Moral Superiority

Is the exclusion of “non-lawyers” from ownership of law firms simply a relic of the belief in lawyers’ superior morals? And is lawyers’ professionalism dependent on that particular organizational structure?

Those were questions raised in Tuesday night’s wide-ranging Twitterchat hosted by Monica Goyal, a partner in Aluvion Law and a member of the CBA Legal Futures Initiative’s Innovation and Business Structures team.

One of the most frequent objections to the idea of changing the current regulations regarding the ownership of law firms is the purported impact this will have on the professionalism of those involved.

“Is the reservation to diversifying structure a ‘slippery slope’ argument,” asked Goyal, or is it protectionism? “If yes, is this a really good reason to not allow for it?”

So what impact would ABS have on professionalism?

Hunimano Coelho, CEO at Leveret Inc., said it shouldn’t affect professionalism at all – it would essentially be an acknowledgement of the fact that some people are better at managing the business side of things.

Kate Simpson, a freelance legal consultant and owner of Tangledom, agreed.

“I’d like to think professionalism was more assured,” she said. “Lawyers get to do what they do best. Us professionals too!”

Allowing alternative business structures wouldn’t necessarily mean requiring a complete set of new rules, said Jonathan MacKenzie, a civil litigation lawyer. “Administrative/business rules may need tweaking but practice and conduct-based rules could remain intact.”

Natalie McFarlane founded Positive Impact Law Group on the theory that “a mind for business success and a mind for social consciousness for positive impact are not mutually exclusive and can operate concurrently.”

While she said she’d have to do some research on whether the idea of “superior morals” was a factor, McFarlane suggested resistance to ABS “perhaps could be a relic of the notion that rule of law is a separate and distinct process (and responsibility) than the effect of it.” And that’s not a good enough reason, because it can lead to unmet legal needs.

“Though, from experience, lawyers could think creatively and not be as concerned about protectionism, if that is a valid factor for the reservation to ABS.”

For example, McFarlane suggests the rules could stipulate that licensed lawyers be majority owners in the alternative structure, as is the case in her spinoff legal technology start-up – a company she only started because of the ownership constraints on law firms.

“My co-founder is an engineer and he naturally defers to me on the law, law practice, and rules of professional conduct.”


  1. I would think that ABS would push firms even closer towards a bottom-line profit incentive than they already are. 4.1-1[2] of the Model Code encourages pro bono work and waiving fees to encourage access to justice. Lawyers are okay at paying lip-service to the importance of judicial access. I can’t imagine the typical CEO even doing that.