Vol. 84, No. 8, August 2011
A client has asked me to assist his company in purchasing land in Iowa for a new business location. Am I violating the Rules of Professional Conduct if I represent this client in a land transaction in another state?
Dean R. Dietrich, Marquette 1977, of Ruder Ware, Wausau, is past chair of the State Bar Professional Ethics Committee.
It is appropriate to be concerned about engaging in the practice of law in a state where you are not licensed to practice. Recent changes to the Rules of Professional Conduct have, however, recognized that the practice of law has become national, if not international, in scope. Almost all states have adopted changes to the rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law and allow the temporary or occasional practice of law in a state even though a lawyer is not licensed to practice law in that state.
Wisconsin has adopted changes to SCR 20:5.5 in acknowledgment of the expansion of legal practices to serve clients who engage in business outside the state. Wisconsin has adopted some unique wording, which provides protection to Wisconsin lawyers who engage in the practice of law in states whose lawyers are allowed to engage in the practice of law in Wisconsin, as long as certain circumstances exist.
SCR 20:5.5(c) recognizes that a lawyer who is not admitted to practice in Wisconsin but is admitted to practice in another jurisdiction (and has not been disbarred or suspended from practice in any jurisdiction for disciplinary reasons or for medical incapacity) may provide legal services in Wisconsin on an occasional basis if one of the exceptions noted in that rule is met. In the situation posed by the question, an out-of-state lawyer should be able to provide legal representation to a client in the purchase of Wisconsin property under SCR 20:5.5(c)4., which provides that the legal services must “[a]rise out of, or are reasonably related to, the lawyer’s practice in a jurisdiction in which the lawyer is admitted to practice.” As long as the representation of the client in the land acquisition on behalf of the company is part of the lawyer’s practice in the state where the lawyer is licensed, the lawyer could provide that representation to his client who is purchasing land in Wisconsin and not run afoul of the Wisconsin unauthorized-practice-of-law rule. That lawyer must be careful to not “[e]stablish an office or maintain a systematic and continuous presence in Wisconsin for the practice of law” or “[h]old out to the public or otherwise represent that the lawyer is admitted to the practice of law in Wisconsin.” These are the requirements of SCR 20:5.5(b).
The language in SCR 20:5.5(a) allows a Wisconsin lawyer to do the same type of occasional practice in a state where the lawyer is not licensed, based on the fact that an out-of-state lawyer could engage in that occasional practice in Wisconsin. SCR 20:5.5(a) provides that a Wisconsin lawyer shall not “[p]ractice law in a jurisdiction where doing so violates the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction except that a lawyer admitted to practice in Wisconsin does not violate this rule by conduct in another jurisdiction that is permitted in Wisconsin under SCR 20:5.5(c) and (d) for lawyers not admitted in Wisconsin.…” Under this provision, a Wisconsin lawyer does not violate the rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law in Wisconsin (where the Wisconsin lawyer is licensed and subject to discipline) by engaging in the occasional practice of law in another state, if an attorney from that state could engage in the occasional practice of law in Wisconsin. Although confusing, the purpose of this language is to allow the Wisconsin lawyer to engage in the occasional practice of law in another state, provided the exceptions identified in SCR 20:5.5 are complied with. Thus, the lawyer may represent a client in a land transaction in another state if that representation arises out of or is reasonably related to the lawyer’s practice in Wisconsin and the representation provided to that client.
As the practice of law becomes more national and international, the requirements relating to the unauthorized practice of law and the multijurisdictional practice of law will become more important to every Wisconsin lawyer.