In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers, Pro Bono

Felony Charges for Practicing as In-House Counsel in New York Without Registering

I wrote last week about my participation on a statewide panel on in-house attorney registration and pro bono work. As stated, Chief Judge Lippman and Judge Graffeo of the New York Court of Appeals, are spearheading the effort to have all New York in-house counsel, who are not admitted in New York, register with the courts. The State Legislature has gone further and has passed legislation making it a felony to fail to so register. In other words, starting November 1 of this year, failure to register can get you a charge of unlicensed practice of law (“UPL”). The resulting comments to this news ranged from snarky to ignorant. My suggestion to those that this upsets would be to suck it up, because the times they are a-changing.

As attorneys admitted in New York, we knew what we were signing up for when we joined the Bar. Pro bono work is a duty, not something to be swept under the rug with a “too busy, sorry.” An estimated 2.3 million people going unrepresented in New York is not only sad, but unnecessary. And law firms can only pick up so much of the slack. They have their own issues with pro bono, but at least give lip service to attempting to assist. In-house counsel are an untapped reservoir of capable attorneys who can at least act as a drop in the bucket of a pool of folks in need of representation…

And you don’t have to exclusively take on landlord/tenant or divorce proceedings. If you are an expert in patent prosecution, there may be a non-profit that could use your services. There are any number of areas with specialized requirements in which in-house counsel could participate. And there is no reason, if you are making your living in this state, that you can’t lift a hand to assist in treating an epidemic. You cannot spare an hour a week — really? Look at it this way, if it gets you out of a single SLT meeting, it may be well worth your while.

Let us take away your personal feelings or views on the matter and look at this like lawyers — cynical, power hungry beings that we are. Your GC is going to be nothing but pleased that you are taking the initiative on this issue. One, there may not even be an awareness of the requirement for attorney registration. You can be a rock star and save the company an embarrassing headline of employing attorneys engaging in UPL. Second, once you have the appropriate folks registered, you can be the first chair of the pro bono committee. Heck, you might even get an award from a local pro bono organization, and it can’t hurt to have these achievements recognized when bonus time rolls around. Just think of the possibilities. I say that only mildly tongue in cheek, as I can guarantee that your GC will be impressed with your knowledge and initiative on the first part, and will be even more impressed with your participation in the second.

That’s the thing with GCs in my experience. Just like equity partners at law firms, they appreciate when folks under them make the company, and them, look good. By doing what you are supposed to do, register, and what you have a duty to do, pro bono work, you will accomplish both. Save your comments on “making me work for free.” Or don’t. Fire away in the comments, and to your state rep, and to the Court of Appeals. But this is one requirement that is not going to go away. And no, there isn’t going to be a force of registration policemen checking to ensure that you have done what is required. Just like no one’s asking to see your CLE reports. But, I would hate to be the one attorney who thinks they are better than the rules and gets caught. Especially if I am in-house. No one likes their stock price to go down because of the cost-center, revenue-sucking attorneys. Do you really want to be the first on this issue?

After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at

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