The Utah Supreme Court on Wednesday swiftly approved pursuing the recommendations of a task-force report on legal reform, including allowing non-lawyers to share fees in legal operations.
The unanimous action by the full court clears the way for it to put in motion the next steps for identifying specific changes in state bar rules as well as public comment on any proposals.
“Utah will be moving ahead in accordance with those recommendations,” said John Lund, a co-chair of the Utah Work Group on Regulatory Reform and the immediate past president of the Utah State Bar.
The court less than a week ago received the recommendations in the 71-page report from the regulatory reform task force, and acted on them faster than insiders anticipated.
“They trusted the task force and the process,” said task force member Gillian Hadfield.
The report highlighted suggestions for wide-ranging legal system changes mainly intended to improve access to justice for middle- and lower-income residents who can’t afford private attorneys in civil and family court matters.
A chief task force recommendation was for the state to significantly loosen, or even repeal, bar Rule 5.4 prohibiting law firms and other legal services operations from sharing fees with non-lawyers.
The report urges a broader role for tech companies and other non-lawyers in legal services operations, and also would create a new regulatory agency to determine when and how non-lawyers could provide legal services.
Proponents anticipate efficiency gains in the slow-to-change U.S. legal industry. But proposed changes to Rule 5.4 have spurred concerns from Big Law and others that they could let the Big Four accounting firms gain a foothold in the U.S. legal market where they are not now permitted to operate.
The American Bar Association and other legal industry groups have resisted such changes. They argue that the professional independence of lawyers in the U.S. needs to be maintained as a barrier against unscrupulous legal practices.
Utah’s recommendations mainly line up with reports issued by similar state panels in California and Arizona, which also have recommended loosening or axing their versions of State Bar Rule 5.4.
The Utah report went further in at least one area. It proposes a new office, independent of the state bar, that could serve as a model for a multi-state regulatory body.
The state Supreme Court will next appoint a working group to establish specifics from the report recommendations. That group will be co-chaired by the two task force co-chairs, Lund and Utah Supreme Court Justice Deno Himonas,
The public also will have a chance to weigh in during a comment process, he said.