Does Reciprocity Help or Hurt Solos: The Florida Bar Debate?

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Earlier this week, the Florida Bar tabled a controversial proposal to adopt reciprocity or some other form of admission on motion, reports The Daily Business Review. The proposal — intended to bring Florida in line with the 40 states that allow admission on motionsparked a firestorm amongst bar members, particularly solos and smalls who feared that reciprocity would draw lawyers from out-of-state “mega law firms” who would steal their business.  Other lawyers expressed concern that consumers might be harmed if represented by out-of-state lawyers who hadn’t passed the Florida bar exam and demonstrated sufficient familiarity with Florida law.

But do reciprocity requirements disproportionately impact solo and small firm lawyers? I don’t think so – at least any more than under the current system. After all, a full bar exam isn’t much of a deterrent to mega-firms  firms which already have the means to acquire a local Florida lawyer or pay for an associate to take the full bar exam if they’re set on establishing a Florida outpost.  Likewise, reciprocity won’t shield solos against online services like Legal Zoom which take the position that they don’t provide legal services and therefore, licensing requirements, reciprocal or not, don’t apply to them.

Moreover, even admissions by motion isn’t a walk in the park.  Maryland, one of the jurisdictions where I practice, has a modified reciprocity arrangement, under which a lawyer who’s practiced for a minimum of five years can gain admission after passing a 3-hour practitioner’s exam on Maryland procedure and paying the admissions fee, which includes a costly character investigation. Back in 2002, I gained admission to the Maryland bar under this process, and all told, spent around $1800 for the privilege. And even in jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, which offer full reciprocity, admission fees are still high. I didn’t even apply for admission to the D.C. Bar until 1990, after I’d left government to work for a firm, because I couldn’t afford the $600 fee on my government salary and didn’t need it since I was admitted in New York and New Jersey. And once admitted, lawyers then have the cost of bar dues in multiple jurisdictions and where applicable, CLE costs as well.

Still, money on admission to another jurisdiction is well-spent if it opens the doors to other business opportunities. And that’s where Florida solos and smalls are short-sighted about reciprocity: because it creates far more opportunities than it takes away. With reciprocity, solos and smalls could assist clients with business needs in other states.

Moreover, even with reciprocity, there’s no reason why solos and smalls wouldn’t retain a competitive advantage over out-of-state firms. Community involvement, familiarity with judges and opposing counsel, day-to-day experience with Florida law – all of these capabilities give local attorneys an edge over carpetbaggers. Florida also offers an array of Board Specializations which would likely take a newbie only partly committed to Florida practice a long time to master – but which solos can use as another selling point.

For the time, Florida lawyers succeeded in keeping reciprocity requirements at bay. The reprieve may only be temporary because protectionism is generally on the wrong side of history.  Florida solos should start thinking now about how they can steel themselves against competition from out of state lawyers – as well as about the possibilities that reciprocity has to offer.

What’s your opinion? Do you think reciprocity is a boon or bust for solo attorneys?