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Georgia’s top judge is trying to make things easier for hurricane-displaced lawyers who want to start a practice in Georgia. Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Georgia Supreme Court has asked her counterparts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to change their rules so that lawyers from those states could get a State Bar of Georgia license in as little as eight weeks. Right now, those lawyers can practice in Georgia temporarily but must pass the state’s bar exam to set up shop permanently — a process that would take at least nine months. The next bar exam is not offered until February, and results do not arrive until late May. The problem is that Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama do not allow reciprocity with other states. For states that do, lawyers licensed in one state can join another state’s bar without having to take its bar exam. Currently 33 states, including Georgia, allow this kind of reciprocity, said Hulett H. “Bucky” Askew, the director of the Georgia Office of Bar Admissions. If the top judges in those states agree, then lawyers from the Gulf Coast states would need only to pass a certification of fitness to practice in Georgia, a process that ordinarily takes eight to 12 weeks, said Askew, who added that his office would try to speed things up for displaced lawyers. Askew said his office has received a lot of phone calls from Louisiana lawyers looking for reciprocity, “but as soon as they hear we’re not reciprocal, they hang up.” “The problem that these lawyers will have is their lack of access to documentation,” he said. Out-of-state lawyers must provide educational transcripts, employment histories and other information to be licensed by the Georgia Bar. “I had two lawyers from New Orleans who walked in here who had lost everything. They had no client files and no documentation,” Askew said. “Assume you went to Tulane Law School and practiced in New Orleans for 15 years. You would have no access to [bar] disciplinary records or transcripts, so we’re going to have some issues around them being able to document what they need to document.” Luckily for lawyers hit by Katrina, Texas accepts lawyers in good standing from any other state, under a rule called comity. But Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama lawyers wishing to set up practices in other states face serious obstacles, since the three Gulf Coast states are not reciprocity states. Georgia has allowed reciprocity for lawyers from other states since 2003. Under the rule, lawyers who meet certain conditions can get a Georgia Bar license without taking the state’s bar exam. Gulf Coast lawyers are already able to practice in Georgia on a temporary basis, thanks to a multi-jurisdictional practice rule passed by the state’s Supreme Court in 2004. The rule’s intent is to allow out-of-state lawyers to work on existing client matters from a Georgia office, said Clifton A. Brashier, director of the State Bar. “Our rules accommodate a temporary situation in which a lawyer licensed in another state is in Georgia on a client matter relating back to the home state,” he said. That means a Louisiana lawyer could run a Louisiana practice from Georgia temporarily, without running afoul of Georgia’s unauthorized-practice-of-law statute, he said. But lawyers wishing to find a job with a Georgia firm would need to join the State Bar. Although the multi-jurisdictional practice rule allows only for temporary practice in Georgia, it specifies no time limit, Brashier said. Rather, it depends on the circumstances in each case. “If one’s office in New Orleans is underwater,” he said, “that would be a pretty understandable circumstance.” Askew, the bar admissions chief, was not sure when the supreme courts of the three Gulf Coast states will reply to the Sears’ request, or whether they will change their rules to allow for reciprocity. Just getting the letter to the hard-hit courts was a challenge, he said. “We faxed, e-mailed and Fed-Exed this letter today, not knowing how in the world their system would cope.” He said the Alabama court has received the letter, but he has not yet heard from those in Louisiana and Mississippi. “How high a priority [the rule change] will be for them, I don’t know. They’ve got huge problems there,” he said.

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