"Our practice is growing, and my opinion is, there's always room for another good lawyer," Strafaci said. In recent years, the solo attorney has attracted 60 percent of its business through referrals from attorneys who were not admitted to practice in the tribal courts.
"It's something of a specialized area," he said. "For most firms, it doesn't make sense to devote the time and energy of getting involved in one particular case. I think that will remain the case. Even without the bar exam, I think it will still be a fairly limited bar with regard to plaintiffs counsel."
For now, Strafaci and a handful of other personal injury lawyers have been handling the lions' share of the civil suits. Strafaci is currently handling a potential multi-million-dollar lawsuit on behalf of 20 plaintiffs who were involved in a fatal accident of a bus that was on its way to Manhattan's Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun Casino. In all, 15 people were killed.
When Ed Gasser became appointed to practice before the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court 20 years ago, there was no bar exam. Lawyers were referred for bar admission by members of the tribe, and all that was required was an application and being in good standing with the state bar.
Soon, a test was added. Judges who made changes to the tests over the years tended to make the exams more difficult. "It became a pretty onerous exam to take," Gasser said. "When it was open book, almost no one failed it. But then they closed the book a few years ago, and it became much harder to pass. As a result, only eight new attorneys have been appointed to handle cases in the court since 2011."
Tribal law, while difficult, can be an attractive practice area, Gasser said. For one thing, there are not as many procedural delays. A case can be tried six months after it is filed, he said.
Because pain and suffering, or non-physical, damages are capped, parties know exactly what they can expect if damages are sought. "I think the tribal courts are in many ways more user friendly than the state courts," said Gasser. "For clients, having more of a choice of who their attorney will be is a significant benefit."
Now the Mashantucket bar admission rules allow attorneys who are in good standing to practice in any other state, or federal court, to be admitted upon filing an application.
In addition to answering questions about any ethical violations on their records, attorneys must certify that they know the key distinctions between tribal law and state law. For instance, in family court matters, the attorneys must certify that they understand tribal law requires children to be placed with tribal members only, or with tribe-approved foster homes.