Limits on a Lawyer's License: What the Attorney Can and Cannot Do
When I post a Question, Why is there a Disclaimer posted by the lawyer when there is a response to a question?Lawyer responders are quick to note in their reply to law questions at AVVO that the answer is not legal advice, but actually legal education. They also note that the reply does not create an attorney-client relationship. This is important to the lawyer and client, because there is a whole set of mutual rights and responsibilities when the relationship is formal. Furthermore, all legal advice is tailored specific to the jurisdiction and the individual. "One size fits all" never is proper in law. In addition, Avvo inquirers might have noted that many times in a lawyer's reply to an inquiry, there is a disclaimer added to the response. There the lawyer might say something along the lines of "I am not licensed in your jurisdiction and my response may not be completely accurate. It is always best to confer with a local attorney." Unlike doctors who can go from state to state and practice anywhere, once they have obtained a local medical license, law does not work that way.
A Lawyer's license is specific to a state.A lawyer licensed in one state cannot practice in a state where he or she is not licensed. The lawyer cannot give proper legal advice, and they cannot appear in the courts of that state. Most lawyers will be happy to provide a general indication of what will happen, but they always add to work with a lawyer licensed in the state where the matter occurred. State and local law in the United States is not as uniform as people think it is. In some states a municipal court can hear a personal injury suit; and in others the court is limited to traffic matters and minor disputes. A lawyer may have a license to practice in more than one state, but rarely has more than two or three licenses. As to all the other states, there is no right to practice there unless the lawyer makes a specific application to the court to represent a client on a single matter, and usually the court rules require the out of state attorney to have local counsel as well.
Federal CourtsEven in the state where a lawyer is licensed, that does not automatically mean the lawyer can appear in federal courts. In order to practice in federal courts, the lawyer must make an application. The lawyer has to show that there is a valid license from the state where the court is located, and have a lawyer already registered in the court vouch for the applicant. The same process occurs in the Circuit court (appeals) and the Supreme Court.
Practice Areas and Certain CourtsAlthough a license allows a lawyer to practice law, still most lawyers limit their practice. There are trial lawyers, and there are in house lawyers for companies which advise business people on the law. (Most house counsel rarely go to court, and trial lawyers joke they would not even know where the courthouse is located). Lawyers also focus their practice on certain areas, Usually neighborhood lawyers serve the needs of locals and make appearances in many courts. The normal procedure, however, is that most lawyers limit their practice: for example as to court: municipal court, county court, appeal court. Some lawyers do personal injury, or commercial litigation, or criminal defense.
Some lawyers may stay in one county, while others travel throughout the state. Lawyers can limit their practice to landlord/ tenant court, state court, to family court, to probate court,to bankruptcy court, or to federal courts, district level or appeal level.
ReferralsSome clients get upset when their attorney turns them over to another lawyer. In the lawyer's view this is done for the best interest of the client. A neighborhood lawyer may have a client come in with a complicated family divorce or a problem estate or a tax audit which will take a lawyer who focuses on that area only. Yes there are additional fees involved, but if the client is facing loss of children, or a large amount of money, or even facing jail time, he or she should be using the lawyer best trained to assist them in that area of law.
Further Limitations on the Lawyer: Success is Not Guaranteed.Clients need to keep in mind that no matter how good the attorney is, or how much time the lawyer has spent in a field, that is never a guarantee of complete success. A lawyer knows all too well that a judge can limit evidence from coming into the courtroom, can grant motions in favor of the other side, or see a jury turn against their client. No honest attorney will ever tell a client that their lawsuit is a "sure thing."
Other Legal Guides on related issues.You might find my legal guide on selecting and hiring a lawyer helpful.
You might find my legal guide on Is it Legal? Is it Illegal? helpful.
You might find my legal guide on the understanding the different court systems helpful.
You might find my legal guide on legal terms used in litigation helpful
(Even if you are not filing a lawsuit this information can be useful).