Practicing Law in the United States with a Foreign Law Degree
When you look through online research on how to become a lawyer, it almost goes without saying that most of what you’ll find is about how to become a lawyer in the United States through the typical path: law school, then the bar exam (plus additional requirements), then voila! You’re a lawyer! (It’s a lot harder than it sounds, unfortunately, but that’s the basic idea.) But what about law professionals who were trained abroad?
While it can sometimes be difficult (depending on where you live) to practice law in the United States as a foreign-trained lawyer, it is not impossible.
Here are the steps you need to take as a foreign lawyer to practice in the United States:
State-Specific Regulations Regarding Practicing Law with a Foreign Degree
The most important thing to remember if you are thinking of practicing law in the United States with a foreign law degree is that each state has different requirements. The first thing you should do is some research into the state you’re hoping to practice in, to see what your next steps should be. Here, California and New York will be talked about in depth, and then a short summary will cover the other states, which represent less commonly-used options but aren’t necessarily impossible.
New York is a very popular destination for foreign-trained attorneys to practice, and the state requirements facilitate this process.
The New York Board of Law Examiners, who administer the New York Bar Exam, have a specific set of requirements for foreign-trained lawyers who wish to practice in New York.
In a nutshell, a foreign-trained lawyer will fall into one of two categories: (1) their foreign education transfers to the US system; or (2) their foreign education does not transfer to the US system.
If a foreign-trained lawyer has completed a program that is at least three years long and is focused on common law, his or her education will usually transfer, and he or she can sit for the bar (after receiving permission from the Board of Law Examiners).
In all other cases, foreign-trained attorneys will need to complete an LLM program with certain qualifications before they can sit for the bar exam. If you plan to take the New York bar exam as a foreign-trained attorney, be sure to plan ahead! It’s advisable to submit all of your materials at least six months to a year in advance of the date you plan to take the bar exam.
Another popular option for foreign-trained lawyers is California. Like New York, the California Board of Bar Examiners Bar has relatively liberal admission requirements for foreign lawyers. In fact, if you meet the requirements, it may be even easier to sit for the bar exam in California than it is in New York. Under California regulations, foreign-trained lawyers who have been admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction outside the United States are often eligible to take the bar exam in California without needing to complete any additional requirements.
If the foreign-trained attorney has not been admitted to practice outside the United States, he or she can still be eligible to take the bar exam after completing an LLM that covers four separate subjects tested on the California Bar Exam, and one of those courses must be a Professional Responsibility course that covers the California Business and Professions Code, the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and leading relevant federal and state case law.
As previously stated, each state has its own laws about how a foreign-trained lawyer can qualify to practice in the United States. Of the fifty states, plus the District of Columbia and five territories, there are thirty-four jurisdictions where foreign-trained lawyers have the opportunity to gain admission to the bar.
Of these jurisdictions, Vermont is the only state that recognizes foreign law degrees with regularity, and there is a sort of apprenticeship program in place to help foreign-trained attorneys to prepare for the Vermont bar exam.
In addition, there are four states (plus the territory Palau) where a foreign-trained attorney can take the bar exam after earning an LLM.
Aside from New York and California—which has already been discussed—an LLM degree would also allow a foreign-trained lawyer to take the bar exam in Washington state and Wisconsin. The remaining twenty-nine jurisdictions where foreign-trained lawyers can become eligible to take the bar exam feature a variety of different requirements before becoming eligible to sit for the exam.
These include, but are not limited to, legal education in English common law, additional ABA-approved education, and practice of law in a foreign jurisdiction. The requirements for each state will be listed on the state-specific bar exam website and are summarized by the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Bar Admission Guide.
Go Back to School, If Necessary
In the states where only an LLM is required in order to sit for the bar exam, completing the specified graduate education in your area of study should be high on your priority list. The states that allow a foreign-trained attorney to sit for the bar exam after earning an LLM require specific courses and subjects covered, so it is advisable to look up the requirements in each state before settling on an LLM program.
Some states offer accelerated JD degrees for foreign-trained lawyers in order to get them to the point of bar exam eligibility in that state. That option is useful in the thirteen states where additional education at an ABA-approved law school is needed in order to sit for the bar as a foreign-trained lawyer.
In all other states where foreign legal education is not recognized, earning a JD at an ABA-approved law school is the only way you’ll be able to practice law in that state. While it would likely feel very repetitive to do so, practicing law in the US is a competitive and closely-monitored profession—unfortunately, laws are laws.
Take Your State’s Bar Exam
No matter which path you had to take in order to get here, every potential lawyer must sit for the bar exam in the state in which you hope to practice. Bar exam passage rates for foreign-trained lawyers are lower than the national average, unfortunately. The national average is around a 58% passage rate, while the average for foreign-trained lawyers is around a 30% passage rate.
Law schools in the United States are rigorous, and students come out with a specific set of skills and a knowledge set that will help them study for and pass the bar. Foreign-trained lawyers may not have all of those same tools in their arsenals, and their passage rate may be lower for that reason. Foreign students should definitely plan to take a full commercial bar review course and may wish to explore private bar tutoring options, as well.
Once You’ve Passed the Bar
Congratulations! Passing the bar exam is the just step in becoming an accredited lawyer in the United States. There are other requirements that will need to be fulfilled at this point (such as taking the MPRE and passing the character and fitness requirements for your state’s bar), but the most difficult part as a foreign-trained lawyer is now (hopefully) behind you.
Law is one of the most competitive professions to have in the United States; therefore, it is tightly regulated and difficult to break into for most foreign-trained lawyers. If you are striving to practice in one of the states that recognize training at foreign institutions of law, that’s great news! You are already well on your way to becoming a US attorney.
If you have to go back to school in order to obtain your legal credentials, you will at least be able to decide whether practicing law in the US is what you truly want to do. If it is, then dive in—you’ll have earned your credentials in the end! However, there are also other ways to use your foreign law degree in the United States.
Using Your Foreign Law Degree in the US without Being an Attorney
There are a couple of ways to use your foreign law degree without becoming a fully admitted state bar member. One of the most common is to become a foreign legal consultant. A foreign legal consultant is, essentially, a foreign-trained lawyer who has set up a limited practice in the United States. There are foreign legal consultant rules in thirty-one states, plus the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands, so it is essential to do your research before deciding to become a foreign legal consultant.
Other than becoming an FLC, there are also opportunities in some states for temporary transactional work, for pro hac vice admission to the state bar, and for foreign lawyers to be able to serve as in-house counsel, which could be very helpful for a global business. While earning bar admission would allow for the most opportunities for a foreign-trained attorney, these other opportunities to use a foreign law degree are important to understanding as well.
Foreign-trained attorneys are at a definite disadvantage compared to students who have earned law degrees in the United States, at least when it comes to gaining state bar admission. There are many hoops to jump through and a good deal of communication needed between the foreign-trained lawyer and the state bar association if a foreign lawyer is seeking admission to the bar.
If you are a foreign-trained lawyer seeking bar admission, the information provided here should hopefully help you decide whether it makes sense to seek full admission to the bar in the state you are living in. Luckily, there are several options for foreign-trained lawyers who choose not to seek full admission to the bar, including jobs as foreign legal consultants and in-house counsel.
No matter what you decide, be sure to do your research, since each state has a different set of requirements, and the stringency of the regulations is sure to be high. Law is a very competitive field, but if it is what you love, keep working toward your goals! Good luck!