Legal ethics group calls for 'overhaul' of geographic practice limits

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Signage is seen outside of the American Bar Association (ABA) in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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  • Group says unauthorized practice rule needs an update
  • It seeks to permanently allow lawyers licensed in one state to do legal work in another

(Reuters) - A national group of legal ethics lawyers is urging the American Bar Association to update a rule to say lawyers licensed in one state may practice and represent clients elsewhere.

The Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers on Monday called for a revision to the ABA unauthorized practice rule, Model Rule 5.5, which serves as a model for states' own guidelines.

The proposal comes as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many lawyers to work remotely, in some cases prompting them to relocate across state lines.

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The 400-member legal ethics group sent its recommendation in a letter to the ABA's president. A report alongside the proposal said the change could give clients more choice in counsel and improve access to justice.

The ABA declined to comment pending further review.

The current rule allows lawyers admitted in one state to offer legal services in another temporarily under certain parameters. This generally prevents a lawyer from opening an office or having an ongoing presence in a state where they aren't licensed.

"The biggest difference is permanency," APRL president Brian Faughnan said of the proposed rule change.

Under the proposal, lawyers admitted in any U.S. jurisdiction could practice and represent clients without "regard to the geographic location of the lawyer or the client," where the services are given and which state's rules apply, the group said.

A lawyer would be able to live and work wherever they want, and advise on another state's law, as long as they are transparent about where their license is issued, Faughnan said.

State courts would still be able to establish rules on who can practice before them under the plan.

Faughnan said pushback to the concept has been fear that if local lawyers aren't required to be involved in matters, they will not be able to compete with lawyers from other locations.

Proposed changes to model rules, which aren't binding on states, need approval from the ABA's policymaking body.

The ABA ethics committee released an opinion in December 2020 that gave lawyers some leniency to work remotely if they are practicing the law of the jurisdiction where they are licensed.

Read more:

ABA opinion tackles the ethics of virtual work for lawyers

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Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com