A little-known change to Maine’s bar admission rules stands to benefit both Maine-based lawyers and those looking to expand their practice into the state.
As of Jan. 1, Maine expanded the state’s reciprocal admissions standards, allowing qualified lawyers from 31 states to enter the Maine bar without taking the bar exam and vice versa. The change presents opportunities for Maine-based lawyers to bring their lower billable rates into some of the country’s most lucrative markets, while at the same time allowing lawyers from away to more easily hang a shingle here.
Jon Piper, managing partner of Portland firm Preti Flaherty, says the business-level impact of the looser admissions standards will likely depend on the size of the firm.
“If you’re already regional in terms of offices and clients, this is good because it breaks down the barriers and opens up interstate commerce the same way all sorts of government regulation has,” he says. “Many of these protectionist rules were put in place to protect the local bar, and now a lot of those are coming down.”
But Piper says smaller firms might not be as bullish about the new standard. “If you’re a smaller shop in one place, you run the risk of out-of-state people coming in and poaching.”
Turnabout and fair play
Maine has had a reciprocal admission standard on the books since 2005, but it only extended to the neighboring states of New Hampshire and Vermont, where any lawyer who had been engaged in active practice for three years could enter the Maine bar under a stripped-down set of requirements.
The amendment to rule 11A of the Maine Bar Admission Rules, spurred by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, expands the scope of the standard to include some of the nation’s largest legal markets, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.
Attorneys from this expanded list of states are required to have practiced law for five of the past seven years in one or more jurisdictions that allows reciprocal admission for Maine attorneys, while those practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont are grandfathered in under the three-year requirement.
Applicants must also complete 15 hours of classes specific to Maine law, and pay a $955 fee to the Maine Board of Bar Examiners and the National Council of Bar examiners.
Since the admission standard was changed on the first of this year, 37 lawyers have applied under the program, two or three times the usual number of reciprocal admissions applicants, according to Deborah Firestone, executive director of the Maine Board of Bar Examiners.
But Firestone, who is also the president and executive editor of the Maine Lawyers Review, said building awareness around the rules change has been slow going.
“A lot of people don’t know about it. Last December, people applied to take the February 2012 bar exam, and there were nine people who were [qualified] for reciprocal admission who didn’t know about it,” said Firestone, who caught another three qualified applicants when the July admission cycle rolled around.
William Boesch, a partner with the Boston-based civil litigation firm Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, is currently in the process of applying to the Maine bar under the new standard.
Already a member of his native New Hampshire’s state bar, Boesch jumped at the chance to practice in Maine to expand his presence throughout northern New England.
“Maine and New Hampshire are as easily reachable as western Massachusetts, so part of the attraction is being able to [expand] without setting up a branch office,” says Boesch.
Before the introduction of reciprocal admissions, any out-of-state lawyer looking to practice in Maine would have to be granted a temporary admittance to the bar pro hac vice — “for this occasion” in Latin — requiring them to essentially be sponsored by a local attorney, who would have to remain involved throughout the duration of the case.
“This eliminates that step,” says Boesch. “I have a number of national clients [who] are just as likely to have a case in Maine as they are in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, so it’s just helpful to be able to offer them representation without the need for them to go to a local firm or retain local counsel to get us admitted.”
Boesch has tried cases in Maine before under the pro hac vice rule, but says the decision to apply to the bar was “not driven by a current volume of business in Maine.”
“It’s more of an effort to anticipate [business],” says Boesch. “It’s also partly in response to where I’ve had cases in prior years, but as a New Hampshire native, those northern New England states are certainly places that I enjoy visiting and practicing in.”
Flexibility and the appeal of working in Maine
Nathaniel Rosenblatt, chair of the Board of Bar Examiners and a partner with Farrell, Rosenblatt & Russell in Bangor, says the rules change handed down by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is an attempt to bring the state in line with a rising trend in the nation’s legal industry.
“A majority of states now permit this sort of admission, so there was a perception that as the profession evolves and becomes more nationally mobile, we needed to get with the program,” says Rosenblatt.
While the rule change will allow attorneys from reciprocal states to practice in Maine and potentially draw business from local firms, Rosenblatt says that it works both ways.
“This gives an opportunity for lawyers admitted in Maine to seek admission in these 31 other states, so it’s a benefit to members of the Maine bar,” he says.
Piper, of Preti Flaherty, expects the change to be positive for his own company, which also has offices in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C. He says the firm has already drafted a plan to take advantage of reciprocal admissions, although he would not elaborate.
“We can now move around from state to state to serve our clients without a lot of illogical impediments and connect the right lawyer to the right client regardless of jurisdiction,” Piper says.
Daniel Pittman joined Bangor firm Eaton Peabody in March after being one of the first to enter the Maine bar under the new standard. Having spent the last decade as a tax attorney in New York City, Pittman jumped at the chance to make a move to the smaller, slower Maine market.
“My wife and I just got sick of New York and decided we wanted to move to Maine,” a typical sentiment expressed in Manhattan law circles, according to Pittman. “If you interview lawyers in New York, you’ll be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t dream of moving somewhere else, and Maine is not an uncommon choice.”
Pittman says the change in admissions procedure made the move to Maine especially attractive by removing the specter of the bar exam.
“The joke about the bar is that it’s not really relevant to the practice of law. I practice tax law, so I have no reason to know about criminal procedure,” he says.
Since moving to Maine, Pittman says he has halved the hourly rate he offered in the New York area, and even kept on some of his big city clients.
“There are a handful of clients I was working with before that I am working with now who are getting a much better deal,” he says.
Pittman says reciprocal admissions alone will probably not be the deciding factor that tips the scales for those considering a move to a smaller market, and thinks the local industry will remain relatively unchanged, but lauds the ease for those who are interested.
“I don’t think it’s going to change the marketplace; it’s just a real convenience,” says Pittman.
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