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Michigan bar residency rule reconsidered

By Jeremy W. Steele
Business Direct Weekly
December 9, 2004

Faced with growing demand for lawyers with knowledge in international law and trade issues, state leaders are working to eliminate the state's residency requirement to become a member of the State Bar of Michigan.

Legislation dropping the requirement was awaiting House approval this week after unanimously passing committee last week. The Senate approved the bill early last month, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm does not oppose it, spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.

Michigan business interests and law schools pushed for the change, arguing that the residency rule discourages international students, particularly Canadians, from enrolling at Michigan institutions. Several law schools, including the Michigan State University College of Law in East Lansing and Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, have partnerships with Canadian institutions for joint degrees or operate international law programs.

"We need more lawyers who can practice on both sides of the border," said Bill Weiner, associate dean for international, graduate and extended programs at Cooley Law School. "Canadian nationals with a Canadian law degree can sit for the California bar or the New York bar, but here we have Canadian nationals who not only have a U.S. law degree, but a law degree from one of the schools in the state of Michigan who can't sit for the bar."

The state bar is overseen by Michigan's court system and governed under state law.

The residency rule creates a Catch-22 for foreign law students, state bar president Nancy Diehl said. The bar's board of commissioners unanimously voted to support eliminating the residency requirement.

Under federal rules, lawyers are not issued visas unless they are admitted to the bar. But in Michigan, a person must first be a resident to sit for the bar exam.

Although international students are granted a student visa to attend U.S. schools, thereby qualifying them for residency, that visa expires almost immediately upon graduation. That doesn't leave enough time to study for or take the bar exam, advocates for the change say.

"We believe this is a small, but an important step in promoting the development of international trade and international law practice in Michigan," said Diehl, who heads the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office Felony Trial Division. "We certainly are a border state here and we have students who come from Canada.

"It has created a problem for them," she said of the rule.

Potential members still must meet the state bar's other requirements, including "good moral character," required legal education, fitness and ability, and a criminal background check.There are more than 36,000 members of the state bar.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Alan Cropsey, Republican of DeWitt, who is a lawyer. State law school deans brought the issue to the senator, spokesman John Lazet said.

U.S.-Canada trade now exceeds $1 billion per day, and Michigan is the leading source, destination and transit point for that trade, according to MSU College of Law, which offers a dual law degree program with the University of Ottawa in Canada.

The college, a privately run school affiliated with MSU, also offers a master of laws program in the American legal system for foreign lawyers.

"The exemption of foreign candidates who have been trained in U.S. law schools is outdated in today's global economy and is one-sided," MSU College of Law dean Terence Blackburn wrote in a letter to Cropsey supporting his bill.

The number of Canadians interested in U.S. law schools is growing, Cooley's Weiner said. Cooley Law School has run a summer session in Toronto since 2000, exposing its students to Canadian lawyers and judges who serve as faculty.

But growth of international law programs and recruitment of foreign students would be severely limited at Michigan schools without eliminating the residency rule, he said.

"Come to Cooley, get a law degree and take the bar anywhere else in the country but Michigan. That's a hard phone plan to sell to customers," he said. "It's a hard sell if they can't take the Michigan bar."