Number crunchers steal march as lawyers moan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 1996, 12:00am

The Hong Kong legal fraternity is still crying foul about last week's legislation that abolishes scale fees on property conveyancing.

But lost in the conveyancing furore has been the potentially greater impact another proposal in the same bill may have on the future of the profession.

A move to allow solicitors to practise in 'multi-disciplinary' firms is contained in the fine print of the Legal Service Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1996.

It is the first time in Hong Kong the 'one-stop shop' concept for professional services has been introduced into Hong Kong law - and those in the know have not missed the significance of the move.

The law liberalisation - apparently designed to ensure more competition - could help revolutionise relationships between companies and their accountants and lawyers.

The all-round professional firm has rapidly gained prominence in Europe and is now reshaping the legal area in other parts of the world. It is seeing the elimination of traditional distinctions between law firms and accounting firms in particular, as well as other types of professional services operations.

Internationally, it is the 'big six' accounting firms - with the global networks lawyers lack - that have been aggressively entering the legal services field to set up one-stop shops.

In countries like France, Britain and Australia, major accounting firms including KPMG and Arthur Andersen have a major and sometimes dominant legal presence.

By comparison, law firms have been relatively low-key in their attempts at diversification, partly because they tend to be national rather than international practices.

There is also a higher degree of conservatism among lawyers about evolving into professional service firms.

So far, the one-stop shop professional firm has not taken off in Asia - but the Hong Kong move could see a wave of multi-disciplinary partnerships being formed.

The world's largest accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, is champing at the bit to offer full legal services to its multinational clients in Asia, but has so far set up shop only in Thailand.

KPMG recently set up its own legal firm in Australia, and is believed to now be examining its options in law in Asia.

Arthur Andersen has ambitious plans to become the world's largest law firm, and has made no secret of its aim to establish a single, worldwide law firm as its third division.

It claims much of the pressure for such a move is coming from its own multinational clients - who are looking for a single professional services firm to perform all of their business.

Asia is a central plank in Andersen's international strategy.

The firm's Asia-Pacific managing partner, John Burrows, says moves to liberalise rules on one-stop shop legal firms is a major boost for its operations in Asia.

According to Mr Burrows, the move ultimately is good for the community in Hong Kong because of the increased competition and the growing amount of services it will offer consumers.

Andersen is not interested in developing the full spectrum of services offered by a general legal practice - rather, it wants to concentrate on commercial law.

The moves towards the one-stop shop for professional services has been met with widespread caution in the legal profession.

While accountants are well-progressed in their plans to become all-round professional services firms, the same is not true for lawyers.

Patrick Moss, the Law Society's secretary-general, believes the one-stop shop is not always in clients' best interests, largely because of potential conflicts of interest.

One fact is abundantly clear in the wake of last week's developments. Accountants have gained a major jump on their legal rivals in setting up integrated professional services firms.

Also, territory law firms must shed their conservative instincts just to keep up with their aggressive competitors - or risk losing clients.