Many state bars have rules dating back to the colonial era and targets to monopolize law practice in the hands of local lawyers. In an era of globalization, this medieval and feudalistic practice of outlining territory and refusing to recognize practicing lawyers from sister states was a common practice. The concept of “reciprocity” emerges from such endeavors to control law practice within an oligopoly that has agreements between its constituents for recognizing each other and ousting all else.
The current definition of “reciprocity” in bar admissions among different state bar associations is ambiguous. In certain states, an attorney from a sister-state may be admitted to the state bar ‘on motion if certain criteria are fulfilled among which “reciprocity” usually has a place. In other states, despite “reciprocity” being enforced, only the MBE scores may be transferred, but the local bar examination needs to be taken in order to practice law. There are some states that automatically assume attorneys from sister-states have low morality and require certificates of character before being admitted to the state bar.
There are a couple of common types of “reciprocity” that are currently in control of the free movement and practice of attorneys between states:
The entire comparative list of reciprocity arrangements between different states can be found in the “Reciprocity, Comity, and Attorneys' Exams” chart in the ABA's Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements.
- Bar Examination Reciprocity: This type of reciprocity allows the transfer of a bar exam score between jurisdictions. Usually, bar exam reciprocity affects the MBE component of bar examinations and the attorney intending to practice in another state with “reciprocity” still has to sit in the local bar exam.
- Federal Court Reciprocity: Federal court reciprocity allows attorneys practicing in the federal court of one state to practice in the federal court of another state based on a duly issued license from his/her home state bar association.
- Admission on motion: Admission on motion is a process whereby a licensed attorney of one state can gain admission to the bar in another state without requiring to sit for the local bar examination. The process varies according to the state bar. Some states do not allow any admissions on motion. Some states lay down certain conditions to be fulfilled. Some states allow admission on motion based on reciprocity, i.e., if the attorney comes from a jurisdiction, which also similarly recognizes attorneys from the local bar, then that attorney may be admitted on motion.
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In recent times, prevalent rules requiring, and in the alternative not requiring, reciprocity have been severely criticized as being out of date with the 21st century, where lawyers communicate through mobile phones, create documents on laptops and serve global clients. Many state bars require a professional attorney of one state to sit in the bar examination of another and reinvent the wheel in another state in order to be considered fit for practice. On the other hand, many states still allow ‘diploma privilege' where graduating from certain institutions waives the requirement to sit for a bar examination in the local state bar and becoming an attorney.