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When state legislators cracked down on deadbeat dads several years ago, they probably didn’t realize it would stir up a minor international crisis over the practice of law — one that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now has the power to correct. The only problem is no one’s sure what the governor plans to do now that a bill to resolve the issue sits on his desk. The current conflict began innocently enough when then-Assemblywoman Jackie Speier in 1992 pushed a bill through the state Legislature that prohibits the renewal of any professional license — including a bar license — for anyone who is in arrears on family- or child-support payments. Social Security numbers were used as the tracking device, and the State Bar routinely made up nine-digit numbers for the convenience of keeping tabs on foreign lawyers. Matters got complicated last year, however, when the State Bar began enforcing a state statute that requires any applicant for a Bar license to provide a Social Security number as part of the state’s Child Support Enforcement Program. While that posed no obstacle to foreign lawyers living and working in California, it effectively shut out untold numbers of attorneys who traditionally have practiced law or taken the state’s bar exam while residing in their home countries. An uproar ensued, particularly from England and Ireland, but there were also complaints from Italy and the deans of American law schools with foreign students. Alison Hook, head of the international department of the Law Society of England and Wales, wrote in an August letter that the new requirement “has resulted in a complete bar on access to the bar exam by English solicitors and, indeed, other foreign lawyers who are not U.S. citizens and do not (and do not necessarily intend to) possess a green card.” Martin Uden, consul general of the British consulate in San Francisco, noted in his own August letter that the requirement could have adverse impacts on trade relations between the United Kingdom, which has the world’s fourth largest economy, and California, the sixth. “It is clear that if British lawyers resident in the U.K. cannot join the California Bar, they are more likely to direct clients to parts of the U.S. with which they are familiar — that is, where they have been admitted to practice (e.g., New York, Virginia, Washington state or Oregon),” Uden wrote. “In our view, California clearly stands to gain if British (and other foreign-based attorneys) are allowed to resume sitting the California bar.” The San Francisco-based Irish consulate also expressed concerns. Last month, with the State Bar’s support, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, proposed that applicants be allowed to use a federal tax identification number “or other appropriate identification as determined by the State Bar” in lieu of Social Security numbers. “What’s intended,” said State Bar Deputy Executive Director Robert Hawley last week, “is to create an exception for the Social Security number requirement for lawyers who want to become full-fledged members of the State Bar of California, but are not going to be here and do not have child-support problems.” He said the current requirement is a barrier to California being “a richer player in the market for international legal services.” The proposal faces one hurdle. It was attached to an existing bill — AB 664 — that would let courts refer tenants in eviction actions to legal aid providers that receive State Bar trust funds in addition to those federally funded through the Legal Services Corp. When the bill went before the Senate on Sept. 6 and the Assembly on Sept. 7, Republicans overwhelmingly voted against it, even though it passed in both houses. Supporters and opponents, however, say the vote expressed hostility to the trust funds proposal, and not for the change in licensing identification. The two issues can’t be separated, and it’s not clear whether Schwarzenegger will veto or approve AB 664. “It’s a toss-up,” says one person familiar with the process who wanted to remain anonymous. Two other anonymous sources, though, said the governor has indicated he supports changing the number requirement. He has until Oct. 9 to make a decision or allow it to pass into law without signing it. In urging passage, Uden, the British consul general, noted that the U.K. welcomes California attorneys to practice there and puts up no regulatory barriers as long as the applicants are qualified. “We would hope,” he wrote, “that this open approach on the part of the U.K. legal authority (the Law Society) would earn British lawyers reciprocal treatment in California — as it has done in the past up until last October.”

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