Summary: Have you passed the bar in one state and want to work in another? Find out what your options are in this article.
One of the biggest mistakes attorneys make in their job search is not looking at multiple markets. For most attorneys, we recommend that you consider multiple markets when you are conducting a job search—there are lifestyle, prestige, compensation, and many other considerations that make looking at other markets worth your while.
You graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and have met all other requirements for admission in a given state. Congratulations! You can begin practicing law in that state.
But what if you have not yet passed the bar exam? Or if you want to explore legal opportunities in a state different from the one where you were admitted? Or practice federal law in federal district courts? Are there additional hurdles you will need to overcome?
Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and more: This article provides an overview of the bar admission process—a complicated process that varies from state to state—and explores ways in which attorneys licensed in one state can practice in other states. It also covers what to do if you fail the bar exam, how to make use of your J.D. degree without actually practicing law, and the recent trend towards “portability” of bar exam results through state adoption of the Uniform Bar Exam.
Passing the bar is a HUGE accomplishment. All of your hard work has paid off: Getting excellent grades in college, acing the LSAT, churning out the law school applications, braving the Socratic method and final exams of law school, writing onto a journal, competing in moot court—and now the icing on the cake—a passing score on the bar exam!
All that is left is to do is fulfill the few remaining steps for admission in the state where you passed the bar, such as the character and fitness determination. Then you will be off and running in your new career as an attorney.
As you plan your job search, we encourage you to think about applying in several markets. As legal recruiters we always explore the benefits of applying in several markets with our clients who are serious about career strategy. Additional markets give you additional options in all kinds of ways including lifestyle, financial benefits, prestige, happiness and other considerations. You may be the perfect fit for a market or job you may not have even considered—and you may be able to land that job without even taking another bar exam. Read on to learn about bar reciprocity which allows you to pass the bar in one state and work in another, multiple bar admissions, and other related topics.
See Pass the Bar in One State, Work in Another for more information
Passing the Bar Exam in at Least One State
Your future is not doomed if you never pass a bar exam, but your employment opportunities in the legal arena will increase exponentially if you pass the bar exam and get admitted in at least one state. We recommend that you make every effort to do so, even if it means taking the bar exam several times and/or in another jurisdiction with an “easier” bar exam in order to pass.
The reason is simple. Bar admission gives you the “Admitted to the Bar” stamp of approval, elevates your desirability in the eyes of employers, and gives you the ticket you need to make a living.
Without bar admission in at least one state, your resume can work against you. A potential employer will see that you are a J.D. but that you have not passed the bar and wonder why. Employers will often assume the worst—that you are not smart or diligent enough to pass the bar exam—and they will not want to hire you.
Putting aside how you will look to future employers, a bar admission also gives you the opportunity to be your own employer. You can hang a shingle, get clients, and if you are competent and industrious, you will have a means of supporting yourself and your family for the rest of your life.
Because it is so beneficial to pass the bar exam in at least one state, we recommend that people buckle down and take the test as soon as possible after they graduate from law school. You may be exhausted from final exams and want to lie on the beach or play basketball, but most people who take the bar exam after a long hiatus will tell you that they wish they had not done things that way. It is easier to pass the bar exam when you are still in “law student” mode and law school concepts are fresh in your mind.
Also, the longer a person waits to take the bar exam, the harder it might be to study because he or she may get married, have kids, and get into a full-time job where it is difficult to take time off from work to study.
Different State Bar Exams and the UBE Trend
The issue of bar admission is complicated because each state has its own set of laws, types of bar exams and bar admission requirements. In order to “practice law” in the courts of a particular state, someone must first be admitted to the bar of that state. An attorney who passed the New York bar exam and is admitted to practice in New York, for example, cannot practice law in California without first passing the California bar exam and being admitted in California. (Some states do allow attorneys to use bar admissions in other states to “waive” into the bar. We discuss that option below.)
- See The Different Types of Bar Exams for more information.
Right now there is a trend among certain states to unify the process of bar admission through use of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). Massachusetts is the latest state to adopt at least part of the UBE. The other states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Missouri and North Dakota were the first states to administer the UBE in February 2011, followed by Alabama in July 2011 and New York, Iowa, Kansas, New Mexico, and Vermont in 2016. Massachusetts began administering the UBE in 2018.
The UBE is a set of three testing devices prepared by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. The UBE concentrates on general legal concepts as opposed to intricacies of any particular state’s laws in an effort to provide a uniform way to measure performance across the country.
