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?
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