When Snell & Wilmer, a multi-state law firm, opened an office in Las Vegas nearly a year ago, it encountered some significant obstacles in doing business. For starters, the law firm found it would have to change the name it has been using since 1938 because of a State Bar of Nevada policy. The policy, aimed at preventing out-of-state law firms from taking business away from the Nevada legal community, left Troy Wallin and his colleagues continually explaining to new clients the firm’s new name of Curtis & Associates. “When we go to talk to people in the community we say we are with Curtis & Associates, affiliated with Snell & Wilmer,” Wallin said. “That is a mouthful.” Wallin said the name change prevents the firm from drawing upon its 64 years of name recognition.
This, however, is not the only obstacle the firm faced. Each of the firm’s lawyers had to take the Nevada Bar exam, even though they were licensed in other states. Nevada requires lawyers coming in from out-of-state to pass the Nevada Bar exam, even though a handful of other state bar associations allow lawyers in good standing to be admitted. “A lot of out-of-state law firms have concluded that it’s not worth setting up an office in Nevada because of the hassles,” Wallin said.
Jose Cardenas, who was born and raised in Las Vegas, is now the managing partner in Lewis & Roca, a law firm based in Phoenix. When Lewis & Roca decided to open a Las Vegas office, it contacted attorneys who were already practicing members of the Nevada Bar to form its core staff at the new location. This avoided one obstacle, but the problem of changing its name remained. The Las Vegas office opened in May 1999 using a different name, and the firm immediately filed a lawsuit in federal court requesting that it be allowed to operate in Nevada as Lewis & Roca. A preliminary injunction allows it to use the name in Nevada pending a final judgement. “We filed the suit with great reluctance,” said Cardenas. “There is a movement afoot to change the regulations, so this may not be an issue in future. We feel it was well worth the effort to move into Nevada.” Cardenas said Lewis & Roca is an active supporter of the Nevada Bar and has contributed to scholarships for Nevada law students.
State Bar of Nevada President John Mowbray said he is well aware of the controversies concerning Nevada’s approach to allowing out-of-state lawyers to practice here. He said a commission set up by the State Bar of Nevada – the Supreme Court of Nevada’s Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice – has participated in a nationwide debate to examine whether the policies of multijurisdictional practice are adequate both here and elsewhere. Mowbray said the State Bar supports the current requirement that out-of-state lawyers pass the Nevada Bar exam, but the Bar is proposing several changes to existing policy.
The multijurisdictional practice issue is one of several on the State Bar’s agenda this year as part of its mission to make Nevada’s legal system more efficient. The Bar intends to increase technology in the court system, fund more student programs in primary and secondary schools, and help new lawyers find work through an on-line career center. “I think these issues have been a very good exercise,” Mowbray said. “It’s been a good opportunity for us to take a look at where we’ve been, where we currently are and where we want to go.”
Regarding out-of-state lawyers, Wallin said he is an advocate of opening the doors in all states and having a national licensure program. He said it can be difficult to work on any in-depth case without involving overlapping issues of other states. “The law needs to catch up with reality,” Wallin said. “The reality is, people are practicing multi-state all the time and nobody is saying anything about it because it’s not enough to threaten anyone else’s turf.”
Mowbray said the concept of national licensure was debated nationwide, and a recent draft prepared by the American Bar Association (ABA) did not advocate changing the current system. Instead, the ABA recommended each state make its own decision, a stand the Nevada commission supported. Mowbray said he supports making out-of-state lawyers take the State Bar exam and he also believes Nevada lawyers should bear primary responsibility for legal services performed in the state. “I think, as a universal concept, everyone agrees Nevada lawyers should be responsible for answering questions and resolving problems pertaining to Nevada law,” Mowbray said.
Mowbray said requiring some law firms to change their names is in part to prevent storefront operations. In this type of operation, usually one lawyer from the out-of-state firm is licensed in Nevada and acts as a portal for business, but the work is actually performed out-of-state by lawyers who are not licensed here.
