Tennessee Supreme Court takes long-awaited action to smooth admissions problems

Yesterday, the Tennessee Supreme Court entered an order that addresses a variety of issues I have written about on a number of prior occasions.  You can take in the entire order setting out all of the new provisions here.  In addition to making a spot change to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 6 and a revision to RPC 5.5(d), it replaces Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 7 in its entirety.

In almost all respects, the Court’s action offers the hoped for outcomes on a variety of issues plaguing Tennessee’s admission system for lawyers licensed in other jurisdictions.  The contents of the new rule becomes effective in just 11 days, on January 1, 2016.

As to comity admission, the Court has removed the requirement it had added into Section 5.01 that conditioned eligibility for comity admission upon having both applied for it, and being approved for it, before moving to Tennessee to be employed as a lawyer.  Effective January 1, 2016, Section 5.01 will no longer say anything along those lines (and in fact does not even explicitly require the application be submitted before arrival in Tennessee).

The Court also had adopted a robust practice pending admission provision that will permit applicants awaiting a ruling on their comity application to practice law in Tennessee for up to 365 days.  The provision is largely patterned after the ABA Model provision on the topic and requires the applicant to “associate[] with a lawyer who is admitted to practice in Tennessee.”

With respect to in-house counsel registration, the order provides a second round of amnesty so that any lawyers, currently employed as in-house counsel in Tennessee but who are not licensed here and did not get properly registered before now, can have any prior sins in this respect forgiven as long as they get an in-house counsel registration application filed within 180 days from January 1, 2016 (June 30, 2016).  Accompanying this change is a revision to RPC 5.5(d) to add a (3) that more prominently explains the repercussions in the future for any in-house counsel who fails to make timely advantage of this amnesty (and for any in-house counsel who may arrive in Tennessee in the future and miss the 180-day registration deadline).  The Court also took this opportunity to make explicit what was previously just strongly implied — that an in-house counsel who gets their application in timely (i.e. on day 175 for example, need not worry that the work they do during days 1-174 is somehow UPL.

The Court also took favorable action on a request made to make it easier for the spouses of those in military service to become admitted in Tennessee.  The Court took something of a compromise position between a proposal made by military spouses and a counter-proposal offered by the TBA – offering a 2-year initial license period with the ability to renew for additional 1-year periods provided the initial requirements for obtaining the license remain in place.

Additionally, and importantly, for a number of lawyers with comity applications that have been pending or on hold or otherwise stuck in the system while these long discussed changes have been under consideration, the Court has adopted a specific provision addressing the transition period from the old rule to the new rule as to comity admissions and that reads as follows:

(i)  Transitional Provision.  From January 1, 2016, and continuing through December 31, 2016, the Board is authorized to exercise its discretion in adjudicating pending applications for comity admission that have not been finally ruled upon as of the effective date (January 1, 2016) of this revised Rule.  Such discretion includes waiving or altering time periods or otherwise varying the provisions for admission by comity, and the Board shall tailor such discretion toward granting the applicant’s application for comity admission as long as the Board otherwise reaches the conclusion that the lawyer possesses the character and fitness to practice law in this jurisdiction.

While the transitional provision is very helpful, it does not go quite as far as what was proposed by the TBA.  The TBA had sought for the Court to adopt language that would have read as follows:

From and after [January 1, 2016] and continuing until [December 31, 2016], the Court specifically directs the Board of Law Examiners to use discretion in adjudicating pending applications that have not been finally ruled upon, including waiving or altering time periods or otherwise varying provisions, to tailor such discretion toward granting the applicant’s application for comity admission as long as the Board otherwise reaches the conclusion that the lawyer possesses the character and fitness to practice law in this jurisdiction.

The difference likely does not affect a horde of folks but there may be lawyers out there who had held off filing comity applications while awaiting a ruling who now may wonder whether they must apply in the next ten days to take full advantage of these changes.  It also may be less than clear whether any lawyers with currently pending comity applications but who already have offices in Tennessee will be permitted to take full advantage of the practice pending admission provision because of the specific language of the transition provision.  Thus, there may be situations out there that will still fall within some gaps in the working of the rule moving forward.  (There also are some grounds to criticize other aspects of the rules requirements on public policy grounds — questions such as whether the change in the rule to now require someone who went to law school in a foreign country but wishes to sit for the Tennessee Bar exam has to first obtain an LLM in the United States are too restrictive.)

But, on the whole, there can be no question that the entry of the Court’s order yesterday is a good outcome.

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