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NM to allow outside lawyers to practice

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Roughly a year from now, a New Mexico resident who needs a lawyer will be able to hire one from, say, Peoria, or Los Gatos, or Missoula.

The New Mexico Supreme Court has resolved a long-standing and controversial question of letting out-of-state lawyers to be licensed here without taking the state bar exam by saying yes, with certain provisions.

The new rule will take effect June 1, 2015. In the meantime, the high court board that prepares and administers the state licensing process will gear up for the changes.

The Supreme Court considered but later rejected a reciprocity rule in 2008.

The Board of Bar Examiners published a proposed rule last year and took comments – many of them – and made some minor revisions before submitting the new proposal to the court.

The court, in announcing the new rule, said its adoption was bolstered by “advances in technology and communications along with the expansion of the global economy (and) the transboundary nature of the practice of law.”

“By allowing experienced attorneys from other states to be admitted in New Mexico without having to take the bar exam again, the court has also made it possible for New Mexico attorneys to seek admission in reciprocal states without having to take another bar exam,” a statement from the court said. The court said it hopes the change ultimately will improve the quality and quantity of legal services in the state.

There are doubters, to be sure, who voiced concerns that out-of-state lawyers, who may now be admitted on a case-by-case basis by affiliating with local counsel, won’t be competent in the state’s law or aware of its local customs and courtesies.

Addressing those concerns, the new process will require out-of-state lawyers to complete a special educational component dealing with New Mexico law, including Indian law, community property law and professionalism before they may be admitted. There will be fees of $1,000 for most practicing attorneys and a background investigation to determine character and fitness.

Among concerns expressed by members of the bar opposed to the rule were that out-of-state lawyers could essentially cherry-pick cases and would seek admission just to market themselves and not benefit clients.

“We assume the proposed rule is not motivated by a desire to increase the number of attorneys willing to serve the legal needs of the poor and under-represented,” said a letter on behalf of New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association. That group predicted nonresident practitioners won’t be involved in community activities such as pro bono legal fairs, mediating cases during Settlement Week or mentoring law students and would instead create a class of “commuter lawyers.”

Proponents, meanwhile, offered business reasons for supporting the change.

Cate Stetson, an Indian law specialist with tribal clients in other states, said the lack of reciprocity in New Mexico means she cannot be licensed in other states without taking bar exams there.

The Rio Grande Foundation wrote in support of the reciprocity rule, saying the lack of such a rule is “a serious stumbling block for businesses that might look to set up offices in our state.” It and other writers noted New Mexico is one of just 11 jurisdictions in the nation without a procedure allowing nonresident lawyers to be admitted without taking the bar exam.