On Balance

How to Handle a State Bar Letter Questioning Your Fitness to Practice

By | Aug.08.17 | Daily Dispatch, Ethics, Law Practice Management, On Balance

On Balance Legal Ethics

In my last column, I discussed how you can relocate to another state without sitting for another bar exam. One question that naturally stems from that discussion is what to do if you make a mistake in your relocation, and you fail to do something required by your new state’s bar.

It is relatively common when moving to a new state to have questions about the process of licensure or permission to practice in the new state. You read the rules carefully, reviewing them a number of times, and you think you did everything correctly. But what if you made a mistake, or the state bar thinks you did? Receiving a letter from the state bar questioning your fitness to practice, or whether you have followed all the rules permitting you to practice, induces panic. Here is how to handle it.

1. Understand What Triggered the Letter

You first need to understand why you received the bar letter. Did you file something like an application to register as in-house counsel? Or did someone report your practice to the bar? Knowing why the letter came in the first place will help you plan your strategy. Some actions, like filing an application for in-house counsel, frequently trigger an investigative response. It may not be personal to you as much as it is part of the routine process.

2. Go Back to the Rules

The state bar letter likely includes a reference to the rules that may have been violated; go back and read them. Also, read any other rules relating to your law practice. Make sure you understand the entire landscape of rules and how they work together so that you can present your situation to the bar.

3. Gather Resources

Look for resources to help you respond to the state bar. Are there message boards for people in your situation? Colleagues or friends who have been through the process? Articles written about your state and your situation? You need to find out what to expect, so pull out the stops to learn what you can.

4. Consider Counsel

Even if you are not going to hire counsel to represent you in responding to the bar’s letter, it is a good idea to make some phone calls. Take the temperature of the defense bar in your area. See if they think that this is a terrible bind you have gotten yourself into or a curable situation. Find out if there are steps you can take to increase your odds of success.

Some counsel will help you draft your response to the bar even if you do not hire them to handle the response completely. This can be a very helpful and cost-effective way to approach your application. Counsel who handle bar admissions and moral character applications routinely will know useful phrases to include, attitudes to project, rehabilitative steps to take, and general tones and approaches that are most successful in obtaining a positive result. It may also be that, in your state, having counsel represent you in this phase of your application is not particularly useful, as the role of counsel may be extremely limited by the bar. In this case, use a limited scope representation arrangement with defense counsel to help you through the response and increase your odds of success. (Read: “Attorney Discipline: A Fool for a Client?”)

5. Do Not Panic When Facing the Bar

It is terribly unsettling to receive correspondence questioning whether you should be practicing law in the state. It hits at your core. Navigating the process successfully requires a level head, a careful examination of the facts and a measured, even-keeled response. Panic is not your friend in this situation.

We are accustomed to counseling clients to handle their most stressful times with as much grace and calm as possible, but it is very different when we find ourselves in their shoes. This is the time to take the advice you would give a client.

Read: “Can You Relocate to Another State Without Taking a New Bar Exam?

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of "The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide." In her law firm, Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing full and limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and providing guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. At age 21, she earned her J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple Federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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