Can You Practice Law in Any State?

Written by Willie Peacock10 minutes well spent
Download This Article as a PDF
Loading ...
multi-state lawyers

The multi-state lawyer may be a relatively rare breed, but practicing law in multiple states is a viable option. As a lawyer with seven bar cards, I often get confused reactions when people find out I can practice in seven states. And without a doubt, running a multi-jurisdictional legal career requires a ton of planning and effort. Nonetheless, practicing law in multiple states is easier today than ever before.

There are a multitude of reasons a lawyer might want to be licensed in multiple states. Along with these benefits come numerous challenges. Here, we review these benefits and challenges, then get into the nitty-gritty of how to practice law in multiple states.

Can a lawyer practice in any state?

The general rule is a lawyer can only practice law in a state court when they have been admitted to the bar of that state. An exception would be when the attorney is admitted on a pro hac vice basis, where the out-of-state lawyer can practice with an in-state attorney acting as local counsel.

For federal court, a lawyer must be admitted to appear in the district court where the legal matter is being handled. Admission to district court will generally require a state bar license, but that license does not need to be from the state where the district court is located. Accordingly, fields of law that are primarily federal, such as bankruptcy and immigration, may not require admission to the state bar where that attorney is practicing.

Learn more in our comprehensive resource on bar reciprocity and your options for practicing legally in other states.

Benefits of becoming a multi-state lawyer

A multi-state lawyer working remotely

Expanding your legal practice to multiple states offers a myriad of benefits, including increased client reach and enhanced professional flexibility.

More opportunities to grow your client base

The biggest benefit of being a multi-state lawyer is that you open up a larger client base. For example, if your niche practice is in a state with low population density, being able to take cases from neighboring states can significantly boost your business.

For some practice areas where venue shopping is important—mass torts and business formation are two examples—having a few different state bar licenses could make a huge difference for your clients and your practice. In addition, some of these clients may need representation in multiple states and would rather stick to one attorney who can handle all their legal needs across different jurisdictions.

Increased geographic flexibility

In most jurisdictions, the bar exam is only offered twice per year, which means an attorney cannot be admitted whenever they want. Moving between states can throw your career off for months or even years when you have to deal with licensure and character and fitness requirements.

Personally, when I met my wife, I was licensed in California and had just taken the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) in Missouri. I had a practice in California, but did not know what my next step would be. It turned out I could transfer my passing score on the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) to other states for a few years to meet their bar admission requirements. Five additional states later, I have made planning for our future a little easier by giving us options from coast to coast.

Ethical responsibilities of becoming a multi-state lawyer

There is some debate on whether you need multiple state bar association licenses if you are primarily practicing federal law. Some lawyers take the stance of “it’s primarily federal, so I’ll practice everywhere.” However, this approach can be risky.

As an example from the Sixth Circuit, a lawyer who practiced bankruptcy law in Michigan while carrying only a Texas bar card was initially admitted to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. Subsequently, the Michigan Bar sued him for the unauthorized practice of law, and the bankruptcy court then suspended him from practicing before it. Years of litigation later, the Sixth Circuit sided with the attorney and reversed the bankruptcy court’s decision. Unfortunately, the issue remains cloudy outside of that circuit.

Multi-state lawyers and remote work

While remote work has transformed legal practice in recent years, telecommuting from another state is a more complicated matter. Although some states have explicitly allowed telecommuting from other states, others may not be as understanding. You don’t want to violate the rules prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law.

Always check with your state bar first to see whether they have made a ruling on the multi-state lawyers issue. If they have, you should look into how to get licensed in that state.

Check out our Guide to Working Remotely as a Legal Professional.

Not quite “Uniform” Bar Exam

It is no longer 50 states, 50 bar exams. Even the legendarily difficult New York state bar exam is now gone in favor of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). The UBE is a two-day exam that provides a score that is portable between jurisdictions that accept the UBE for bar admission. There are even rumors that California—the state that once had the longest, most difficult exam and offered zero reciprocity—may move to the UBE soon.

The UBE is at once a welcome change and a frustrating misnomer. While each state that adopted the UBE administers the same test, the rules outside that test vary greatly, including:

  • Each state’s minimum UBE score required for passing
  • The length of time a UBE score is valid in that state
  • Character and fitness procedures are separate from the UBE and vary widely
  • The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is a second “uniform” test that many states require, and passing scores for the MPRE vary
  • A separate exam or course on state laws may be required
  • At least one state that I encountered required residency or an intent to reside indefinitely within the geographic boundaries of that state for admission via UBE score transfer

As we can see, the process for becoming a multi-state lawyer is anything but uniform across different states. Nonetheless, I was admitted to New York, New Jersey, Kansas, Iowa, and North Dakota for a year based on transferring my score from Missouri. It was easier than taking seven bar exams, but it was no trivial feat.

How to become a multi-state lawyer

two people shaking hands over the outline of two states

The two primary ways of being licensed in different states are (1) applying for reciprocity with other state’s bars and (2) passing the bar exams in multiple states.

