Jacoby & Meyers, the New York-based personal injury firm, believes that law firms should be allowed to be owned, at least partially, by non-lawyers.
They've even filed a lawsuit in New York challenging the state rule that specifically bars attorneys from practicing in firms or businesses in which a non-lawyer has any interest.
If they prevail, it could mean that firms might be able to raise funds from a plethora of other sources, including outside investors. This practice, though rare in the United States, has a global reach.
Australia and England have implemented laws that allow non-attorneys to gain an equity interest in a firm. Stateside, so far only one jurisdiction has passed similar laws: the District of Columbia.
Some believe that this type of ownership structure might result in lower prices for legal services. And it might also result in a more consumer-friendly environment. After the U.K. passed its Legal Services Act, some legal companies and retailers have joined forces to offer consumers the ability to get some legal work done even in a store like WHSmith.
Imagine the convenience consumers could enjoy if they could buy a bottle of shampoo and get a simple will drafted all in one place.
But expansion of law firm ownership to non-attorneys does have some individuals concerned.
There are ethical issues that may arise, as Andrew M. Perlman, a legal ethics professor at Suffolk University Law School, pointed out to The New York Times. Shareholders who are non-attorneys might want to know how their investment is panning out, and might want to know specific details of cases that are covered by privilege.
And, law firms owned by non-lawyers may also run into difficulty as attorneys may need to worry about pleasing shareholders versus offering the best in client services. On the other hand, this shift might not be so drastic - the Times reports that Ken Fowlie, executive director of a publicly traded Australian law firm, says that this kind of thinking is drawn from the naïve belief that attorneys and partners aren't already motivated by profit.
Selling Pieces of Law Firms to Investors (New York Times)
North Carolina May Allow Non-Attorneys to Invest in Law Firms (FindLaw's Strategist)