The UBE is comprised of the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), which is a set of 200 multiple-choice questions on Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Federal Civil Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts; the Multistate Essay Examination; and the Multistate Performance Test. States can utilize some or all portions of the UBE and set their own scoring criteria. Every state except Louisiana currently administers the MBE portion of the UBE. Some states, like California, administer the MBE together with state-specific essay and performance test features. Policies vary among the state bar associations that allow the transfer of MBE scores from one jurisdiction to another.
- See Different Policies of Various State Bar Associations Regarding the Transfer of MBE Scores from One Jurisdiction to Another for more information.
In theory, the UBE fosters portability of law licenses, especially with respect to states like Minnesota and Idaho that accept passing UBE scores from any state within a certain window of time (between two to five years). But this practice is limited to a select group of states—and even in those states where you will need to sit for the bar exam or find another way to get admitted if you apply outside of the time frame when your UBE score still counts. Moreover, other states that administer the UBE require applicants to take a separate course and test on state subjects for admittance.
States like California—which has one of the most difficult bar exams in the country—do not use the UBE. If you want to practice in those states you will need to start from scratch (which means you take the whole test or, if you are an attorney who has practiced law in another state for a certain length of time, you take the more limited “attorneys’ exam”). The previous California bar exam was three days long and consisted of six essays, two performance tests, and 200 multiple-choice MBE questions. The exam covered 13 subjects including the MBE “multistate” subjects in addition to state subjects like community property and remedies. The California State Bar Board of Trustees voted to revamp the format and as of July 2017 the California bar exam is now a two-day test consisting of one day of essays and one day of the MBE.
Multiple State Admissions
In order to maximize employability and have the ability to take on clients in different states, many attorneys opt to take the bar in multiple states right after law school. This is particularly useful for attorneys who live in metropolitan areas that cover the tri state area of New York (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut).
Multiple state admission is also a useful strategy for attorneys who live in less populated rural states because it expands the attorney’s network of potential employers and clients. States in these clusters generally arrange their bar exam schedules so that people are able to take multiple bar exams around the same time.
Federal Courts Bar Admissions
Even more varied are the rules that govern whether someone can practice federal law in one of the 94 federal district courts spread across the country and U.S. territories. Admission requirements differ from district court to district court, but admission generally involves at the very least paying a fee and taking an oath. Many district courts require an attorney to be admitted to practice before the state courts of the state in which the federal court sits. For example, to apply for admission to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, an attorney must be an active member in good standing of the State Bar of California.
Other districts simply require that an attorney be admitted in any state, or, like the Eastern District of Wisconsin, get an affidavit in support of admission from an attorney admitted to practice before that district court.
Special rules apply for gaining admission to the United States Tax Court to become a tax attorney and for becoming a member of the “patent bar” to prosecute patents before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Admission on Motion and Reciprocity
Some states allow an attorney admitted in one state to “waive” into the bars of their state, which is known as getting “admitted on motion.” To effectively manage the waive-in process, it is important to know the waive-in requirements for each particular state.
- See “Waive” Goodbye to Taking Another Bar Exam: Typical Requirements and Tips to Effectively Manage the Waive-In Process for more information.
Some states do not allow an attorney to “waive” into their state—no matter how much experience an attorney has—and states that do allow admission on motion have individual criteria, such as the need to be “sponsored” by a local attorney. The District of Columbia allows admission on motion based on criteria, whereas California does not allow it in any situations.
Some states allow admission on motion, but only for attorneys coming from states with “reciprocity” to that state. Therefore, if State A allows attorneys from State B to waive in, then attorneys from State B can “reciprocally” waive in to State A.
Federal district courts have their own rules about admission on motion and reciprocity. Attorneys admitted to practice in 25 of the nation’s 94 district courts are given reciprocity, but that may increase in the future in accordance with the trend towards greater access.
Take a look at the following charts that cover reciprocity, comity, and attorneys’ exams in all 50 states and the U.S. territories:
Reciprocity, Comity, and Attorneys’ Exams
|Jurisdiction||Admission on motion is based on reciprocity||Attorneys initially admitted by diploma privilege are eligible for admission on motion|
|District of Columbia||X||X|
|Jurisdiction||Offers an Attorneys’ Exam||Attorneys must be from an ABA-approved school to qualify for the Attorneys’ Exam|
|District of Columbia||X|
|Northern Mariana Islands||X||X|
† Texas has adopted the uniform bar examination to be administered beginning in February 2021
Additional Information about Reciprocity and Attorneys’ Exams
While the American Bar Association (ABA) promotes guidelines for reciprocity or admission on motion among U.S. states, each state is free to accept or disregard those suggestions and make their own rules.
- See Guidelines on Reciprocity or "Admission On Motion" among the States as per American Bar Association for more information.
