Criminal Law

ABS not the answer to improving access to justice

Adopting alternative business structures (ABS) to allow non-lawyers to own law firms is a proposition that will not meet the needs of citizens who require legal representation, Toronto criminal lawyer Joseph Neuberger tells Sirius Radio’s What She Said!

“It’s a greater issue about whether we can service our clients in an ethical and professional manner while having people who are majority owners of the business that are non-lawyers,” he tells the legal issues radio show. “I think the two are uncomfortable partners. I don’t think it would work that well.”

Joining hosts Christine Bentley and Kate Wheeler, Neuberger says the Law Society of Upper Canada’s working group on ABS examined the possibility of majority ownership of law firms by non-lawyers as a way to improve access to justice. It recently released a report that recommends the law society shelve the notion, for now.

ABS is already permitted in other countries, including England, Wales and Australia.

Neuberger, partner at Neuberger & Partners LLP, notes many lawyers have taken issue with allowing alternative business structures for law firms in Ontario.

“I’m not really sure in different areas of law how you would actually make that profitable to a shareholder, but it changes the whole playing field with respect to ethics and professionalism,” he says.

Neuberger says that while allowing non-lawyers to own law firms isn’t necessarily a breach of professional ethics, the notion of corporate entities being permitted to own law firms raises serious concerns.

“You’d want to know (as a client) that the person you are dealing with has your interests first and not a shareholder’s interests … the firm would have to correspond with the rules of ethics and conduct,” he says. “However, you have a natural conflict between business profit and service to a client because this is a profession and is not like selling sheets in a store.”

Neuberger says if the law society had gone ahead with allowing non-lawyers to own law firms it would have opened the door to large, foreign firms — from countries where ABS is permitted — with vast amounts of capital to come into Canada and buy out smaller firms.

Neuberger says allowing non-lawyers to become the majority shareholders of law firms would be especially problematic when it comes to the pro bono work that counsel does in the community.

“No one wants to invest in a business where you’re losing money or not maximizing profit — so you’re not going to be maximizing profit if you take on pro bono work or you have a larger overhead than you should,” he says.

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