Understanding Reciprocity and State Licensing Requirements
The law becomes more uniform nationally with each passing year, so new attorneys often wonder if they can take one bar exam and be admitted in several states at once. Experienced attorneys making a move from state-to-state also wonder why they frequently must re-take the bar exam to be admitted to practice in their new home state. The answer lies in the way we license attorneys.
Bar admission rules are established by local supreme courts and state bar organizations. The lines they draw and the hurdles they erect are designed to ensure adequate competency of the attorneys they admit. Most states use the bar exam score to determine competency and require that it be taken locally. But a new option has emerged in the last few years, in states adopting the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE). More than half the states have now adopted the UBE and most accept scores from other jurisdictions, some without any additional state-specific exam. This new option makes it much easier for attorneys from those states to make a move, flexibly, when desired for work or family reasons.
“Reciprocity” is the term used to describe state bar admission rules and procedures by which an attorney licensed in one state can be admitted to the bar of another state, often without additional legal education or another bar examination but with some period of actual law practice – 5 of the last 7 years is a common standard – before an attorney may “waive in” (be admitted without bar examination.) When the attorney qualifies for reciprocity, she makes an application and pays a fee, and is admitted “on motion” — meaning she avoids the lengthy, time-consuming and expensive process of preparing for and sitting for the state’s bar exam.
About half the states have reciprocity rules. Most states with reciprocity grant it only to attorneys from states that grant it in return. (That is, Colorado and New Mexico might both offer reciprocity to each other’s attorneys, but not to California attorneys, since California has no reciprocity procedures.) Other states allow admission on motion and do not limit it to reciprocal states. Attorneys from states with no reciprocity normally have to re-take the bar exam in their destination jurisdiction. Some states, like California, have a separate bar exam just for attorneys from other states.
There is another path to reciprocity for attorneys from states, like California, that don’t grant it. If the attorney is willing to take just one more bar exam, he can take it in one of the 26 states that have reciprocity rules. Then, with enough practice time to meet the local rule, the attorney can hop to another reciprocal state if needed. Take it in a UBE state, and the opportunities are even greater, owing to score transferability. Of course, the attorney must meet all local rules of each state, including those governing the qualifying legal education. (States often require legal education from an ABA-accredited school.)
A dozen states and two territories report allowing admission on motion for experienced attorneys who are graduates of non-ABA approved law schools1. Government agency representation, military, in-house corporate, judicial and other types of practice, such as federal, may qualify as practice for these purposes, so the attorney may not need to live in the licensing state during those years of practice.
Before considering a move, attorneys should investigate the admission on motion and reciprocity rules of their present and destination home states. Those can usually be found in the Rules of Court, or in standards of admission published by the agency or bar association charged with bar regulation in the state. The American Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Examiners annually publish “A Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements”, which includes an overview of reciprocity. The 2017 guide is available free, while the 2018 guide is available for purchase. See:
Though now slightly out of date, BCG Attorney Search’s, “A Comprehensive Guide to Bar Reciprocity: What States Have Reciprocity for Lawyers and Allow You to Waive into the Bar” is another useful overview of reciprocity among the states. It will also acquaint you with one of the more well-known legal recruiters! It can be found at: https://www.bcgsearch.com/article/900046195/A-Comprehensive-Guide-to-Bar-Reciprocity-What-States-Have-Reciprocity-for-Lawyers-and-Allow-You-to-Waive-into-the-Bar/.
Gregory J. Brandes is a law professor and Dean of St. Francis School of Law. He is an expert on legal education and admission to the bar and is admitted to the bars of the United States Supreme Court, Colorado, and Illinois.
1 A Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, 2017, American Bar Association.