Therefore, certain jurisdictions have unique requirements for reciprocity and attorneys’ exams, which are detailed below.
Admission on Motion Based on Reciprocity:
Colorado applicants from non-reciprocal jurisdictions and/or graduates from non-ABA-accredited law schools may petition for a waiver of the requirement under C.R.C.P. 206.
Connecticut provides for reciprocal jurisdiction in a process called "Admission Without Examination." Attorneys who would like to waive in must have practiced law in a reciprocal jurisdiction as the primary means of their living for 5-10 years immediately preceding the application for admission.
Georgia provides reciprocity in a process called "Admission on Motion Without Examination." Attorneys must have been admitted by examination in another United States jurisdiction that has reciprocity with Georgia and practiced law, for the most part, for 5-7 years immediately preceding application. If the reciprocal jurisdiction possesses stricter rules and limitations, the attorney will be governed by that reciprocal jurisdiction's rules. Georgia also offers the Georgia attorney's exam for those licensed in other jurisdictions who do not meet Georgia's bar reciprocity requirements.
Mississippi has reciprocal jurisdiction so long as the laws from the state from which the applicant comes grant similar privileges to Mississippi attorney applicants. The Board determines if the state in which the applicant is coming from grants “similar privileges.” Mississippi also requires the MPRE and the same passing score requirement as the attorney’s home jurisdiction.
Oregon provides for reciprocal jurisdiction in a process called “Reciprocity Admission/Alternative Admission.” Attorneys must have passed the bar exam in a reciprocal jurisdiction and be actively engaged in law for at least 5-7 years immediately preceding the application for admission. Oregon has special reciprocity with Alaska, Idaho, Utah, and Washington. If an attorney is licensed in one of the previously—stated jurisdictions, the practice of law is lowered to 3-5 years preceding the application for admission.
Virginia provides for reciprocal jurisdiction in a process called “Admission Without Examination.” Attorneys must have been admitted in a reciprocal jurisdiction for at least five years and actively practiced the law for the past three years. Attorneys from Virginia must be allowed without examination in the transferring jurisdiction.
In Wyoming, the process is called "Admission on Motion." Attorneys must have passed the written bar exam and practiced law actively in a reciprocal jurisdiction for five of the past seven years preceding application. Reciprocal jurisdictions must admit Wyoming attorneys without additional examination.
Admission on Motion for Attorneys Initially Admitted by Diploma Privilege:
Arkansas allows this as long as the applicant is a graduate of an ABA-approved law school.
Connecticut allows this as long as the applicant is a graduate of an ABA- or committee-approved law school.
The District of Columbia requires the applicant to have been in good standing of the bar for five years.
Mississippi allows it as long as the laws in the state from which the applicant comes grant similar privileges to Mississippi attorney applicants.
In Ohio, an applicant who has been admitted in another jurisdiction by diploma privilege is eligible for admission without examination only if applicant has also taken and passed the bar examination and been admitted as an attorney-at-law in the highest court of another state or the District of Columbia.
In Tennessee, the applicant must file a petition with the Board setting forth reasons for admission and a hearing is held in response.
Applying for the Attorneys’ Exam without Graduating from an ABA-Approved Law School:
In California, attorneys must have been admitted and in good standing for four years.
In Maine, if an applicant is not a graduate of an ABA-approved law school, then the applicant must have engaged in the practice of law for three years in the U.S. jurisdiction where admitted.
In Maryland, if the attorney applicant has practiced law for ten years (or five years in the immediate past ten years) following admission by examination in another jurisdiction, the applicant is eligible for the attorneys’ exam and need not be a graduate of an ABA-approved law school.
In Rhode Island, applicants who have not graduated from an ABA-approved law school may sit for the attorneys’ exam provided they have been engaged in the active full-time practice of law for five out of the ten years immediately preceding the filing of the bar application.
In Virginia,attorney applicants who hold an active license to practice law, are in good standing, and have taken and passed a bar exam in another jurisdiction, may sit for only the essay portion of the Virginia bar exam.
Admission Pro Hac Vice
An additional way that an attorney can practice law in another state—on a very limited basis—is by being admitted pro hac vice on a given matter. Pro hac vice is a legal term that means “for this one particular occasion” in Latin. States and courts have their own requirements for Pro hac vice admission, but normally a lawyer must be experienced as well as sponsored by a member of the local bar (or even have a local lawyer serve as co-counsel).
