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Two states, two exams, two years: Colombia-born attorney excited to practice law in Mitchell

After passing the bar in South Dakota, Lorena Tamayo is now an associate at Mitchell's Morgan Theeler law firm. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

Morgan Theeler's newest associate is licensed to practice law in two countries, she has a law degree and a master's degree, she's passed the bar in two states and she's only 26 years old.

But it was hardly an easy road for Lorena Tamayo to accomplish all of that and to practice in South Dakota.

Tamayo first studied law in her home country of Colombia, where hopeful lawyers can go to a five-year law school program directly after high school, rather than getting an undergraduate degree and then spending additional years in law school, as is typically done in the U.S.

After getting her law degree in Colombia, Tamayo decided to apply for a master's degree program at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis because her law school in Colombia had a partnership with that school that allowed for scholarship opportunities in a one-year-graduate program.

"At first, I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to practice my career here, because I went to law school for five years and I was just ready to start practicing in Colombia," Tamayo said. "Then I decided to come here and it was kind of ... not a step back, but I had to postpone starting work as a lawyer."

While she was originally conflicted about coming to the U.S., the law school she attended in Minnesota led her to one of the reasons she now plans to stay: at St. Thomas, Tamayo met her now-husband, Jake Tiede, originally from Parkston.

After Tiede graduated from St. Thomas, he started working as an associate at Morgan Theeler in Mitchell. In summer 2016, Tamayo was hired as a paralegal at the same firm, and she said it was understood that if she became licensed in South Dakota, Morgan Theeler would hire her as an associate.

Although she was licensed to practice law in Colombia and had a master's degree in the U.S., Tamayo couldn't actually work as an attorney at Morgan Theeler until she passed the bar in South Dakota. But doing so was more complicated than having to pass a single test.

To sit for the bar in South Dakota, Tamayo had to jump through a number of hoops, as the state doesn't allow people with foreign law degrees to take the exam unless they're licensed to practice law in another state.

Rather than having to study for and pass the bar in one state, Tamayo had to pass it in two. First, she took it in New York, which is one of the few states that allows foreign attorneys to sit for the bar. Then, once she found out that she passed the New York bar on Oct. 25, 2017, she had just five days to apply for the bar in South Dakota.

"It's a hard process," Tamayo said. "Mentally, it's just so draining. It's the hardest exam I've ever done in my life. So with English being my second language, it was also probably a little more challenging."

Morgan Theeler gave Tamayo two months off to study for and take the bar in New York and afternoons off while she was studying for the South Dakota bar. She passed both within an eight-month period, having taken the South Dakota bar this February.

In May, nearly two years after she started studying for the first exam, she found out that she passed her second and was finally licensed in South Dakota. And on June 30, she and Tiede were married.

"We bought a house recently here in Mitchell, so I think we're trying to grow our roots here," Tamayo said. "We both work here, and we like working at the same place. So for now, I think the plan is staying here. You never know — I never thought I would move here in the first place."

Tamayo said being away from her family members, all of whom still live in Colombia, has been a challenge. She tries to visit about twice a year for a couple of weeks at a time. Fortunately, most of her family was able to come to her wedding.

As a paralegal and now as an associate, Tamayo has experience in a variety of areas, from probate law to criminal defense. She said she's excited to work more with immigration law, and believes that being bilingual — since she was a toddler, she attended schools in Colombia where most classes were taught in English — is going to allow her to help people in the area, which she said does not currently have many Spanish-speaking attorneys.

"I want to get involved with that, having my own experience and having my own work with my immigration papers," she said. "Eventually, I would want to be able to help out some people that are not able to communicate as well around here and that have some struggles."