Is it time for a national law license, where attorneys can practice anywhere in the country regardless of their physical location?
The question is cropping up as firms have transitioned to remote work with surprising ease over the past six months, prompting some lawyers – and even the American Bar Association – to question if law practice needs to be state-specific.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is prompting calls to abolish a requirement that attorneys only practice in jurisdictions where they are admitted to the bar given the rise of remote work and other changes in professional life due to the coronavirus,” according to Bloomberg Law. “A handful of states relaxed their prohibitions prior to Covid-19, and other jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, have followed suit with temporary measures since the pandemic hit. A pending decision in a Florida case could help advance changes there. In addition, the American Bar Association’s ethics committee ‘will likely be taking a closer look at this issue,’ newly installed ABA President Lee Refo told Bloomberg Law in an interview.”
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Most states have some version of ABA Model Rule 5.5, which says lawyers licensed in one state may provide legal services in another state only temporarily and under strict conditions. A violation of the rule could result in disciplinary action.
The rationale is to protect consumers by making sure lawyers are admitted to the state’s bar and know the state’s laws, procedures and rules. But a Minnesota lawyer quoted in the Bloomberg article says the unstated reason is protectionism: states want to shield their licensed attorneys from outside competition.
Here are some other takeaways from the article.
- There are no known disciplinary actions against lawyers working at home in a state where they’re not admitted to practice because of the pandemic.
- The District of Columbia’s Unauthorized Practice of Law has relaxed its rules during the pandemic.
- Florida might make such changes permanent. “A proposed formal advisory opinion by the Florida Bar’s Standing Committee on the Unlicensed Practice of Law says that a lawyer living and working there for a New Jersey law firm with no offices in Florida isn’t engaged in the unauthorized practice of law if solely practicing federal intellectual property matters—his specialty— and not Florida law,” says the Bloomberg article. “The proposed opinion will soon be filed with the Supreme Court of Florida for final court action. The court can approve, modify, or disapprove the proposed advisory opinion. The court’s opinion will have the force and effect of an order of the court.”
- Some say lawyers should be allowed to choose to live in another state “if they can continue to ethically practice the law of the jurisdiction where they’re licensed.”
- Important ethical considerations: being candid with clients; ensuring that you are competent to practice in your state; not holding yourself out as being able to practice in a state where you’re not licensed.
- A universal law license would allow lawyers to relocate because of a job change, marital change, illness or other unforeseen change in life circumstances.
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