The jurisdiction of Puerto Rico allows attorneys from other jurisdictions to be admitted pro hac vice for specific matters with a fee of $150 per appearance, but Puerto Rico does not allow for admission on motion. In order to practice in Puerto Rico, an attorney must pass the “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Bar Examination.” Attorneys can qualify for admission without examination; however, those standards are extremely high. The attorney must be admitted to practice in good standing before the highest court of a state or certain other jurisdictions and also has either passed the Puerto Rico Bar Exam or served in the district in various judicial capacities: District Judge, Magistrate Judge, Clerk or Chief Deputy Clerk, Law Clerk, U.S. Attorney or Assistant U.S. Attorney, Federal Public Defender or Assistant Federal Public Defender, General Court Justice for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as judge, or tenured professor at a law school for various lengths of time and under specified circumstances. The Puerto Rico Bar Exam tests Federal Civil Procedure, Federal Evidence, Federal Jurisdiction and Venue, Federal Criminal Procedure, Local Rules, Federal Appellate Procedure, Bankruptcy, and Ethics.
See the following articles for more information about the bar exam:
- Pass the Bar in One State, Work in Another
- Taking the Bar in Multiple States
- The Different Policies of Various State Bar Associations Regarding the Transfer of MBE Scores from One Jurisdiction to Another
Working in a State without Being Admitted in That State
In most cases you must be admitted in a state to work there, but there is an exception for in-house corporate work. You do not necessarily have to be admitted to the bar in California to do transactional work for an in-house legal department.
Some corporate jobs require applicants to have a “legal background” such as a J.D. even if they will not actually be practicing law. For example, many banks hire people with legal knowledge to be trust officers. The legal background connotes—at the very least—an understanding of laws, contracts, and other subjects in that realm, whether the corporation wants to hire a full-fledged attorney or not.
Sometimes companies do not want to hire a licensed attorney because they have to pay more. These firms do not want to pay more when someone else, such as an unlicensed attorney, law school graduate, or paralegal, is able to complete the same tasks competently. Having a J.D. will definitely fulfill the legal background requirement on a job description, even if the person is not a practicing attorney.
Options for People Who Have Failed the Bar Exam
Bar admission is complicated, but useful. Bar admission is so useful that failing the bar exam (even more than once) should not deter you from giving it another try.
If you failed a bar exam, do not get unduly discouraged. Even top law students and attorneys sometimes fail the bar exam. In one notorious case, Kathleen Sullivan—the former Dean of Stanford Law School and a prominent United States Supreme Court litigator—failed the California bar exam the first time she took it. There are many ways to bounce back after failing the bar exam and pass on your next attempt.
- See 10 Ways to Bounce Back After Failing the Bar and Pass on Your Next Attempt for more information.
The first way, of course, is to study harder and prepare yourself better for the next bar exam. You’re not the first person to fail the bar exam—nor will you be the last. There is absolutely no shame in having to take it more than once in order to pass.
The bar exam is a passable exam, and not as impossible as some people make it appear. If you have failed the bar exam, it is not the end of the world. One positive aspect about the bar exam in many jurisdictions is that it can be retaken as many times as necessary to pass. This is unlike some other professional exams where a person is allowed a limited number of attempts. Another positive is that the bar exam is given two times a year in most jurisdictions. This is unlike an Olympic athlete who must wait four years for another shot at the gold.
- See If You Have Failed the Bar Exam It Is Not the End of the World for more information.
Besides studying harder after failing a bar exam, there is another way to avoid retaking the bar exam you failed and still get the “Admitted to the Bar stamp on your resume. The key is to take another state’s bar exam— a state with a much easier exam and a much higher pass rate.
You can do the research on states with high-pass bar exams. Compare it to your own state’s exam. You’ll have to study for that particular state’s exam and arrange for your own travel and accommodations, of course. With all of this extra work and expense, you could wonder: What are the benefits?
If you are in New York applying for a job and you have Admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar on your resume, for example, that looks infinitely better than just having J.D. in your education section. At an interview, you’ll doubtless be asked about this situation, and this too can work to your advantage.
You obviously don’t want to say, “I took the Pennsylvania Bar Exam because the New York exam was far too difficult” or “I took the Pennsylvania Exam just for the sake of having a Bar Admission on my resume,” even though that may be exactly what you did. Instead, you can come up with creative reasons. Perhaps you can say that you once aspired to practice law in Philadelphia but later opted against it. Or you can say that Pennsylvania law interested you in the past because you thought about living there.
This strategy may not work if you’re applying for a New York job that requires a New York license. Again, it is wise to review ABA guidelines for reciprocity or admission on motion for the state(s) in question. But for a corporate-type job where bar admission is not required, your resume will look more complete with a Bar Admission on it—from any state—as opposed to just a J.D. Competition is fierce for employment, especially for legal jobs. Many of your competitors will have Bar Admissions on their resumes, so you cannot afford to be without one.
