Streamlining “Admission on Motion”

So I was just admitted to the Arizona Bar.

Before you break out the celebratory mezcal and tacos, let me note the decidedly low-key meaning of this milestone: I’m already licensed in California and Washington, and I don’t need an Arizona Bar license for my in-house job.

But having moved to Tucson earlier this year, I figured I should get involved in the local legal community, and have the option of being able to do local pro bono and other in-state legal work. So I applied for a law license via “admission on motion.” That’s a form of admission available to attorneys who are licensed in another state and have been in active practice for at least 3 of the last 5 years.

It’s supposed to be a fast-track to a license for experienced attorneys, so you’d think that “admission on motion” would be simple, right? I’d just fill out a basic application form with the particulars of my admissions in other states, the Arizona Bar would then look up my California and Washington records online, they’d confirm that I’d been licensed long enough and hadn’t been disciplined, and grant me admission. It would take a day or so.

LOL – right.

In actuality, just completing the application form took me over 25 hours. It’s an unwieldy monster, requiring all sorts of ancillary documentation. For example: Arizona requires several official forms showing that I’d been admitted in another state, and that I am currently in good standing in that state. Different states have different names for these things, so I had to spend time corresponding with the California & Washington bars to ensure I was getting the right documents. Then I had to pay them to send “official” versions to me. All of this rigamarole, notwithstanding the fact that the AZ Bar could go to and and confirm these matters in seconds. Seems like that would be easier than reviewing the documents I sent them, right? I can’t imagine it’s because they don’t trust the other bars; I think it’s just the lawyerly proclivity for paperwork.

As it was, it took 4 months from when I submitted the application to when I was officially admitted to the Bar. I’d been warned it would take 9 months, so . . . good?

But why was all this runaround necessary? 

Again, it’s merely an annoyance for me; I’m practicing exclusively in-house, for an out-of-state company.

But what if I were were, say, a worker’s right attorney who was the trailing spouse of a pilot reassigned to the Davis–Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson? Or a family lawyer following my partner who just got a sweet job at the University of Arizona?

Cue up the 4+ month herky-jerk of the Arizona admission on motion process. And all that time, how do I focus on serving Arizonans and making a living at my chosen profession?  

So here’s a modest suggestion: flip the application presumption.

The current system starts with a presumption that the applicant is unworthy. A massive amount of time and paperwork is required to overcome this presumption. But anyone applying for AOM has already met the bar in at least one other state, and they are actively practicing. Why all of that paperwork to prove out what’s already known? It offers no benefit to the public; it’s just a box-checking exercise.

So change the presumption to one of worthiness. The AZ Bar can easily confirm license status and disciplinary history for any applicant. If an attorney meets the basic criteria (licensed, in good standing, active practice in 3 of the last 5 years) and has a clean disciplinary record, just give them an Arizona license. Save everything else – the notarized documents, the questionnaires, the exhaustive reference checks, the character and fitness evaluation, etc. — for applicants with spotty records.

As the vast majority of attorneys don’t have disciplinary records (less than one-quarter of one percent of attorneys are disciplined in any given year), almost all applicants would end up being admitted through this streamlined process. This would save everyone a lot of time and effort and help contribute to Arizonans getting legal help. And the Bar could still charge its licensing fee.

(Though I do feel a little bad for singling out Arizona. Every state that offers admission on motion has a process roughly as bad as this one, and the people at the Arizona Bar were nothing but pleasant and helpful throughout the process. So consider this as general advice for ALL states looking to improve license portability — and the ability of the public to get legal help.)

2 thoughts on “Streamlining “Admission on Motion””

  1. Josh,

    You have described a process that, as you intimate, is largely the case around the country. (Don’t get me started on the increasingly anachronistic approach of state-by-state licensure.) The slow up is typically character and fitness clearance, but as you point out, having gained licensure and been discipline-free elsewhere ought to make that a quick and efficient process. Here’s another idea that should be implemented until there is a national bar admission that is readily recognized throughout the country: a rule allowing practice pending final action on the admission by motion. Guess what? The ABA already got there with a Model Rule on Practice Pending Admission. Unlike many salutary ABA efforts that are broadly accepted by the states, this one seems to have dropped into infertile soil and lies moldering on the ground.


    1. Don, Arizona actually has such a rule. Not sure it follows the ABA model approach, but it’s far from perfect. It requires, among other things, that the application for admission be complete (no mean feat, that) and that the attorney’s work be supervised by an Arizona attorney.

      And yes, state-by-state licensure is a complete anachronism. It’s particularly galling given the breadth of 1) the law and 2) the legal monopoly.

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