Case for MDPs is ‘weak indeed’

There are vital social functions performed by the professions; as entities within civil society, self-interested or not, they do act as buttresses against the over-mighty state and their codes of honour often challenge the mindless market.’

So said the Guardian (no friend of the Bar’s) of the OFT’s recent report on competition in the professions.

It is true our professional rules prevent barristers from entering into partnerships with each other, or with colleagues from other professions.

That is because we firmly believe the choice and diversity presented to the professional client by the independently structured Bar is of real benefit to the end user.

So what of MDPs?

Is it not of the utmost importance that legal advice should always be independent and of the highest quality? Although the Bar stands to gain as a referral profession from MDPs, our prime concern is with this independence and quality.

Lawyers associated with an MDP are inevitably subject to corporate policy and pressure together with the desire of the deal-maker to ensure success.

Pressure comes from the big firms, who through the relentless march of mergers, exercise ever-increasing market muscle. What good for competition is a one-stop shop if there is, eventually, only one shop in town?

The OFT’s case for MDPs is weak indeed. It says they might achieve ‘advantages in branding’, whatever they may be, and ‘overhead cost savings’. But costs can be shared simply by co-location – you do not need a partnership to do that.

Curiously, the OFT says MDPs would provide ‘the ability to transfer resources in response to fluctuations in demand’.

That sounds like an anti-competitive form of cross-subsidy to protect the weak from the vicissitudes of the market.

We also hear predictions of a ‘seamless service’, another piece of meaningless patter.

For high-street firms, we are told that MDPs ‘should unlock potential cost efficiencies’, but those can be achieved anyway.

Finally, it is suggested MDPs would ‘enhance customer choice and convenience’, but surely tying in firms with each other, especially in a small town, would limit choice?

  • Roy Amlot QC is chairman of the Bar Council.

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