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The Law Society of England and Wales is preparing to ask New York State to relax its requirements for the requalification of U.K. solicitors who want to practice New York law. The move resumes an ongoing debate that stems in part from divergent cultural notions of what a legal education entails. Currently, New York makes a distinction between qualified solicitors with undergraduate degrees in law, who are allowed to take the New York bar exam immediately, and those with undergraduate degrees in non-law subjects, who must take 20 credits of coursework (usually one year) at a law school in the United States before being permitted to sit for the bar exam. The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, has sent a paper to both the New York State Bar Association and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, recommending that the extra education component be dropped, and that all U.K.-qualified solicitors be treated the same. The Law Society will soon forward a copy of the proposal to the New York Court of Appeals, which holds rule-making authority on the issue. The paper argues that the current rules unfairly look behind the title of solicitor to undergraduate education. It also contends that the arrangement denies appropriate reciprocity to English lawyers, noting that New York lawyers can gain admission as solicitors merely by sitting and passing exams in property, litigation, and professional conduct and accounts. James P. Duffy of Garden City, N.Y.-based Berg and Duffy, who chairs a State Bar joint committee that will review the Law Society paper, said it was too early to comment on the recommendation. “The New York State Bar obviously has a great deal of respect for the Law Society, and the Law Society has put forth a very serious proposal that requires a lot of thought and study,” he said. A spokesman for the New York City Bar, Andrew Martin, said the organization had received the proposal but would have no comment. At its root, the controversy derives from the existence of two different paths to become a solicitor in England and Wales. Candidates with a three-year undergraduate law degree go on to take the one-year Legal Practice Course (the English equivalent of a U.S. state bar exam), followed by two years of training in a firm of solicitors. Candidates with a non-law degree must first take a post-graduate conversion course called the Common Professional Examination (CPE), which converts the non-law degree into a law degree. They then take the Legal Practice Course and two years of training. Once solicitors have qualified, English law firms typically do not distinguish between the two types. New York, however, does draw a distinction, and the issue of the required U.S. law school coursework has come up intermittently in recent years. In 1997, emissaries from the Law Society met with New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and Associate Judge Howard Levine and urged that the requirement be eliminated. The Court of Appeals declined to do that, but did lower the number of mandated credits the following year, from 24 hours to 20. A spokesman for the Court of Appeals, Gary Spencer, who had seen a copy of the Law Society’s report, noted that it was too early to comment on the merits of the recommendation, since it had not yet formally been sent to the court. “It appears to be a thoughtful request and I’m sure the court will take a careful look at it,” he said. Spencer added that the court’s historic rule has been that if a foreign lawyer’s legal training is the substantial equivalent of what is required from New York lawyers, that lawyer is allowed to take the bar exam without additional course work. The court has concluded in the past that solicitors with a non-law undergraduate degree and only one year of academic legal work do not meet that threshold. “Basically, the court believes in academic legal education of three years, at a school with intense study. That’s what’s required of lawyers going to school in New York and then taking the bar exam,” Spencer said. “In some other countries it’s less of an academic system, but in New York it’s academic.” English lawyers respond that the legal education of a solicitor, even one without an undergraduate law degree, is exhaustive, and that the New York rule creates a distinction where none exists. “From a U.K. perspective, once you qualify as a solicitor, how you did it doesn’t matter,” said Caird Forbes-Cockell, the New York-based Americas managing partner at Linklaters & Alliance. “It never occurs to me to ask: Did you do a law degree or not? There is absolutely no distinction made.” The Law Society proposal comes as English and American lawyers have become increasingly intertwined. The merged trans-Atlantic firm of Clifford Chance Rogers & Wells is more than a year old now, and other London-based firms have continued to expand their New York branches. That said, Carl Sheldon, managing partner of the New York office of London’s Allen & Overy, said the rule has little day-to-day effect on the running of his office, since the firm staffs in New York mainly with American law school graduates. But Sheldon did complain that the obstacles are greater in the U.S. for the English than for Americans seeking to qualify in England. “I just think it should be more reciprocal,” he said. The Law Society paper itself continues that line of reasoning. “Obviously, the New York bar is the body to decide what is in its interests, but the Law Society would respectfully point out that it is New York which will benefit from greater numbers of highly qualified English solicitors obtaining its title, and then returning to London and other European capitals to practise New York law, ensuring the spread of New York law to other jurisdictions,” it reads. “It may be that, otherwise, these English solicitors will qualify in other U.S. jurisdictions which allow them to take their Bar examination — such as in California, or soon in Illinois.”

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