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Egregious Licensing Rule Holds Working Mothers Back in Tennessee



By Vanessa Brown Calder, Cato Institute


Occupational licensing continues to get in the way of workplace flexibility for parents, especially mothers. Tennessee’s licensing requirement for would‐​be lawyers is an example of how occupational licensing holds parents back.

Under state law, Tennessee requires lawyers who wish to practice in the state to have worked full time as a lawyer for five of the last seven years in another state, or else sit for the bar exam. This means that lawyers with part‐​time work experience must either take time off to prepare and sit for another exam or else they are prohibited from practicing law in the state.

This rule may seem innocuous, but the requirement effectively makes it harder for lawyers with part‐​time hours to practice in Tennessee. Preparing and sitting for the bar exam is not an insignificant requirement: law students routinely spend months preparing for the exam and even take out loans to cover the thousands of dollars in forgone income, bar prep courses, exam fees, travel, and lodging necessary to successfully complete it.

The rule hits working mothers especially hard: of the 21.4 million voluntary part‐​time workers in 2016, 67 percent were women. Among these women, the most common reason for part‐​time work was family or personal obligations. Notably, most part‐​time lawyers are women, specifically mothers with children, according to LexisNexis.

Tennessee’s licensing rule holds some of these women back and contributes to the fear that many women have that they will be penalized for going part time or taking leave from work while their children are young. This is truly unfortunate and, in Tennessee’s case, ensures that the legal profession misses out on legal talent.

Lisa Blatt, described as a “legendary high court litigator” with “an unmatched win record” and one of the most successful lawyers today, relates the following story about how part‐​time work made her career possible in Reflections of a Lady Lawyer:

“…I was ready to quit practicing law entirely to spend more time at home. I also was mentally exhausted. Paul [my boss] suggested that, instead of quitting, I take a leave of absence. And he said something I will never forget: he told me I was good at my job. I took Paul up on his offer, took a half‐​year off, and returned to the office six months later, still on a part‐​time basis. Paul’s flexibility and understanding of the challenges facing working mothers saved my career. For the last eighteen years, I have remained part‐​time.

If, in an alternate universe, Ms. Blatt had moved to Tennessee, she would be subjected to additional scrutiny or else disqualified from practicing law, and the legal profession would have lost out on a great talent. This would be highly unfortunate and avoidable; the American Bar Association and most other states do not require full‐​time work in order to be admitted to practice law.

Fortunately, the Network of enlightened Women (NeW) has filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Tennessee to try to get this regrettable licensing rule changed (details here). With any luck, the admission by motion rule requiring full‐​time work will be changed, and this will allow for greater flexibility for mothers, parents, and any other lawyer that chooses to work part time in the years to come.


Vanessa Brown Calder is director of opportunity and family policy studies at the Cato Institute.