Last year, Nevada’s Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice held public hearings to garner input from the legal community on these issues. The feedback was outlined in a report that will be presented to the Nevada Supreme Court later this year for approval. The report, which is endorsed by the State Bar, offers some of the following recommendations:
Expanding admission for practice before governmental agencies, mediations and arbitrations required by law.
A system of registration should be developed for out-of-state lawyers involved in non-litigation matters.
Admission for limited purposes should be available to corporate or government counsel.
Legal service attorneys should have increased access to licensing while working for nonprofit legal services providers.
A system of registration should be developed for multi-state law firms desiring to do business in Nevada.
Richard Morgan, dean of UNLV’s Boyd Law School and a commission member, said the justification for Nevada’s position is that Nevada law is different from the law of any other jurisdiction. He said the State Bar wants to make sure lawyers moving in from another jurisdiction have a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of Nevada law. “The way to do that is to make them pass the Bar,” Morgan said.
However, Morgan added that Nevada’s participation in the ABA’s debate on multijurisdictional practice has prompted the State Bar to take a closer look at some gray areas in the current system. “For example, if you have a lawyer who is licensed in California and he or she needs to take a deposition in Nevada regarding a matter pending in California, there is no reason why this lawyer shouldn’t be able to come to Nevada and take a deposition,” Morgan stated. He said in the past there was always a question about whether the Bar might be able to take action against a lawyer in such a circumstance. “I think for the foreseeable future the regulation of lawyers is going to remain at the state level,” he said. “The multijurisdictional changes are going to go to such things as making it a little easier for multi-state firms to do practice in other states and making it easier for more experienced lawyers to gain admission in other states.”
Law Meets High-Tech
This is not the only matter the State Bar intends to address. Mowbray said the Bar is in the early stages of pursuing a complete computerization of the state’s court systems. This would make the process of filing briefs and motions available to lawyers nearly 24 hours a day. “I fully envision 10 years from now a lot of our work in the courthouse will be done electronically, ” Mowbray said. The United States Bankruptcy Court in Las Vegas has already experienced success with an on-line system it implemented in 1998. Judges, court personnel, lawyers and the public can view scanned dockets of all bankruptcy cases filed on the Internet.
In the past few months, the bankruptcy court converted to a more advanced case management system that could save legal professionals valuable time, as well as reduce the amount of paperwork that flows through their offices and the courthouse. Now, attorneys can use it to electronically file bankruptcy petitions, related adversary complaints, motions and responses over the Internet at any time of the day or night. The system also sends them a confirmation of all the documents filed. Mowbray would like to see similar technology available to all lawyers in Nevada, with even more capabilities. “The technology is there. It’s just a question of marshalling the resources,” Mowbray said.
The State Bar of Nevada is already using technology to help legal professionals find jobs. Through a partnership with The Legal Career Center Network, the Bar has a new on-line career center on its Web site. Job seekers can search more than 3,400 job listings, post their résumés, access employer contact lists and be notified of job openings matching their criteria, all free of charge.
The Next Generation
In addition, Mowbray said the Bar is getting more involved in helping primary and secondary students in the state learn about the methods of the legal system. “It’s a chance for lawyers and judges to get out to the schools and put on programs so students can appreciate our form of government,” Mowbray said. Through mock trials and debates students are getting hands-on understanding of the law. In February the State Bar held a statewide “We the People” speaking competition for high school students. The winning team will compete in Washington D.C. later this year and vie for college scholarships. Mowbray said state bars nationwide became more active in schools after President Dwight Eisenhower dedicated May 1 as Law Day to celebrate America’s legal system. “It provides another approach to educate our youth on their civic responsibilities and helps prepare them regardless of what career path they choose,” Mowbray said.
Mowbray concedes the State Bar’s agenda is an ambitious one, but he is confident the organization can protect the public’s interests, while at the same time furthering the legal profession’s standing in Nevada. “We are looking forward to facing the challenges ahead and overcoming them,” he said.