Called to the Bar in the U.S.

(Not the fun kind, unfortunately).

A technical question, aimed especially at the lawyers out there.

How do the admission requirements work in the U.S.? I’ve read about people passing the state bar, but I’ve also seen references to being a member of the bar of a particular court, like the U.S. Supreme Court: Supreme Court Rule 5.

In addition to the state bar, does every court have its own admission requirements? Is there a federal bar as well as a state bar?

Thanks for doing your bit to advance the cause of human knowledge.
  – Cecil Adams

Yes, every state has its own bar, and there’s a federal bar too. You have to be admitted to each of them separately to practice law ther.

“there”, not “ther”

so is there a federal bar exam as well? can you practise solely in the federal courts, or solely in the state courts, without being called in the other?

Thanks for doing your bit to advance the cause of human knowledge.
  – Cecil Adams

Many states and districts have reciprocal agreements. For example, passers of the Virginia Bar are admitted into the Maryland and DC Bars with little more than a bit of paperwork. This is apparently because Virginia has one of the most labyrinthine legal systems in America; I suppose it is assumed that if you can practice there, you’re probably already slated for an AG spot in Hell when you die. It should be noted that last I heard, Marylanders, and possibly DC’ers as well, are not afforded the same privelege in VA. There’s probably a law against it.

Also, most courts will grant a pro hac vice status to a lawyer who is representing a client in a state he or she has not applied to for acceptance to the Bar. This allows you to represent your client in a particular case. In the case of my firm, most of our lawyers are admitted only to one or two states, although we represent clients throughout the nation.

The federal court system does not run its own bar exams. When I passed the California bar exam, and was admitted to practice in California, I was sworn in twice: once as an attorney before the California courts, and once as an attorney admitted to practice before the Northern District of California federal court.

Having been admitted to the federal court in California, I am able to practice before any federal district court and (as far as I know) any Circuit Court of Appeals. I would have to go through a special process to be admitted to practice before the US Supremes; you get sponsored by a current member, etc., last I looked into it.

I am now in Ohio going through the process of being admitted here. Fortunately, Ohio doesn’t require retaking the bar exam under certain conditions, most notably having practiced for five years somewhere else.

Generally, each U.S. state has its own bar to which a lawyer may be admitted, with its onn rules of admission and practice. In addition, most federal courts have their own separate bars, though admission to them is usually a fairly trivial matter to a state-admitted lawyer. If a lawyer wants to practice before a court that he or she is not admitted to for a particular matter, it is usually quite easy to get admitted to that court pro hac vice (for that matter only).

The toughest thing is usually admission to your first state bar. Each state has its own requirements, but they usually include educational prerequisites, character requirements, and passing that state’s bar exam. State bar exams are typically 2 or 3 day affairs, with parts of the exam written by the individual state’s bar examiners and parts of the test a standard mult1-state test. Once the bar exam is passed, the state’s character and fitness committee will examine the application materials to see if prior illegal or unethical behavior should disqualify you from bar admission. (Note that a criminal history does not necessarily prohibit you from joining the bar, though the admission committee will scrutinize your application carefully.) Once you pass all of the hurdles, you can be sworn into the state bar.

Once admitted there are often additional requirements for practice. Most states require that lawyers take a certain amount of continuing legal education to keep their bar membership current. Some states have pro bono requirements as well. Also, some states, New Jersey in particular, require that you have an office in the state to practice before the state’s courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has, however, ruled that requiring in-state residence for bar members is unconstitutional.

Each state has its own rules on the admission of lawyers from other states. Some states (New Jersey’s an example of this too) give no consideration to other bar admissions, and require full compliance with the whole admission procedure. Other states will typically waive the bar examination or other parts of the admission process for lawyers meeting specified criteria. For example, many states will allow lawyers that have practiced for five or seven years to waive in to their bars.

As to federal courts, each state contains between one and four federal district courts, each of which has its own admission requirements. Usually, there are no real substantive requirements for a state-admitted lawyer to get admitted to a district court in that state. For instance, when I was admitted to the New Jersey state courts, at the swearing in ceremony there was both a state judge and a federal district court judge who swore us in to the federal district court for the District of New Jersey. On the other hand, after I was admitted to the New York bar, a lawyer admitted to the federal district court for the Southern District of New York had to sponsor me for admission to that court, and I was admitted there in a separate ceremony.

Federal bankruptcy courts, which are legally considered arms of the district courts, usually do not have separate admissions. But other specialized (usually federal) courts and agencies, as well as the federal appellate courts, have their own admission requirements. Usually these are not too tough, though there are some specialized bar exams (like the patent bar exam). The federal Courts of Appeal have varied requirements, with some granting admission automatically to any lawyer admitted to a district court that files an appeal, with others having more difficult requirements, such as the Second Circuit’s requirement that a lawyer have argued three appeals (or equivalent) before being admitted. The U.S. Supreme Court, it is sometimes joked, is the easiest court to get admitted to in the country, requiring only five years admission before a state court.

There are also some special exceptions, such as lawyers for the federal government that are admitted in at least one state being able to practice in any court without a specific admission to that court.

(DSYoung: I am confident that you are incorrect in your statement that admission to the Northern District of California allows you to practice in any federal district or appellate court in the country. I can provide citations if you would like.)

In short, the first step is admission to a state bar. After that admission before a federal court is optional. Once admitted, many lawyers may limit their practice to state or federal courts, or avoid courts entirely, for that matter.

By the way, U.S. usage usually refers to a lawyer being “admitted to the bar” rather than “called to the bar.”

So how does it work there in the Great White North? Is there still the barrister/solicitor distinction? Are there separate admissions to the federal and provincial courts?

