With all the changes impacting law firms right now, it would be easy to overlook an important regulatory development that recently took place. In November, the Florida Bar Association’s Board of Governors unanimously voted down proposals to test nonlawyer ownership and fee sharing in legal practices. The decision represents a sharp deviation from the trend of “regulatory sandboxes” that have taken root in states including California, Utah, and Arizona.
Debating arguments from the Florida Supreme Court’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services, which suggested these measures as opportunities to improve access, board member Josh Chilson expressed concerns, saying, “I’m troubled that this is being offered with no real evidence that the proposal will improve access to justice… This is a bell that once rung, will never be able to be unrung.” Member Sia Baker-Barnes asserted that allowing companies driven by profit to enter the legal services industry would impede the “independent judgment of a lawyer… critical to the fair administration of justice in [the] state.”
Those who support opening up law firm ownership to nonlawyers rely on a variety of arguments, ranging from a belief in the power of markets to assertions that such changes will improve access to legal representation among the middle class. The Florida Bar should be commended for asking for more evidence and reaching a unanimous decision.
Whether you think these changes are long overdue or expect they will bring on the demise of the legal profession, it’s clear that, if implemented, these changes will be very hard to reverse. So let’s dig deep and examine whether allowing nonlawyers to invest in law firms is the best and only way to improve access to justice. Let’s also explore more incremental changes that will enhance the economic standing of law firms that represent individuals. As consultants to law firms, we see firsthand that the more financially secure a law firm is, the better positioned it is to serve a wider range of clients.