So don’t just rest with your J.D.! Do what it takes to pass the bar in your state, or in another state. Emphasize these preparation tips to overcome failing the bar exam:
- Conduct a personal assessment
- Understand the law
- Memorize the law
- Read carefully
When people fail a bar exam, they usually receive a tally of their scores on each question and receive a copy of their actual answers. For instance, in California, the bar examiners return the graded essays and performance tests to the applicants who fail along with a scorecard showing their multiple choice raw and scaled scores. Find out the reasons you failed, and take action to redress these problems by speaking with a professor, former bar exam grader, or bar exam tutor who knows the law and how the bar exam works.
Try to pass a bar exam in any state. Get it on your resume. It is that important! From there, you will be able to explore practicing law in whatever state you choose.
When I graduated from law school, I started my career clerking for a judge in Michigan. I had worked in a New York City law firm during the summer after my second year and had every intention of returning there. The firm was serious, however, and the people I was working with seemed quite solemn, on edge, and there did not appear to be any opportunities at the firm for advancement.
On a whim, I decided to apply to a handful of California firms and I was glad I did. The firm I ended up going to work for had no dress code and the people seemed much happier than the firm in New York. Moreover, I did not have to sell my car, got to live in a nice climate most of the year and the firm paid just as much as New York law firms. It was a great decision for me in all respects but it would not have happened if I only wanted a New York lifestyle. Many people would never in a million years consider living in Los Angeles over New York. But people are different and being open to new experiences can often lead you exactly where you are meant to be. That is why every attorney should consider multiple markets.
- See Why Every Attorney Needs to Apply to a Lot of Places (and Not Give Up) When Rejected for more information.
When you look at other markets and use your qualifications to approach firms in other markets, you give yourself additional options—lifestyle, financial benefits, prestige, happiness and other considerations—that could be very worthwhile. Relocating to a different legal market is often a great way for an attorney to get ahead.
If you are working with us, please speak with your recruiter about applying to law firms in other markets. You may not even need the bar exam. I would estimate that 80% of the candidates I am working with look at markets outside of their home market for the following reasons:
- The economy varies depending on one region of the country to another. You may be very marketable in one area (and even to a better firm) and less marketable due to the concentration of highly-qualified candidates in another.
- You may be a better fit “culturally” in one area of the country and not another.
- Your skills and experience may be a “perfect fit” in one area of the country and not another.
- There may not be any jobs in the area of the country you are from and plenty of jobs in other areas.
By expanding your options, considering other markets, and never giving up when you are rejected, you have the best chance of finding a legal job that is ideal for you.
See the following articles for more information:
- Why Every Attorney Needs to Apply to a Lot of Places (and Not Give Up) When Rejected
- Why Relocating to a Different Market Is the Greatest (But Little Known) Way for a Law Firm Attorney to Get Ahead in the Legal Profession
CLICK HERE TO SEARCH JOBS IN OTHER STATES
A list of reciprocity guidelines is available on each U.S. individual state and territory bar website, provided below:
- Alabama State Bar Association
- Alaska Bar Association
- State Bar of Arizona
- Arkansas Bar Association
- State Bar of California
- Colorado Bar Association
- Connecticut Bar Association
- Delaware State Bar Association
- District of Columbia Bar
- The Florida Bar
- State Bar of Georgia
- Hawaii State Bar Association
- Idaho State Bar
- Illinois State Bar Association
- Indiana State Bar Association
- Iowa State Bar Association
- Kansas Bar Association
- Kentucky Bar Association
- Louisiana State Bar Association
- Maine State Bar Association
- Maryland State Bar Association
- Massachusetts Bar Association
- State Bar of Michigan
- Minnesota State Bar Association
- The Mississippi Bar
- The Missouri Bar
- State Bar of Montana
- Nebraska State Bar Association
- State Bar of Nevada
- New Hampshire Bar Association
- New Jersey State Bar Association
- State Bar of New Mexico
- New York State Bar Association
- North Carolina Bar Association
- State Bar Association of North Dakota
- Ohio State Bar Association
- Oklahoma Bar Association
- Oregon State Bar
- Pennsylvania Bar Association
- Rhode Island Law Center
- South Carolina Bar
- State Bar of South Dakota
- Tennessee Bar Association
- State Bar of Texas
- The Utah State Bar
- Vermont Bar Association
- Virginia State Bar
- Virgin Islands Bar Association
- Washington State Bar Association
- The West Virginia State Bar
- State Bar of Wisconsin
- Wyoming State Bar