Professional Licensing

Sun’s legal department is about the equivalent in size and number of practice areas as a mid-sized law firm, but with two important differences. We are global (with employees in over 25 countries) and we have a single client – Sun Microsystems, Inc.

As the manager of this function, much of my focus is on creating opportunities for our attorneys to have continued career development. Sometimes this means moving geographically; sometimes into a new area of law or business. All are excellent ways for attorneys to expand their professional skills. Lateral movement within the organization also ensures diversity of thought – it’s amazing how a fresh perspective can help to solve problems. Geographic movement of our lawyers can also help to control costs and avoid business disruption. Have an attorney who is out on maternity leave in England? Use it as an opportunity for an attorney from another country to work there and to contribute as part of a short-term assignment.

By now, you’re likely nodding your head and asking why I’m writing about something that seems so evident. The answer is that professional licensing rules in most jurisdictions greatly impede everything I have just described. In the United States, ABA model rule 5.5(d) allows in-house counsel to provide legal services anywhere in the U.S. regardless of state of license. While many states have adopted it, at least half of them still require a special license for in-house lawyers. California, for example, has a special licensing requirement. At least ten states do not provide any exception for non-locally licensed in-house attorneys. In fact, the general counsels of several companies encountered this very issue earlier this year when it was discovered that, although licensed elsewhere, they were not licensed in the state in which they resided (and where the company was headquartered).

Now, just as there is no single unified law that governs in-house licensing requirements throughout the United States, the situation is even more fragmented when the problem is viewed at a country level. With the possible exception of Pennsylvania, there doesn’t appear to be any state that will permit an attorney with a non-U.S. license to work within the state without meeting general local licensing requirements – including passing a state bar examination. Outside the United States, the situation is even more confusing. Many countries view in-house attorneys as not being independent and as such not “true” attorneys as their counterparts in law firms. The result is dramatically differing rules that make it difficult for an in-house attorney to move from country to country and be confident that they have met all the local requirements for working in-house. It also creates ambiguity as to when and in what jurisdictions the attorney-client privilege can be asserted as this recent decision in Europe illustrates.

Without doubt, there are specific practice areas in which a locally licensed in-house attorney is required – litigation is an obvious example. However, much of in-house legal work can be effectively handled by attorneys who have been educated under a similar legal framework (e.g. civil or common law) and who are properly trained and supervised by other in-house attorneys. I’ve previously spoken about the impact of the internet in a variety of areas. This is another one. Increasingly, in-house attorneys find themselves advising clients on a global basis. With the ability to quickly transfer work over the internet, it will not be uncommon to have a situation in which an attorney licensed in Australia negotiates a contract while on assignment and residing in New York with a distributor in England with California law as the choice of law under the contract.

This all may seem at odds with the intent of local licensing rules; however, these rules were designed to protect a client who was usually thought of as an individual consumer of legal services. As I mentioned, in-house attorneys have a single client – the company that is their employer. Unlike where an individual retains an attorney, companies are well equipped to evaluate and select qualified counsel, to provide training and oversight and to absorb the consequences that may result if they do not receive quality legal services.

There is a significant difference between the practices of in-house counsel and our counterparts in law firms. We need state legislative bodies and those in other countries to recognize this distinction so that we can better support our corporate clients. (And, a plug here for the ACC which has been doing a great job in this area.)


Filed under Personal

2 responses to “Professional Licensing

  1. Mike,
    As you mention the problem is not only a US licensing one, but a global one. Every country that I know, has rules that require licensing to provide legal advise. Besides, what you mention about the protection of the consumer of legal services, there are at least two other reasons why such licensing is required: i) to monitor the exercise of the legal profession and eventually impose sanctions to offenders and ii) to charge a fee that supports the bar associations.
    Gastón Bilder
    International Legal Counsel

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