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Considering Retiring From The Practice of Law?

One of the common questions we get from attorneys considering "retiring" from the practice of law or otherwise going inactive is what they should do with their law license. There are essentially four options available: remain active, go exempt (inactive), switch to emeritus status, or relinquish your law license. Which of these is the best for you really depends upon what you plan on doing after you have "retired" from your law practice. Here is a comparison of the four categories and some of the often asked questions attorneys have:

Comparison of Differences between Client Security Statuses

  Active Exempt Emeritus Relinquished
How much is the annual fee? $270 $50 $20 $0
Is there an annual CLE requirement? Yes No Yes No
Do you have to file any annual reports? Yes, CLE and Client Security Yes, Annual Exempt Attorney Report Yes, CLE and Client Security No
Can you tell people you are a lawyer? Yes Yes, retired Yes, emeritus No
Can you be listed on your law firm's letterhead? Yes Yes, as retired or (Ret.) Yes, as retired or (Ret.) No
Can you practice law? Yes No Yes, only for an approved legal aid organization No
Can you mediate, prepare tax returns, do incorporations, or other such things which non-lawyers are able to do? Yes No Yes, only for an approved legal aid organization Yes
Can you do pro bono legal work? Yes No Yes, only for an approved legal aid organization No
Can you reinstate to active status? n/a Yes Yes No, you'll have to get readmitted (e.g. bar exam)


The most common scenario is for a retiring attorney to keep his or her license active for a year after they have ceased practicing. This allows them the ability to file something in a case if it is necessary, or to tie up any loose ends on a client's matter without the need to reinstate and pay the additional reinstatement fee. After a year of no activity, many attorneys will go "exempt" for a year--essentially putting their law license into inactive status but retaining the option to reinstate. The primary hurdle to reinstating is fulfilling the CLE requirements for the year(s) you are inactive. So either storing up carry-forward hours before you go inactive or taking some CLE while inactive can be beneficial in hastening a reinstatement if it becomes necessary. Perhaps a big case comes into the office or a client specifically wants you to be involved in a matter; having the CLE hours "in the bank" will expedite the reinstatement process.

While most attorneys choose to remain in exempt status from then on, some make the decision to fully relinquish their law license and revert to layperson status. While there are many reasons for doing this, one of the most common is that the attorney wishes to participate in some work which "is the practice of law when done by a lawyer, but not when done by a non-lawyer." For example, this is sometimes seen in attorneys who wish to work as a mediator. In that situation, they have to either keep their law license active or they can relinquish it. As an exempt or inactive attorney, they cannot engage in conduct which is considered the practice of law. Since mediation is the practice of law when performed by an attorney, their law license needs to be active. Alternatively, relinquishing their law license means they are no longer an attorney. One caveat: if you relinquish your law license, you cannot reinstate but instead must either retake the bar examination or apply for admission on motion (if you meet those requirements). So for most relinquishment is the last option, but in certain situations it works well.

One often overlooked status is that of emeritus status. This allows an attorney to essentially become inactive, but also engage in some pro bono legal work on behalf of a qualified legal aid organization. If you are interested in learning more about this route, please contact Iowa Legal Aid as they are familiar with what they need to do to sponsor you. If there is another legal aid organization that you'd like to volunteer with as an emeritus attorney, please contact the organization and have them reach out to us for guidance on what they need to do to become qualified to participate in the program.



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