Jacoby & Meyers had an idea. If only they could get non-lawyers to put money into its firm for a share of the profits, they could fund expansion. The only itty, bitty problem with that is that it’s ethically impermissible to share legal fees with non-lawyers.
So it brought suit back in 2011, trying to claim its rights were violated. And worse yet, to me, tried to claim it was doing so on my behalf, when they wrote that suit was being brought:
“…on behalf of itself and all others authorized to practice law in the State of New York…”
Blech. Non-attorneys owning a share of law firms is an awful idea, and one that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals shot down last week. The firm tried to lawyer its way around the ethical prohibition by claiming it was a First Amendment violation of its right to freely associate. The problem, of course, is that the right to associate with a lawyer belongs to the client, not to the lawyer trying to finance business expansion.
As Scott Greenfield notes, it wasn’t always this way. It started, sort of, as the People’s Express of law firms:
When Jacoby & Meyers began, it was supposed to be the People’s law firm, solid lawyering at prices regular folks could afford. Some wags might argue that this was merely a marketing stance, as they wanted money as much as any other law firm. When they didn’t get it, they pivoted to a personal injury firm.
The firm having pivoted to personal injury, I’ll rehash what I’ve said before about non-lawyers owning any portion of a firm: It is an invitation to ambulance chasing. The non-lawyers simply skirt the ethics rules to which they are not accountable, and impermissibly hustle business. The concepts of ownership, solicitation and marketing all become fused into one unaccountable mess.
And what will the lawyers say when the non-lawyers gets found chasing? They would no doubt profess shock (shock!) that such activities were going on under their roof. “We’re so sorry! We had no idea!!”
Let’s hope this miserable idea is finally put to bed, for the surest way to degrade the practice of law and diminish the residual respect we still have in some quarters is to introduce non-lawyers into the mix.