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Practicing Law in Multiple States

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


March 28, 2019

by Russell Knight, Esq.

After we graduate from law school we immediately start studying for the state bar of the state we wish to practice in (except for graduates of Marquette and the University of Wisconsin who are granted immediate entrance into the Wisconsin bar).  Three years of studying is rewarded by having six weeks of studying all the ins-and-outs of a particular state’s laws.  At the end, you take a test and if you get roughly a D+ (60 something percent) you are certified to practice any kind of law in that state.

It’s a harrowing experience and it’s no wonder that no one is excited to do it again.  But, life doesn’t usually keep us in one state for our entire professional careers.   When the opportunity to move to another state arises, the prospect of practicing law in that new state is both an opportunity and a daunting challenge.

If you practice federal law, once you’re licensed in one state, you’re eligible for admission to the federal bar.  It’s the same law and likely the same practice no matter where you are.

If you’ve been licensed for at least a few years you’re likely eligible for reciprocity with other states’ bars.   There are numerous states that participate in a reciprocity program that allows entrance into the bar so long as you’ve been licensed in one of the other participating states for a period of time

There are states like California, Florida, New York who do not allow reciprocity from other state bars and insist that you take their state’s bar exam in order to be licensed locally.  These states are either highly desirable locations (California or Florida) or they are adjacent to states where lots of other lawyers live (Indiana and New York).  While it’s frustrating that an experienced lawyer cannot simply begin practicing law in these states, there is also, presumably, a lack of surplus lawyers competing for work.

For many lawyers that practice transactional law, it does not matter if you are licensed in the state where you are performing the work.  As a transactional lawyer, you are not appearing in a state courtroom, and all of your work will be signed off on by a partner or supervisor who is licensed in the appropriate state.

If you have an irregular presence in a state you are not licensed in, you can appeal directly to the court supervising the litigation to allow you to practice on that particular case Pro Hac Vice which means “one particular time” in Latin.

The need to be licensed in multiple states comes when you need to appear in the courts of multiple states.  You may stumble upon a brilliant marketing idea that works just as well in Chicago, Illinois as it does in East Chicago, Indiana.  If that’s the case, you’ll want to take advantage of that marketing in both locations.

Practicing in multiple states has great advantages for any lawyer that deals with comparative law or choice of law issues.  Many areas of litigation allow you to choose the venue based on a variety of factors that let you pick the state which best favors your client.  If this is a possibility, a potential client would be a fool not to consult with a lawyer barred in every available state.  I practice divorce and family law in Florida and Illinois and have found many situations where parties need to make an educated decision as to where they will file.

Practicing in multiple states allows a lawyer to practice in the state in which they wish to retire.  One of the great advantages to being a lawyer is that you never age out of the business as is so frequent in corporate America.  You can run a small practice well into your 80s, generating income that does not take a toll on your body.

Once, you are a member of two bars, you have at minimum two sets of continuing legal education (CLE) programs.  Typically, one state will have a more liberal policy as to what constitutes a valid continuing legal education credit, and it behooves the multi-barred lawyer to take the CLE classes in the more restrictive state and transfer the credits over to the more liberal state.

Being a member of multiple states means being aware of multiple laws regarding the same principles.  While the goals of the law remain the same, the procedures necessary to effectuate those goals differ state-to-state.  If you think your state’s civil procedure is boring, wait until you have to learn the neighboring state’s rules too.


Russell Knight is a lawyer licensed in Illinois and Florida who splits his time between Chicago, Illinois and Naples, Florida.  His Florida website can be found at

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