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Have License, Can't Travel: Should Lawyers Be Able to Practice Across State Lines?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on October 21, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You graduated law school, passed the bar, and now you're ready to go. In one state, at least. But if you want to handle a case or advise a client across state lines, you'll soon hit a wall. Lawyers can't work where they're not admitted. For an out-of-state attorney to be allowed to practice across borders, they have to jump through significant hoops, sometimes even retaking the bar exam.

Is it time for a borderless legal market?

Lines That Divide

A lawyer's ability to practice across state lines can be significantly impacted by where they took the bar exam. If you took the bar in one of the 20-some states (plus D.C., Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and more) that have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam, then your bar results are more portable, allowing you to gain entry to other state bars without having to sit for a new exam. (If you did well enough, that is.)

Some states have specific reciprocity agreements, as well, "admissions on motion" privileges that can vary significantly depending on where a lawyer is coming from. Practicing attorneys in Washington State, for example, can easily waive in to Oregon, their neighbor to the south. If you were coming from New Mexico, though, you were out of luck -- at least until this year.

Other states, like California, might as well build a steel wall along their borders; to practice there, attorneys either have to retake the bar exam or sit for a smaller "Attorney's Exam." California, in turn, is excluded from other states' reciprocity rules. There is nothing to reciprocate.

A Constitutional Right to Practice?

One organization is trying to level the (uneven) barriers to interstate practice. The National Association for the Advancement of Multijurisdictional Practice describes its mission as fighting for admission on motion privileges and against "the tit-for-tat admission rules that provide you get admission on motion in our jurisdiction if our attorneys get admission on motion in your jurisdiction."

As lawyers, they've taken their fight to court, filing a host of lawsuits in state and federal courts, the ABA Journal reports. One of their arguments is that "the equal rights, privileges and immunities inherent in bar admission on motion ... should be provided to all American attorneys."

They've also argued that admissions rules infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly, and petition. If the "right to file a petition with counsel of choice" as constitutionally-protected conduct, NAAMJP argues, "it then follows that filing a petition is constitutionally protected speech."

They haven't had too much luck in the courts, as the ABA Journal notes, losing a recent appeal in the Fourth Circuit. But, the organization's push reflects a greater movement towards, well, greater movement towards relaxing jurisdictional barriers to practice. The state trend seems to be following along, with more jurisdictions allowing greater access for out-of-state attorneys.

Soon, we all may be able to take our law licenses farther. After all, who wants to be stuck bring just pro hac vice?

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