Lawyers Do Good and Do Well by Reaching Beyond the Boundaries of Local Practice

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Lawyers – and prospective lawyers – thinking of how to grow a practice while doing some good should give Federal practice a close look.

Licensure in any state qualifies a lawyer to practice in Federal courts in that state. Graduates of all types of California law schools can qualify for membership in the bar of Federal courts in the state, once admitted to the bar in California. The District Court of the Northern District of California, for example, specifies that:

“To be eligible for admission to and continuing membership in the bar of this Court, an attorney must be an active member in good standing of the State Bar of California, except that for any attorney admitted before September 1, 1995 based on membership in the bar of a jurisdiction other than California, continuing active membership in the bar of that jurisdiction is an acceptable alternative basis for eligibility.”

Immigration, bankruptcy, copyright and trademark, tax, and social security disability are among the many areas where attorneys make a difference via Federal practice. Civil rights, employment discrimination, and a variety of specific federal laws governing the energy and transportation industry provide additional specialty areas to explore.

Fred Nelson practiced for over 50 years in railroad-related labor and employment and injury compensation law. He tells of appearing in both state and Federal courts frequently in those years, but working primarily with Federal law, because of the specific acts governing railroad workers, among them the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). FELA was a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when rapid expansion of the railroads made it a very dangerous thing to be a railroad worker. Because workers inherently traveled across state lines, existing injury compensation systems really didn’t work, and Congress responded by providing national protection. Fred was licensed in California, but he had a truly national impact.

Beyond winning the case and helping the client, there’s the impact of establishing a precedent that can have an impact in other Federal courts, at least as persuasive authority. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in California, has lead the way on national reform of environmental law, employment law, privacy, and personal rights, to name just a few areas. Whatever you think of the policy direction of its decisions, there’s no denying it has been influential. And all of that happened through lawyers bringing cases representing clients with a claim they thought worth pursuing.

And then there’s the core reward of protecting and defending the law itself. Jeff Dominic Price is licensed in California and Oregon, certified in appellate law, and a St. Francis School of Law professor. He works primarily as a trial lawyer handling complex civil rights cases and has said that he is motivated by working with others to uphold the constitution.

The Department of Justice website lists over 80 areas of law practice that its 33 different agencies and offices engage in. Normally, a law license from any state qualifies an attorney to represent the Federal government. (Individual agencies have different rules and policies; check individual agency and office websites for more information.) Chances are, any areas you are interested in practicing is included on the list, which ranges from domestic violence to complex litigation.

Attorneys will often have to meet additional, specific admissions requirements before joining the Bar of a particular court. These can include practice experience requirements, certifications of good standing from all states where the lawyer is admitted to practice, recommendations from current members, fees, and other requirements. Attorneys wishing to join the bar of the United States Supreme Court, for example, must have been admitted at least three years in any state or territory, must be recommended by at least two current members of the bar of the Court, and meet other application and admission requirements.

While it may be a dream, most attorneys will never argue before the United States Supreme Court. But they can expand a practice into Federal areas and make a broader impact through the precedents they develop. For more information on Federal practice and Federal courts, see the Administrative Office of the United States Courts website. A useful collection of practice rules for various areas and courts is located  at:


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.