ALBANY - The New York State Bar Association has reaffirmed its opposition to the ownership of law firms by nonlawyers. A resolution approved by the organization's House of Delegates in a voice vote said its continuing opposition was "in the absence of a sufficient demonstration that change is in the best interest of clients and society, and does not undermine or dilute the integrity of the legal profession."
The Nov. 17 action approved a recommendation of a task force appointed in February to assess whether changes in the profession justified a shift in the position taken by the group in 2000.
The chairman of the task force, former state bar president Stephen Younger, said pressures on the legal industry, such as adoption of nonlawyer ownership of firms in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, plus the globalization of the profession made it necessary to revisit the issue.
Washington, D.C., now is the only jurisdiction in the United States that allows nonlawyers to own pieces of law firms. Nonlawyers can own up to 25 percent of law firms in the District of Columbia.
Younger also noted that the 2000 study which led to the state bar's stance against nonlawyer ownership was done during the rise of so-called multi-disciplinary practices, where lawyers were also performing the duties of accountants or investment advisers to some clients.
The American Bar Association has also discussed changes to its policy in opposition to nonlawyer ownership of firms, including a limited form of nonlawyer ownership, but has cancelled formal votes on the issue amid controversy among ABA members (NYLJ, April 18).
Younger, of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, said now is the time for the state bar to have its voice heard on the issue, as the debate plays out nationally.
"The issue is not dead within the ABA, it is still going to be considered by their standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility," Younger told members of the House of Delegates. "We think that the state bar ought to keep considering this issue as it evolves."
Younger said the issue transcends the question of who has an ownership stake in a law firm because it touches on independence of law practices and the delivery of services to clients.