Alternative business structures (ABSs) are reshaping the boundaries of the law by emphasising the benefit of integrated professional services, rather than pure legal knowledge, a leading academic has argued.
Professor Andrew Francis, head of the law school at Manchester Metropolitan University, said “connective legal professionalism” was a disruptive force breaking down the established boundaries that have long protected legal ‘exceptionalism’.
He studied 27 ABSs, most of them carrying out personal injury work, and 12 wealth management firms, for a paper entitled ‘Law’s boundaries: Connections in contemporary legal professionalism’, published by The Journal of Professions and Organization.
Professor Francis said the most common way in which ABSs asserted “distinctive expertise” was through the claim to an “integrated service”.
This was in “direct contrast to the exclusive claims of legal exceptionalism” made by traditional law firms, which highlighted distinctively legal services, for example the “foreground role of the lawyer” in corporate deals.
“Critically, it is the service to the client upon which the claim of integration is made and not the body of knowledge which provides the basis of that claim.
“This indicates something other than a straightforward emergence of a new profession and, moreover, is not a claim that is compatible with exclusivity. It depends on the connection.”
For example, FMG Legal drew on incident managers and lawyers to offer “combined expertise for greater results” after vehicle accidents; Maitland promised “expertise without boundaries” in taxation; and in media, Counterculture boasted “progressive multi-disciplinary practice, offering clients a one-stop-shop approach to gaining expert advice across a range of professional services”.
Professor Francis said: “Client specificity, rather than exclusive knowledge, is central to the connected claims of distinction.
“The ABS are well-positioned, willing, and able to frame their claims to distinctiveness in the provision of a tailored, bespoke service on the basis of their multi-disciplinary expertise.”
He described as a “hinge” the ability of ABSs to offer clients an integrated service.
Client care dominated as a “core value among the ABS claims”, and what was notable was they did not just highlight client care, but also the way in which it was delivered.
“While ABS were heralded as an opportunity to drive down costs, the ABS firms did not make strong claims in this regard. Rather than ‘costs’, it is ‘quality’ of service to the client that is emphasised. This is presented in terms of efficiency and effectiveness…
“Traditional legal values such as justice or rights do not feature prominently. A small number of ABS firms (primarily PI) make reference to affordable access to justice, but not in great numbers.
“Professionalism is referenced; however, this is framed as a descriptor as to the type of service provided—‘professional help’, professional advice’, and so on, or in terms of a quality mark, ‘professionalism, integrity and flexibility’.
“There is no reference to traditionally articulated values of professionalism such as trust, ethicality or wider public interest.”
Professor Francis said the wealth management firms he studied also made claims “on the basis of the integrated services to clients through connected expertise”.
He went on: “Rather than claiming that legal, or indeed accountancy, expertise is best suited to resolve a particular wealth management problem, the claim is that connected, accredited expertise is most appropriate.”
The professor said that “connection across previously rigid jurisdictions” was not simply “a negative description of lost professional control or the emergence of a new profession”, but it enabled analysis of how “a more flexible professional project” might take shape.
“Emphasising the importance of connective legal professionalism, therefore, does not simply layer on another way in which legal professionalism has been lost, is weakened or is threatened, but rather, sets out the basis upon which we may better understand its reconfiguration.”