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August 4, 2003

Legal Profession Reform Is Coming Much Sooner in UK Than US

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 1:50 pm

August means cool vacation retreats for leaders of the US bar, but it’s already hot-seat time for Peter Williamson, the new President of UK’s Law Society, which serves as both bar association and regulating body of the 90,000-member British legal profession. The London Times published an interview with Williamson last week.

(London Times, “Battle lines: Our correspondent meets Peter Williamson, the new boss of the under-threat solicitors’ union,” by Frances Gibb, July 29, 2003) [Link from Daily Legal NewsWire, Aug. 4, 2003.]

As we discussed here in a posting on July 24, the UK Government has begun a major review of the national lawyer disciplinary system and its training and competitive structure. The Law Society is expected to lose its self-regulating powers and the legal profession is expected to face significant new sources and types of competition.

Williamson’s comments show a strong kinship between British lawyers and their American cousins — a dominant guild gene. The American bar must be quite relieved that the Colonies revolted back in 1776, removing their fate from the hands of the British Lord High Chancellor. Of course, Amercian legal reformers feel quite differently. The London Times interview with Williamson shows that many of the same legal services issues exist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but with very different regulatory systems and reform impulses. Seeing the differences and similarities is quite telling.

Although there is plenty of anti-lawyer feeling in the United States, and consumer discontent, there is no way to focus reform efforts, because of the local regulation of the profession.  With problems such as multi-disciplinary practice (MDP) or the definition of “the practice of law,” for example, the need for change eventually results in a major ABA study or commission, fierce debate within the ABA and, then, separate versions of the same process in each of the 50 states, with vastly different (or no) results in the separate jurisdictions. (E.g., check out the ABA Joint Committee on Lawyer Regulation and the page listing state-by-state links on MDP committees and reports from each state.)

In contrast, the Financial Times wrote on July 25th that current reform efforts are “likely to lead to the legal world’s own version of ‘big bang’ deregulation’.  David Clementi, who heads the new independent review, is expected to report back by the end of the year, and has been “asked to work out how – rather than whether – such changes should take effect.” [Link from Larry Bodine’s Law Marketing Blog, July 26, 2003.]

Self-Regulation: A quick look at our Discipline System Resouces page demonstrates that decades of calls for reforming the American system of lawyer self-regulation have failed and appear to have no likelihood of success (at least in my lifetime). In Britain, in the face of a rise in client complaints from 10,585 to 14,880 in one year, powerful UK leaders are calling for an end to attorney self-regulation, and the creation instead of a “super-ombudsman” to oversee the lawyer discipline process.

Law Society President Williamson admits there is a problem with the way complaints have been handled but, “wearing his trade union hat,” told the Times (emphasis added):

“I very much hope we can avoid the step of some kind of legal services commissioner because it is not in the best interests of the public. It will be very, very demoralising . . . and the threat of fines does not mean the work will be done better or more quickly.”

Although Williamson supports more open access for the public to information about disciplined lawyers —naming and shaming” — he does not want the statistics about the aggregate number of complaints to be public and he appears to regret the Law Society’s own Client’s Charter, which “tells clients how to complain.”

Similarly, the Financial Times reported that the Law Society “ insisted self-regulation was the only way to guarantee lawyers’ independence.”   [emphasis added]

Opening Markets

. While there have been some US breakthroughs lately in the area of multi-jurisdictional practice (see our posting on July 27, 2003), our law markets are not being opened to competition and partnerships with other professionals (see the ABA on MDP), and the organized bar in America continues to war against nonlawyer providers of legal services (see our ULP Resources Page).

In contrast, as the Financial Times reports (emphases added),

A radical shake-up of the legal profession paving the way for law firms to float on the stock exchange and supermarkets to offer ‘Tesco law‘ was announced yesterday by the government [Tesco is the largest supermarket chain in Britain]. . . . Lord Falconer, the constitutional affairs secretary, said:

“There will need to be quality control, but if we can get to the point where there is ‘Tesco law’, we think that’s probably something of interest to the consumer.”

The Financial Times explained further, “The deregulation would open the door to mergers and diversification where accountants and lawyers in England and Wales could combine to form complete business services practices.   Investment banks could also set up, or take over, legal teams to provide a full transaction facility.”  The review commission is also “charged with drawing up new principles that will sweep away restrictions that stop companies such as banks and insurers offering legal advice to their clients, so such services would be available on the high street, including at supermarkets.”   In addition, banks and building societies and insurance companies are being immediately allowed to help bereaved families administer wills.

The Financial Times added “The Law Society warned that new entrants to the market could ‘cherry-pick‘ the most profitable legal services and drive traditional lawyers out of business” — a refrain heard universally by American professionals facing deregulation.  The London Times reports, however, that:

Williamson is with ministers over moves for greater competition and relaxing the rules so that solicitors can work for supermarkets — the “Tesco law” — as well as one-stop shops. “I’m keen to move forward the debate on competition and on the ‘modernising’ agenda — and to press for further liberalisation of the legal services market overseas.”


Although the systems are very different, both the US and UK bars are concerned over over low-pay by the government for legal services to the poor.    On this issue, The London Times notes about Law Society President Williamson:

But as a steady pair of hands who has been on the society council for ten years, he is tuned into the high street solicitor for whom the battle is not regulation but decent pay rates for legal aid work.  It is not just a trade union issue. “This Government pledged to improve access to justice.  But many people find it increasingly difficult to get legal aid. There are parts of the country very poorly served because firms are closing down. And there is a real danger we will no longer have a nationwide network of lawyers to do family or criminal work.”  [emphases added]

So far, I’ve seen no threats of work stoppages in Britain similar to the current boycotts in Massachusetts and Oregon, as well as in D.C. in 1988.

That should be enough to chew on over your coffee or tea break today.


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