Robert J. Ambrogi
We live in an age that knows few bounds. Where once we were limited by geography, we now can communicate instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. Where once we were limited by knowledge, we now have the world’s libraries accessible to us with just a few keystrokes. Where once we were limited by opportunity, we now command the power of vast digital resources, without regard to our status or wealth. Yet still we practice law in a profession hobbled by bounds. We cannot represent a neighbor down the street, if the street happens to cross a state line. We cannot take on an out-of-state client who reaches out to us with a problem, even if we may be among the best-equipped to address the problem. We must even be circumspect about engaging in social media, for fear of crossing lines drawn ages ago, when our perspectives were much narrower.
It no longer makes sense to regulate the practice of law based solely on a lawyer’s geographic location. In fact, not only does geography not make sense as a basis for regulation, but it is irrelevant. Here is why:
• More and more, law is federal. The Constitution and federal law provide the legal framework for broad swaths of our day-to-day lives, from business to communications, from employment to the environment.
• More and more, law is standardized. Even where the law is left to the states, laws on similar topics tend to mirror each other. Often, state laws are based on uniform drafts written by national bodies.
• More and more, lawyers are specialists. One of the arcane rules governing lawyers is that they are not supposed to call themselves specialists or experts. But most lawyers are, whether in a single field of practice or several.
• Know-how trumps location any day. The lawyer who is an expert in a given field but lives in a different state is better prepared to represent a client in that field than is the non-expert who happens to live in the same state.
• State-specific savvy is a myth. The rationale for state bar admission is that lawyers know their state’s laws. The fact is, they know only the laws they need to know and conduct research to figure out the rest. When a lawyer is confronted with a legal question, it makes little difference in solving it whether the answer is to be found in the law of the lawyer’s home state, another state or in federal statutes or cases.
• Lawyers are not stupid. Some lawyers may be darned fools, but few made it through law school without some brains in their heads. What matters is not the geographic location of the client’s problem, but the lawyer’s ability to analyze and address the problem.
In a world in which we are connected globally, barely a day goes by without many lawyers receiving inquiries from potential clients they are forced to turn away. Regrettably, in many of these cases, the lawyer may be well qualified to represent the client and possibly better qualified than the lawyer the client ultimately retains – if the client is able to find a lawyer at all.
Geographic restrictions serve neither the public nor the profession. They are irrelevant to a lawyer’s qualifications to represent a client. Lawyers should no longer be licensed by state. Instead, the profession should adopt a single national license, one that establishes that a lawyer has the proper education, training and knowledge to engage in the general practice of law. Perhaps there should also be additional certifications by practice areas.
State bar admission is an antiquated concept that has no relevance in a digital world. It is time to retire the concept, along with the manual typewriter, dusty library stacks and the fax machine.
Robert J. Ambrogi is a Massachusetts lawyer, writer and media consultant. He writes the blogs LawSites and Media Law, co-writes Legal Blog Watch and co-hosts the legal affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer.
Also see this Legal Rebels profile: Erica Moeser: A Bar for All