group and prepaid legal service organizations, legal franchisors, and comparable market players will also be quick to jump in.
  • And so will industries that have historically worked closely with law firms — e.g., insurance, stockbrokers, financial planners, accountants, investment bankers.
  • But not too quick: these industries are highly regulated, and therefore new enabling laws and administrative rules will be required.
  • The malpractice industry will get a complete makeover.
  • Bar Associations will reinvent themselves to accommodate the newcomers who aren’t members of the bar.
  • There will be a huge CLE bonanza around all these developments.
  • Law schools will restructure curriculums to both teach the new rules and to offer classes in legal organization structures and business management that entrepreneurial lawyers are currently getting elsewhere.
  • Litigation and legislation and administrative proceedings will abound, and the whole thing will become a massive growth industry.
  • And so on and so on and so on.

It will take at least a full generation to assimilate all these changes, but 50 years from now lawyers and their nonlawyer colleagues will wonder what all the fuss was about.

More predictions coming re: how all of these and other developments will change not just law practice but the law itself.

The Future of Law (Part 1): Beyond the Borg

Follow this link for a collection of my past three years of blog posts. It’s a FREE download!

We finished last year talking about the law profession’s cultural ethos, and how new practice models and wellness initiatives are liberating lawyers from its harmful aspects (the Legal Borg). An earlier 2014 series also looked at alternative practice models. Another considered how the law’s cultural ethos can cause stress-induced cognitive impairment and how mindfulness practice can help.

These developments may have sneaked in unnoticed, but now they’ve become the elephant in the room, and it’s time to deal with them. They’re causing a seismic shift in the profession’s ethos, and a new ethos requires a new ethic:  i.e., new standards for how to enter the profession and how to behave once you’re in it.

The ABA Journal published a piece on that very topic on New Year’s Day, entitled Does The UK Know Something We Don’t About Alternative Business Structures?  The article begins as follows:

“For two nations sharing a language and legal history, the contrast in the visions at play in the legal systems of the United States and United Kingdom is more than striking. It’s revolutionary.

“The debates in the U.S. go on: Should ethics rules blocking nonlawyer ownership of law firms be lifted? Is the current definition of unlicensed law practice harming rather than protecting clients? What about the restrictions on multidisciplinary practices?

“And those debates are by no means ending: Witness the newly created ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services. Though ABA President William C. Hubbard does not mention ethics rule changes in the commission’s primary task of identifying the most innovative practices being used in the U.S. to deliver legal services, some of those practices have been questioned as possible ethical breaches. Meanwhile, the rules and restrictions stay in place. The situation in the United Kingdom couldn’t be more different: Such restrictions have largely been lifted, and under the Legal Services Act the creation of new ways of providing legal services—including through alternative business structures—is more than simply permitted; it is actively encouraged.”

Nonlawyer ownership of law firms, unlicensed practice, multidisciplinary practice… those are big issues. We’ll let the ABA tackle them. If you’ve been following these issues for awhile, you’ll remember the ABA did just that at their summer convention 17 years ago, and again the following year.

This blog won’t try to keep pace with the pros on that debate’s current version. We will, however, do some guessing of our own about how current trends in law practice and lawyer wellbeing might change not just lawyers and law practice, but our very stock and trade:  the law itself. A new cultural ethos in the law will do precisely that. It is already. We’re going to talk about that, and speculate about what it might look like going forward.

According to Wikipedia, futurology is an “attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present.” We’re not going to be systematic here. Instead, we’ll engage in some moderately-well-informed-but-we-don’t-know-what-the-insiders-know curiosity.

Should be fun. So draw the shades and polish up your crystal ball (maybe you prefer this kind, or maybe that) and let’s take a look!