Attorneys, like many other professionals, need to be licensed to practice in a particular jurisdiction. Generally, the jurisdiction will be a state. Attorneys generally gain admission to practice in a state by graduating from law school, passing the Professional Responsibility bar exam, and practicing the bar exam administered by the state in which they seek to be licensed and practice. There are other means of admission for attorneys who have been in practice for a number of years and are in good standing with the bar where they may apply for admission to another state through paperwork instead, and some states will allow reciprocity admissions, whereby if the attorney may be admitted if they have passed the bar in a state where reciprocity is permitted. Admission to a particular state allows that attorney to practice in the courts within the state. Separate admission to federal courts can then be sought as well.
However, circumstances arise where an attorney may be called upon to participate in a case that is pending before a court in a state where that attorney is not licensed. For example, an attorney who is licensed in West Virginia and practicing law at a firm in the state of West Virginia may be asked to work on a case that the firm has received that is proceeding through a court in Pennsylvania. While the West Virginia attorney can do all kind of legal research and other important work on the case without a Pennsylvania license, in order to attend court hearings, depositions, or other formal proceedings in that case, that attorney would need a Pennsylvania license. Because it is usually impractical for an attorney to obtain a license in another state for just a case or two, the courts permit a process where an attorney licensed and in good standing in another state may be admitted “pro hac vice” to practice before their court in a particular case.
Pro hac vice essentially means “for this occasion only.” In general, for a lawyer to be admitted to practice pro hac vice on a case, they must enter into an agreement with a lawyer who is licensed in the state where they seek to practice to be admitted under that lawyer’s bar license and to learn and abide by all of the rules of the state where they seek this temporary admission. In the case of the West Virginia attorney seeking to practice on a case in Pennsylvania, a Pennsylvania attorney would have to sign formal court documents vouching for the West Virginia attorney’s good standing and ability to learn and comply with West Virginia court rules and laws, and that they will assist the West Virginia attorney in doing so. The Pennsylvania attorney would also agree to attend any formal proceedings along with the attorney gaining pro hac vice admission. A court in Pennsylvania would have to approve the pro hac vice admission, and enter an order stating that admission, which will last only for that particular case. If the attorney who has been admitted to practice pro hac vice on a case violates some rule of law or ethics, the state in which they have received pro hac vice admission is able to take disciplinary action.
The specific rules of pro hac vice admission may vary from one jurisdiction to another, but if you see an out-of-state lawyer’s name appear on a case, they may very well be participating as a pro hac vice admission.