The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) submitted April 26 a comment letter to the Washington Supreme Court urging it to reject proposed amendments to the state’s practice rules that would impose new registration requirements on in-house lawyers who are licensed to practice in other jurisdictions. The letter, which was signed by ACC Vice President and Chief Legal Strategist Amar D. Sarwal, ACC Senior Counsel and Director of Advocacy Evan P. Schultz, and ACC-Washington Chapter President Bradley D. Toney, said the proposed changes “would place unnecessary and unjustified burdens” on in-house lawyers with out-of-state licenses.

At issue are proposed amendments to Washington’s Admission to Practice Rules (APR)—in particular APR 8(f), which would replace the current “show up and work” system for in-house attorneys with out-of-state licenses and instead require them to register with the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA). According to the Admission to Practice Rules Task Force, which crafted the new rules, the amendments are intended to “acknowledge and allow for the mobility of the profession and provide for a diverse membership as globalization and cross-jurisdictional practice increasingly influence the practice of law.”

But ACC, a global bar association devoted to promoting the interests of in-house counsel, argued the new registration process would substantially burden in-house counsel who would have to expend considerable time and resources filling out required applications, certifications, and affidavits, as well as paying what could be substantial fees. “Moving from an authorization rule to a registration rule under Proposed APR 8(f) will impose huge burdens on in-house counsel, including on their pocketbooks, with no corresponding benefits,” according to the letter. Instead, the ACC said the state should maintain the existing system, which tracks the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules recognize that employer-companies are well suited to evaluate the performance of their attorney-employees. The ACC also said it was not aware of any ethical problems that would justify the new registration requirement, noting the need to protect clients from incompetent or malicious lawyers is diminished in the in-house context because employer-companies usually are sophisticated legal customers that “are fully competent to make their own decisions about how to staff their legal needs.”

The ACC added that a contemporaneous proposed change to allow out-of-state lawyers to waive into Washington was not a good substitute to the current regime. “The proposal would impose a slate of new requirements on in-house lawyers,” including requiring attorneys who are licensed in another state to take and pass the Washington law component of the bar exam, filling out paperwork, and paying registration fees.

Clarify Rules

If the court decides to move ahead with the practice rule changes, ACC urged further clarity in the definition of “temporary” in-house work, which would not be subject to the new registration requirement. “The boundary between temporary and continuous work therefore becomes critical, given that professional ethics sanctions are at stake,” the ACC commented.

The group also asked the court to extend to at least a year the length of time a registration would remain valid after an in-house attorney leaves her job. Under the current proposal, an in-house attorney’s registration would remain active for three months, which the ACC characterized as far too short given the current economic conditions. Alternatively, the court could consider suspending in-house registration after three months of unemployment but then establish an “extremely streamlined process to re-register.”

Pro Bono Expansion

The ACC also promoted in its letter an expansion of the ability of in-house lawyers, who are licensed out of state, to provide pro bono services to clients. According to the ACC, current and proposed practice rules only allow in-house lawyers with out-of-state licenses to provide pro bono services through “qualified legal services providers.” Even if the court decides to approve the proposed practice rule changes, it should “make it easier for in-house counsel whose law licenses come from elsewhere to provide critical pro bono assistance to clients in need,” the letter said.

A description of the proposed practice rule changes is available at http://www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/?fa=court_rules.proposedRuleDisplay&ruleId=286

The ACC’s letter to the Washington Supreme Court is available at http://www.acc.com/aboutacc/newsroom/pressreleases/accwashingtonstateprobono.cfm

The ACC’s press release on the comment letter and proposed changes is available at http://www.acc.com/advocacy/upload/ACC-Washington-letter-042613.pdf