Thousands of lawyers from across the country and the federal bureaucracy are racing to be admitted to the D.C. Bar out of fear that new rules will make it impossible for them to practice law here without taking a stiff examination.
More than 1,200 applications were received during the months of December and January. Applications since then haven't been counted. In a normal year, about 1,000 lawyers from other parts of the country ask to be allowed to practice here without taking the D.C. Bar exam.
"We're flooded. They all want to get in before the door closes," said Alexander L. Stevas, chief clerk of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which controls admission to the D.C. Bar.
The cause of the national panic among lawyers is a new rule, which takes effect March 31. It requires attorneys who want to practice here without taking an exam to have passed a bar exam in some other jurisdicton and to have actively practiced law elsewhere for five of the past eight years.
Previously, all a lawyer had to do to be admitted to practice here on motion - that is without taking the D.C. Bar exam - is to have belonged for five years, whether actively practicing law or not.
Under the old rules gaining admission to the D.C. Bar was simple for anyone who belonged to the bar of another jurisdiction - whether actively practicing law or not - for at least five years. Admission was almost automatic, without having to take the D.C. Bar exam.
But under the new rules, for example, federal workers who are lawyers were admitted to the bar elsewhere would not automatically be admitted here if they did not practice law, but instead worked as administrators for the government.
The law also would force attorneys who work as lobbyists or executives of trade associations here but do not act as a legal counsel, to take the bar exam in order to practice law here.
While congressmen automatically are considered to be practicing law as part of their legislative duties, many of them are among the recent flood of applicants for admission to the D.C. Bar - preparing for the day they retire.
Under a ruling of the D.C. Bar's admissions committee, legislative assistants on Capitol Hill also are considered to be practicing attorneys. But Senate and House administrative assistants will have to prove that they actually did legal work and not only political chores and office management.
"Many people could have come in years ago. Now there seems to be some urgency," said Anthony Nigro, secretary of the admissions committee and the man responsible for processing the flood of applications.
"They are applying now to protect themselves for the future," he continued.
It is unclear, however, why so many more lawyers than usual are applying from other parts of the country. If they are actively practicing law in their home jurisdictions, they will have no problem being admitted to the bar here without taking an exam.
"I'm not sure why they're worried," Nigro said. "It's just that they misinterpreted the rules change. They just don't read. I'll show you return envelopes with postage stamps" even though they bear a government frank allowing free postage.
Out-of-state lawyers need not belong to the D.C. Bar to practice before federal agencies, represent clients at congressional hearings or take part in suits in the federal courts here. They must, however, be a member of the D.C. Bar if they maintain an office here, and more major law firms from across the country are opening Washington branches.
"It's nice to be a member in D.C. It's the legal hub of the nation," said Nigro.
Becoming a member of the D.C. Bar costs $325-$200 of which goes to the city government, the rest to the National Conference of Bar Examiners - plus yearly dues to the bar association.
Nigro said it could take five to six months to process all the applications. But any ones received before March 31 will be covered by the old administration rules.