What does ‘Pro Hac Vice’ Mean and How is it Applied in a Legal Context?
Pro Hac Vice literally translates to “for this occasion only”, which is an apt description of its legal meaning, which is that an attorney who is not licensed in a state or jurisdiction is allowed to practice law there in a specific case as a one one-off exception. This practice usually requires the pro hac vice attorney to seek out an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction, so that they can practice under under the local attorney’s license.
What is Unauthorized Practice of Law?
This is when anyone, attorney or not, practices without a license or special permission to do so. Each state has their own licensing requirements. Generally, in order to practice law, attorneys are required to graduate from law school, pass the bar exam offered by their state, meet their state’s threshold on the ethics exam, submit to a character and fitness examination, and attend a swearing in ceremony. Some attorneys choose to become licensed in multiple states, but each state has a licensing fee and their own educational requirements for keeping the license current on top of the original licensing, so attorneys are often licensed in only one or two states and instead use pro hac vice or refer cases should a case move out of state.
Attorneys, as a general rule, cannot practice law in states where they are not licensed. Parties can usually file on behalf of themselves, known as ‘pro se’, but if an unlicensed individual or attorney not licensed in that jurisdiction files on behalf of a company or another person, they would have committed the unlicensed practice of law. In some states, unauthorized practice of law is a misdemeanor or even a felony. For attorneys, the state bars will also get involved, which may involve a published rebuke, a fine, and possibly a suspension of their license.
What is the Purpose of Pro Hac Vice?
Pro hac vice exists mostly for high profile or high value cases that somehow cross state lines. The case might start in one state and then change venue, or an out-of-state client may have a preferred law firm that they bring in pro hac vice to handle their high risk or high value cases, especially at the appellate level. For smaller cases or clients who do not want to pay two law firms for pro hac vice, the out of state firm can often refer you to a local counsel.
What is the Procedure for Pro Hac Vice?
The procedure will vary by state, and each state will have its own rules and forms to follow. In New Mexico, an attorney hoping to be admitted pro hac vice must consult the state rules on the subject, find an attorney of good standing who is willing to allow them to practice under their license, must pay the registration fee and complete the registration form, and then must file with the court into the case in question. In some jurisdictions, the decision is left up to the judge whether to admit an attorney pro hac vice. States often have a cap on the number of appearances an attorney can make pro hac vice before they must become licensed in that state. In New Mexico, an attorney cannot appear pro hac vice more than 5 times in a calendar year.
Counsel can then proceed as normal with their case in that jurisdiction. However, the reason that it is often significantly more expensive to proceed pro hac vice is that each state charges a registration fee for pro hac vice, and the state also sets their own requirements for how active the local attorney must be in the pro hac vice attorney’s case. For example, in New Mexico, the local counsel must be present in person in all proceedings unless excused by the court. Local counsel is also deemed to have signed all pleadings signed by the pro hac vice attorney, so the local attorney may want to review them as they could be subject to sanctions based on the pleadings filed by the pro hac vice attorney, and would bill their time accordingly for both appearances and review. Depending on how active local counsel is expected to be, clients may wind up paying two law firms for one case.
The pro hac vice attorney is allowed to appear in local proceedings because they are practicing under a local attorney’s license. In some states, local lawyers have been held responsible for the misconduct of the pro hac vice attorney. In New Mexico, for good cause, the court can revoke the privilege of any attorney to appear pro hac vice, even if they have already registered and paid the fee.
The most common reason for pro hac vice to be revoked is because the attorney in question was less than forthcoming about their disciplinary status in their home state; one requirement is that an attorney applying for pro hac vice status must disclose any previous disciplinary actions taken against them by any state bar. If the pro hac vice attorney has been disciplined, or receives notice of disciplinary action during their representation as a pro hac vice attorney, they are supposed to notify the state bar where they are pro hac vice immediately. Failure to do so may be grounds for revoking pro hac vice, and that state’s bar may refuse to grant that attorney pro hac vice in future.
Another reason for attorneys to have their pro hac vice status revoked is when the pro hac vice attorney either violates the local rules or statutes, or breaches court etiquette. Pro hac vice attorneys are expected to learn and abide by the state and local rules of procedure, and violation of these rules can lead to sanctions for the client. Egregious violations of these rules can lead to the judge either inviting or telling the pro hac vice attorney to withdraw from the case, leaving their client scrambling to find other counsel.
Pro Hac Vice is not something that comes up often. For most people, either all parties to a case are local, or transferring the case to local counsel is less hassle and more cost-effective than paying for pro hac vice. If it is something you are considering, you should consult with your attorney and they can advise you on your state-specific options.