To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
Every lawyer is governed by a set of rules of professional conduct. Each state’s rules vary, but most of them can trace their roots to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
Periodically the nation’s largest lawyers group conducts a top-to-bottom review of the model rules and the system of lawyer regulation to take into account the way the practice, technology and social norms have changed. That work is going on right now through the ABA’s Commission on Ethics 20/20. While the commission’s work won’t be finalized until next year, the New Jersey State Bar Association has been monitoring the progress and preliminary findings, with an eye toward what makes sense for the attorneys who live and practice in this state.
One item of particular concern to the New Jersey State Bar Association is a proposal that would allow non-attorneys to become owners in a firm, have an equity share and share in firm profits. The state bar association was one of the first in the country to sound an alarm about this issue. The association believes the public has been well served by the longstanding roles and responsibilities of attorneys in the ownership of law firms. We see great value in the stability that has flowed from personal accountability of each law firm owner to the judiciary, the bar and the public, and are wary of changing the status quo without good reason.
Our membership is drawn from all corners of the legal profession, with representation from firms large and small, government attorneys and in-house counsel. Yet, we are unaware of any outcry within the New Jersey bar, business community or general public regarding allowing non-attorneys to acquire equity ownership of law firms, no matter how limited. If there is good reason to change the rules governing law firm ownership, it is not apparent to the association.
Some firms may employ non-attorneys to help serve their clients, such as nurses at personal injury firms. But our current rules already permit firms to compensate these professionals as generously as firm owners see fit, and we see no operational need for them to acquire ownership interest in firms, or any evidence that firms otherwise will lose the services of these employees.
The New Jersey State Bar Association applauds the work of the commission, but feels that this proposal is a solution in search of a problem.