Can you relocate without taking a new bar exam? If your year’s plans include a move or some really fantastic travel, maybe even a temporary overseas relocation, your ability to work as a lawyer from a new place probably comes to bear on your itinerary. The good news is that although we are far from having a national licensing system that would allow us all to work from any of the 50 states, many opportunities exist to work from new locales without having to sit for a dreaded bar exam.
Considered in some senses to be the best way to move to another state, reciprocity allows you to waive into a new jurisdiction. The advantage of waiving in is that you become a full-fledged member of the bar in your new state, with all the attendant benefits (such as being able to practice on your own, in court, with no restrictions). You are most likely to find generous reciprocity rules among the less-populous states. Admission to states like New York and California gets you little mileage in terms of reciprocity, as 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 makes admission on motion unlikely for newer lawyers. There are also usually requirements that you have been actively practicing in the last few years (the rules tend to be phrased something like three of the last five years), which makes it less likely that lawyers who have taken time off from practice will be able to waive in.
Full admission also has its downsides, which you should carefully consider before jumping in. Once admitted, the new bar has discipline authority over you, and you owe your annual dues and CLE obligations. This is not necessarily par for the course, because it is possible (see below) that you could practice from your new state without being admitted there, depending on your practice.
As you choose how to proceed in moving, definitely look at the reciprocity rules and whether it would make sense to avail yourself of them.
Uniform Bar Exam
The proliferation of states administering and accepting the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) means a lot of questions about how scores can be used. If you took the UBE, check with the state to which you plan to move to see if your score can be used for admission. This is not the same as reciprocity. For up-to-date information on the UBE and your ability to transfer scores, look to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
If you are seeking a full-time office job in the new state, look to see whether you can work in-house for a company without gaining full admission to the state bar. Some states have rules permitting limited practice by in-house counsel when the lawyer is admitted in another state. For instance, California has a position called “registered in-house counsel” where you are registered with the state bar, and you must pass the moral character assessment, but no bar exam is required. There are dues and CLE requirements, and limitations such as not being able to appear in court, but you can work indefinitely in an in-house capacity for a qualified entity. New York has a similar rule. Check if working in-house would be a possibility under the new state’s rules; a corporate job may be your way in to the state.
An ever-growing trend is to build a virtual practice, where geographic bounds are of far less concern. Let’s say you want to continue practicing on behalf of clients in the state you are leaving, and the work is related to the laws of that state and not to your new state. Then you may find that the state you are moving to has little interest in whether you are admitted to practice there. This is also true if you plan to practice from another country. The other country may have no interest in the fact that you are physically present there when your work does not touch the population in your physical locale. Imagine working from the Caribbean for your clients in snowy Michigan. It can be done.
Look carefully at the rules of the state (or country) in which you intend to be physically present. In large law firms, administration typically requires that you be admitted where you are present; however, state bars may or may not be concerned with your presence. The mission of state bars is to protect the public in their states; you have no impact on the public of the state if you are not practicing that state’s law or for that state’s public.
Building a practice based on federal law is a safe alternative to allow you great physical mobility. 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. Some areas for such practices are bankruptcy, antitrust, immigration, Social Security, and trademark and patent.
You may notice the qualifiers in the assertion of this section, as there is no bright-line rule that so long as you practice purely federal law you can practice in all capacities in any state as 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.
However, this does not give you permission to practice before the U.S. District Court or Court of Appeals, as to appear in federal court you must be admitted to that court. You may be able to gain admission to the federal court depending on its rules, but with 94 districts around the country, 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. It may especially appeal if you are not sure you will stay in the new state and don’t want the burdens of gaining full admission.
Freelance Legal Work
The proliferation of freelance opportunities for lawyers opens another possibility: to work on legal projects without being the lawyer on the case. Many freelance projects are for other lawyers, where you provide the support for the 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. A great resource for individual rules is Lawclerk’s 50-state survey on the subject. If you are performing functions as a freelance lawyer for which a law license is not required, you should be able to do this 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 services like digital products, you may be able to take your talent for your area of law and translate it into a digital product to sell or a new legal-related company through which to provide support but non-legal services. If you take this path, you may never need to take a bar exam and get a bar license again.
Go Forth and Adventure
With so many possible avenues for continuing your legal career in a new state without sitting for the bar exam, it is entirely reasonable to not let licensing issues prevent you from packing your boxes or your bags, setting down roots in a new state or becoming a nomad.
Updated February 2020.
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