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On Balance | Ethics

Can You Relocate Without Taking a New Bar Exam?

By Megan Zavieh

Whether you’re a military spouse, an adventurous spirit, want to be with aging parents or just want to move to another state, relocating once you are a licensed attorney brings special headaches. Unlike other licensed professions, like CPAs, where reciprocity among state licensing authorities is the norm, lawyers face the possibility of sitting for another bar exam in every new state. That may give you enough heartburn to forgo a lower cost of living, a great new job for your spouse or being closer to (or farther from) family.

Before you scuttle your relocation plans, here are some ways you may be able to remain a practicing lawyer in a new state — without taking another bar exam.


The simplest way to move and still practice law is to waive into your new jurisdiction. This is more likely in the less-populous states. Admission to states like New York and California get you little mileage in terms of reciprocity. Most states will not grant admission on motion unless the bar to which you already belong does the same for its members, and the larger states do not.

Reciprocity also typically requires that you be licensed and actually practicing for a period of time, normally five years. This takes out newer lawyers and those who have taken time away from practice.

Despite the roadblocks that often prevent admission on motion, this should always be the first place you look. If you are a member of the bar in the new state, you can practice freely in all types of law, and that is truly the simplest way to work. The simplicity is well worth the annual dues and CLE requirements.

In-House Counsel

Some states have rules permitting practice by in-house counsel without becoming members of the state bar. In California, Registered In-House Counsel must pass the moral character assessment, but no bar exam is required. With the Registered In-House Counsel status comes certain limitations, such as that you may not appear in court. Check your new state and see if working in-house would be a possibility under its rules; a corporate job may be your way in to the state.

Virtual Practice

If you intend to move but maintain a virtual practice in the state you are leaving, see if the state where you are moving will allow you to practice virtually in the other state. At present, states generally require that if you are sitting in the state, you be admitted there even if you are only practicing another state’s law for clients in the other state. However, keep an eye on this possibility as times goes on. This is an area of regulation ripe for evolution.

Federal Practice

Some areas of law are entirely federal in nature and, as such, you may be able to practice them in a state in which you are not admitted to the bar, so long as you are licensed in one of the U.S. states or territories. Such areas include bankruptcy, antitrust, immigration, Social Security, and trademark and patent law.

You may notice the qualifiers in the assertion of this section. That is because there is no bright-line rule that so long as you practice purely federal law you can practice in all capacities in any state so long as you are admitted in one. You must look at federal statutes governing your area of practice, the state rules for your new state and the rules of the local federal court in which you might practice.

For example, 8 C.F.R. 292.1 allows immigrants in the immigration process to be represented by attorneys admitted in any state; it also allows a variety of non-lawyers to provide such representation (including “reputable individuals”). So, if you move to Florida without being a member of the Florida bar, you can practice before the immigration agencies and immigration courts thanks to 8 C.F.R. 292.1.

This does not give you permission to practice before the U.S. District Court or Court of Appeals. To appear in federal court you must be admitted to that court. Now, you might be able to gain admission to the federal court depending on its rules, but there are 94 districts around the country and each one has its own criteria. Many require you to be a member of the bar of the state in which the court sits. Often, a pro hac vice application to that court will not solve the problem, as a court will not grant multiple such applications for the same lawyer, and living in that state will usually prevent even one such motion from being granted.

Despite its possible limitations, practicing federal law before an agency instead of trying to launch a new state law-based practice is a viable option for many relocating lawyers.

Freelance Legal Work

The proliferation of freelance opportunities for lawyers opens another possibility — work on legal projects without being the lawyer on the case. Many freelance projects involve providing the support for another lawyer’s work in the form of legal research or drafting of briefs and other papers. Check your new state’s rules for whether performing such work is deemed practicing law in that state. If you will be performing functions that do not require a law license, then you should be able to do freelance work without being admitted to the state bar.

Legal Work Outside the Practice of Law

A great many lawyers find themselves evolving into service providers who are not actually practicing law. As markets expand for online or digital services, you may be able to take your talent for your area of law and translate it into a digital product to sell, or to a new legal-related company through which to provide support but not legal services. If you take this path, you may never need a bar license again.

Pack Your Boxes

There are many possible avenues for continuing a legal career in a new state without sitting for the bar exam. Licensing issues should not prevent you from packing your boxes and setting down roots in a new state.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. 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. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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