US bar endorses probe of alternative law firm ownership

Bar adopts resolution to tackle what it calls an "access to justice crisis"

US bar endorses probe of alternative law firm ownership

The American Bar Association (ABA) passed a resolution on Monday that endorses the exploration of alternative law firm ownership, aiming to address what it called an “access to justice crisis.”

After several days of tense negotiations at the organisation’s biannual meeting in Austin, Texas, the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 115, which encourages US jurisdictions to consider “innovative approaches” and “regulatory innovations.”

The “innovations” should have the potential to improve accessibility, affordability, and quality of civil legal services, all while ensuring appropriate protections are in place to best serve the American public, the resolution said. The House of Delegates also endorsed the collection and analysis of data before and after these experiments to ensure that they really improve access to legal services.

Access to justice is a critical problem in the US, as more than 80% of people below the poverty line, as well as a majority of middle-income Americans, lack meaningful access to legal services while facing critical civil legal matters, the ABA said.

The resolution faced resistance from several of the largest bar associations in the US, which said that easing law firm ownership rules to allow partnership with non-lawyers would undermine the independence and ethics of the profession.

The resolution was finally passed after it was clarified that any changes to the system will be made in the interest of clients and the public.

The ABA has a history of considering easing its model rules only to ultimately reject proposed changes. This time, it is following states and jurisdictions rather than trying to lead them.

The District of Columbia recently sought feedback from the public about easing rules on alternative business structures for entities that provide legal services. Arizona, California, Chicago and Utah are also in different phases of looking into loosening existing law firm ownership rules.

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