– Bill

You don’t have a thing to worry about. I’ll have the jury eating out of my hand. Meanwhile, try to escape.

Sig by Wally M7, master signature architect to the SDMB

thanks for the info, everyone.


admission to the bar here is a matter of provincial jurisdiction: you serve a term of articles for one year with a lawyer of at least 5 years’ standing.

Then you do a bar admission course (length varies from province to province; in Ontario and Quebec it’s several months, but it tends to be shorter in other provinces).

Then you take a bar admission exam (usually spread over a few days - general law, provincial statutes, federal statutes, practice issues).

Finally, if you pass the bar ads, you are called to the bar as a barrister, and sign the roll of the Law Society as a solicitor.

We keep the distinction in terminology, so I am a barrister and a solicitor, but it doesn’t mean much anymore.

(Quebec is an exception - they have a divided profession: advocates and notaires. Notaires do not go to court and have a monopoly on some areas of what we call “solicitor work” in the common law provinces: wills, certain types of family law contracts, real estate, etc. Advocates are not restricted to court work, but can’t do the stuff that is within the notaires’ monopoly.)

Once you’re called to the bar in a province, you have standing to appear before all that province’s courts. You don’t have to apply to join the bar of the Court of Appeal, for example.

Our federal court system is not nearly as extensive as yours - the provincial superior courts are the courts of general jurisdiction, and the Federal Court, centred in Ottawa, is very much a specialised court dealing with federal law. It doesn’t have any significant criminal jurisdiction, for example, nor any supervisory jurisdcition over provincial courts. Nor does it have a special call - under the Federal Court Act, if you’re a member in good standing of a provincial law society, you are entitled to appear in the Federal Court. I’ve never had any reason to appear there.

Same principles apply with the Supreme Court - I have automatic standing there under the Supreme Court Act, so no need to be introduced to the Court, etc.

I think all of the provincial law societies now have reciprocal arrangements to admit members in good standing of another law society, though there may still be an exam on provincial statute law, since that obviously varies somewhat from province to province.

(Quebec is again the exception, since it is a civil law province, not a common law; last time I looked, you needed special qualifications to transfer there.)

And most law societies also allow “occasional appearences,” a special admission for a specific case. I’ve had to do that to appear on a case in another province.

Thanks for doing your bit to advance the cause of human knowledge.
  – Cecil Adams

Are exceptions ever made to the 5 year rule for being admitted to the USSC bar? Let’s say a brand new attorney on her first case somehow gets the USSC to accept the case but it’s been less than 5 years for her. Let’s further assume that it’s a criminal case. One could argue that refusing to admit her to the bar would implicate her client’s Sixth Amendment rights.

That’s what I get for sleeping on a correction. Sorry, I was tired last night; too much soccer…

To correct my statement about the federal courts, I wouldn’t have to undergo any added testing process. I would have to get the permission of the individual districts to practice there.

It’s what I get for talking in shorthand… (sigh).

Doug (who should know better than to talk in a lawyer thread when unable to think straight) :wink:

First of all, let me correct myself. To be admitted to the USSC, you need to be admitted to the bar of a state for three not five years.

Second, Supreme Court Rule 6 provides: “1. An attorney not admitted to practice in the highest court of a State, Commonwealth, Territory or Possession, or the District of Columbia for the requisite three years, but otherwise eligible for admission to practice in this Court under Rule 5.1 , may be permitted to argue pro hac vice.”


One thing that I may not have made clear is that once someone is admitted to the bar of a state, he or she may appear in all of the courts of that state, trial level and appellate. It’s only the federal courts that require special admission.

You say that you “serve a term of articles” for one year. Is that like an internship or apprenticeship? Do you have to go to a law school (or is it something encouraged)?


As Melin’s husband, I am interested to know whether a Canadian lawyer could be admitted to any of the states’ bars (or federal bars), and whether, conversely, she, as a member of the California and New York bars, could get admitted to any of the provincial bars. Any ideas?

sorry, Bill, overlooked the academic side.

yes, you need to have university training before the articles: a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B.) or equivalent.

In all of the common law provinces, an LL.B. is a quasi-grad degree - you need at least two years’ pre-law at university, but in practice you’re not likely to be accepted without a bachelor’s degree in something or other. (The LL.B. is equivalent to a J.D. - I believe the American schools used to give out LL.B. degrees but switched to the J.D.?)

The exception again is Quebec, with its civil law system. The LL.B. from a Quebec university is a straight bachelor’s degree. You don’t need a degree for the program - you apply to enter it straight out of CEGEP, just like a B.A. or B.Ed. (There are some variations in names of the Quebec civil law degree - McGill gives out a Bachelor of Civil Law (B.C.L.).)

Only once you’ve got your degree can you apply to the Law Society to serve your term of articles, which is meant to be an apprenticeship, before they turn you loose on the unsuspecting world - cover some of the practical aspects that the law schools don’t touch, etc.

There are things that an articling student cannot do, except under the supervision of a lawyer. For example, I wouldn’t send an articling student off to argue anything major in chambers alone - would go with the student, introduce him/her to the court, and then let the student make the pitch.


Although each province’s law society governs admissions to that province, they have teamed up to establish a common system of accreditation for foreign lawyers. Here’s the link to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada web-site respecting the accreditation system.

The evaluation is individual-based, and considers academic qualifications, previous experience as a lawyer, similarity between the foreign legal system and the Canadian legal system, and so on. I don’t know if they make a distinction between an occasional practice certificate for a foreign lawyer, and a permanent call.

You may also wish to check out the Law Society of the particular province. I think there’s a list of links on the Federation web-site.

Hope you find this useful.