Ethics attorney Jim Doppke makes his fourth appearance on the show to discuss the pros and cons of liberalizing legal ethics rules like Model Rule of Professional Conduct 5.4 that prohibit people who are not lawyers from owning an interest in legal services companies and preventing them from sharing in legal fees.

Court cases as early as the 1900s (and probably earlier) emphasized that the practice of law is a profession and the attorney client relationship is one of trust. Therefore, the reasoning went, a lawyer’s judgment should not be influenced by business concerns and for that reason, lawyers could not organize their practices into business entities like corporations nor could they take investment from others.

This concern was ultimately codified in the 1960s and 70’s into rules of professional conduct like MRPC 5.4 which is entitled Professional Independence of A Lawyer.

The rule says that lawyers cannot share legal fees with people who are not lawyers and that lawyers cannot form partnerships with nonlawyers if any of the activities of the partnership consist of the practice of law.

In recent years, the prohibition against business relationships between lawyers and those who are not has been challenged by certain members of the legal community. Much of the challenge comes from those involved in legal aid and fighting for access to justice issues. People in that camp believe that a law degree is often unneeded to help out people with certain legal rights, like going through a divorce or petitioning for benefits.

The thinking goes that with the right training, people who are not lawyers can help out at a much lower price point and provide services to those who might otherwise go unrepresented in legal proceedings.

There is also another group questioning the current need for Rule 5.4 because it is no secret that legal fees continue to increase and that with the use of tech, project management and defined processes, certain aspects of legal work can be done more efficiently and at lest cost. One good example of people with this view are those that work for large accounting firms who would also like to handle certain work for their clients that has otherwise gone to law firms.

There are a couple of states like Utah and Arizona that are testing the waters and permitting lawyers to team up with others to provide legal services and share legal fees. Jim discusses the ethical implications of these programs and explores preliminary statistics from the programs that track the number of people served and the number of complaints raised about the services.

Jim is an ethics attorney with the Chicago firm of Robinson, Stewart, Montgomery & Doppke. Before that, he spent most of his career as a prosecutor with the Illinois ARDC (the Attorney Registration and Discipline Commission).

Nowadays though, Jim isn’t prosecuting lawyers for breaking rules, he is defending them. But that is just one part of his practice. He also counsels law firms and business about complying with legal ethics rules, helps people applying to the bar to become attorneys and also branches out into legal malpractice cases. He also has a legal ethics focused podcast called Legal Ethics Now and Next.

Learn more about Jim.

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Episode Credits

Editing and Production: Grant Blackstock

Theme Music: Home Base (Instrumental Version) by TA2MI

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