ALTA 2011 – Helen Sungaila and Peter Boulot

Helen Sungaila and Peter Boulot

James Cook University

A Critical Analysis of the On-going Regulatory Offensive on the Australian Legal Profession: Challenges to Legal Best Practice Management

These are my impressions of the presentation and a subsequent reading of the abstract supplied by the organisers (a full paper was not received).

I was interested in this presentation, partly because of metaphor:’on-going reform of the Australian legal profession has been variously described as … like a “tectonic shift” in the plates of the legal, professional lithosphere’.

I thought the presenters raised serious issues, such as the the proposition that legal reform was/is predicated on an outdated model of micro-economic reform serving a commercialised globalisation and commodification of the Australian legal profession, which could undermine reforms espoused as remedial responses to poor ethical and professional practices.

At least those were the issues I distilled from a peripatetic presentation moved quickly from one very densely packed proposition to another. Helen Sungaila was clearly very knowledgeable about her topic; these were big subjects, however, not easily addressed within a 20-30 minute session. There were moments when I thought more plain speaking could make the arguments expeditiously.

The presentation included a proposition that the reforms were partly intended to addresss ‘information asymmetry’. I understood this to signify that legal consumers have limited means to determine whether the legal goods and services supplied to them are good, and that these transactions are unfairly balanced toward legal providers who are the guardians of knowledge necessary to make such qualitative assessments. This imbalance was described as a ‘market failure’ that national law reforms are supposed to address.

On the contrary, however, it was argued that the reforms could facilitate a globalised and commercial (and ‘technologically-driven’) commodification of legal practices in which Australian law firms could become branch offices of multinational incorporated practices. Potentially this has implications for the teaching and practice of professional responsibility and ethics in Australian legal practice if the proposal to remove information asymmetry is to be realised.