A law firm is a business entity formed by one or more lawyers to engage in the practice of law. The primary service rendered by a law firm is to advise clients (individuals or corporations) about their legal rights and responsibilities, and to represent clients in civil or criminal cases, business transactions, and other matters in which legal advice and other assistance are sought.
In many countries, including the United States, there is a rule that only lawyers may have an ownership interest in, or be managers of, a law firm. Thus, law firms cannot quickly raise capital through initial public offerings on the stock market, like most corporations. They must either raise capital through additional capital contributions from existing or additional equity partners, or must take on debt, usually in the form of a line of credit secured by their accounts receivable.
In the United States this complete bar to nonlawyer ownership has been codified by the American Bar Association as paragraph (d) of Rule 5.4 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and has been adopted in one form or another in all U.S. jurisdictions, except the District of Columbia. However, D.C.’s rule is narrowly tailored to allow equity ownership only by those nonlawyer partners who actively assist the firm’s lawyers in providing legal services, and does not allow for the sale of ownership shares to mere passive nonlawyer investors. The U.K. had a similar rule barring nonlawyer ownership, but under reforms implemented by the Legal Services Act of 2007 law firms have been able to take on a limited number of non-lawyer partners and lawyers have been allowed to enter into a wide variety of business relationships with non-lawyers and non-lawyer owned businesses. This has allowed, for example, grocery stores, banks and community organizations to hire lawyers to provide in-store and online basic legal services to customers.
The rule is controversial. It is justified by many in the legal profession, notably the American Bar Association which rejected a proposal to change the rule in its Ethics 20/20 reforms, as necessary to prevent conflicts of interest. In the adversarial system of justice, a lawyer has a duty to be a zealous and loyal advocate on behalf of the client, and also has a duty to not bill the client excessively. Also, as an officer of the court, a lawyer has a duty to be honest and to not file frivolous cases or raise frivolous defenses. Many in the legal profession believe that a lawyer working as a shareholder-employee of a publicly traded law firm might be tempted to evaluate decisions in terms of their effect on the stock price and the shareholders, which would directly conflict with the lawyer’s duties to the client and to the courts. Critics of the rule, however, believe that it is an inappropriate way of protecting clients’ interests and that it severely limits the potential for the innovation of less costly and higher quality legal services that could benefit both ordinary consumers and businesses.