Tennessee is one of the few states that requires a lawyer to have worked full-time if she wants to practice as a licensed attorney without having to retake a bar examination. That means when a part-time lawyer moves from another state to Tennessee, that attorney must take the Tennessee bar examination — regardless of whether that lawyer has already passed a bar exam and regardless of past work experience. This imposes a penalty on those who have voluntarily chosen to reduce their hours, like some working mothers.
The Network of Enlightened Women, of which I am president, petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court in April, asking the court to remove the full-time work requirement. More than 30 comments were submitted. All the comments support removing the full-time work requirement.
Even the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners, which is responsible for administering the rules on admission, agreed that the state’s requirement is unnecessary. In its comment, the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners wrote, “The Board agrees that requiring the ‘full time’ practice of law for admission without examination is not necessary to ensure competence among attorneys admitted on motion. In fact, it appears that a full-time practice requirement (which is not typically required to maintain a law license) can have the undesirable effect of making it unnecessarily difficult for working mothers, for example, to obtain admission to the Tennessee bar without examination.”
Support from the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners is significant, as the board had rejected the petitions for licensure reciprocity from at least two part-time attorneys, both of whom also submitted comments. One of the attorneys, Cheryl Smith, noted, “In 2017 I applied for admission to the Tennessee State Bar by comity. Despite being an experienced attorney, I was denied solely because I had not worked full time during the preceding 3 years. I appealed the denial and lost on appeal. At the time I was told by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners that despite my years of experience, they did not have the discretion to approve my application for admission by comity under the Supreme Court Rules as then written.”
The Tennessee Bar Association also agreed that the full-time work requirement is unnecessary, pointing out that the exact hours an attorney works don’t determine competence. “It seems difficult to imagine a material difference in competence between a licensed lawyer in good standing in another jurisdiction who practices law or teaches law for 40 hours per week and one who engages in the same activity for fewer hours weekly,” the association wrote.
There are many ways in which changing this rule would benefit Tennesseans, as plenty of commenters noted. Jaimie Cavanaugh from the Institute for Justice wrote that removing the full-time work requirement “would increase the economic liberty afforded to Tennesseans and allow them greater freedom to make career decisions that are best for themselves and their families.”
Kaitlyn Schiraldi from the Mountain States Legal Foundation wrote, “The practice of law is demanding, regardless of how many hours per week one works, and a part-time attorney is no less competent or hardworking than one who works full-time. In fact, attorneys who work part-time often do so because they have other responsibilities, such as raising children or taking care of a sick or elderly relative.”
And Vanessa Brown Calder, director of opportunity and family policy studies at the Cato Institute, pointed out that the full-time work requirement disproportionately hurts women. “Tennessee’s licensing rule holds some of these women back and contributes to the fear that many women have that they will be penalized for going part time or taking leave from work while their children are young,” she wrote. “This is truly unfortunate and ensures that the legal profession misses out on legal talent.”
Attorney Sarah Laird shared, “Gladly, part-time/flex positions are becoming more commonplace, and firms are getting smart and structuring part-time schedules in a way that recognizes and rewards the value part-time attorneys bring to the table. Let’s not hamper this trend by throwing up a roadblock to attorneys who have taken advantage of this tool.”
A comment submitted by the Independent Women’s Forum stated, “Tennessee has an opportunity to join other states in knocking down an employment barrier for professional women.”
Indeed. The issue now goes to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which should remove the full-time work requirement for reciprocity. It is an economic barrier that serves no compelling purpose.