Apply for reciprocity with other states’ bars

Even if you did not take the UBE, there are other ways to get admitted in a state without taking another bar exam. Most states have some form of reciprocity where they will allow lawyers admitted in a reciprocal state to gain admission on application—no exam required.

The states offering reciprocity typically have some experience requirements. For example, you may need five years of actively practicing law before you can be admitted on application or motion. Clio’s Bar Reciprocity guide is a great resource where you can select a state and find out all of the rules regarding reciprocity for that state.

Pass bar exams in multiple states

There is always the option of taking another bar exam. This tends to be a less popular option for multi-state lawyers—reciprocity and the UBE are typically much more popular options. My first bar exam in another state was an excruciating marathon, while struggling with unemployment, insomnia, and fear of failure. The second bar exam was infinitely less stressful.

Although taking bar exams in multiple states to become a multi-state lawyer is challenging, it may not be as harrowing as you’d think. The first exam an attorney passes is likely to be excellent preparation for the next exam they take, since there is so much overlap in subject matter. Additionally, you will already have experience with the rigors of a long (potentially multi-day) test.

Transactional lawyers vs. litigators

Whether you are a transactional lawyer or a litigator, you will face the same process for gaining admission to the state bar. In addition, the advantages are similar for transactional lawyers and litigators when they can practice in multiple jurisdictions.

For transactional lawyers, other than the cost of admission, bar dues, and CLEs, there is very little downside to being a multi-state lawyer. You can probably also expand your practice to cover multiple states relatively quickly. Although some substantive laws will vary from state to state, much of the work you have put into your transactional legal templates will carry over across state borders.

For litigators, once you cross the state border, you will have to learn local court procedures. This means you will not be able to submit your law and motion work to the courts immediately upon passing the bar-but you will get to that point soon.

Practical considerations for multi-state lawyers

For lawyers licensed in multiple states, be prepared to put in more work upfront. Consider the issue of trust accounts. Some states will allow you to piggyback on another state’s trust account if you are a multi-state legal practitioner. However, most states will require you to set up a trust account for that state specifically.

Finding a bank that can effectively handle lawyer trust accounts is challenging in itself. Finding a bank that can successfully handle trust accounts in multiple states is even harder. I went through the trust account journey with more than half a dozen banks and met with issues like:

  • One bank insisted on charging a monthly service fee for each lawyer trust account. Also, they could only take the service fees out of the trust account itself. This violates most state bar rules.
  • The next bank did not understand the difference between an IOLTA account (where the interest is paid to the State Bar) and a general business checking account.
  • My personal bank opened my trust account. But then they closed it without telling me because the account remained empty for six months.
  • Another bank said all the right things when I signed up. But they also closed my accounts without telling me due to inactivity after only two months.
  • My other personal bank had a dispute with the state of New Jersey and was not on their approved list for a couple of years. This bank also did not serve any of my Midwestern states. They would only open an account if I showed up in person for each state they did service. That would mean having to fly to each of the seven states to open seven accounts.

Finally, I found success with a bank in Kansas that services all the Midwestern states and California. This left me with only two banks to deal with regularly. They even called each state bar while I was in the branch to make sure they were setting things up perfectly.

Fortunately, there are a few online CLE providers that profess to handle nearly every state. You still have to balance reporting deadlines, reporting procedures, and CLE compliance fees in multiple states. I find the tracker on very helpful, along with their multi-state curriculum and a flat fee for unlimited classes.

You could benefit from getting licensed in multiple states

So can you practice law in any state? The answer is a definitive “yes,” as long as you meet the requirements of each jurisdiction. Although it is simpler to practice in one state, there are many benefits to becoming a multi-state lawyer. Among these are increased flexibility and more opportunities to grow your legal practice. 

Today, with reciprocity and uniform bar admission, becoming a multi-state lawyer is a lot less challenging than before. Just make sure you’re prepared for some administrative work on trust accounts and CLEs. If your circumstances require it or if you find it advantageous for your law firm to practice law in another state, adding a second or third bar license is certainly achievable–as well as key to your long-term success. 

Did you know Clio is approved by all 50 state bar associations? Schedule a free demo to learn more about how Clio can help you practice law—no matter where you’re practicing. 

Can you practice law in multiple states?

Mostly, no. Most practice areas are governed by state law, and those will require a State Bar license. Even fields of law that are primarily federal—bankruptcy, immigration, etc.—may require a State Bar license. However, there has been considerable litigation and debate amongst the courts on that issue.

Categorized in: Business

Set yourself up for success with our free Guide to Starting a Law Firm.

Get the Guide
  • Work wherever and whenever you want

    What's Clio?

    We're the world's leading provider of cloud-based legal software. With Clio's low-barrier and affordable solutions, lawyers can manage and grow their firms more effectively, more profitably, and with better client experiences. We're redefining how lawyers manage their firms by equipping them with essential tools to run their firms securely from any device, anywhere.

    See Clio in Action