Updated on Friday 1 March 2013
Unfortunately there is no easy answer for foreign lawyers who wish to practice in the United States. The issue is a complicated one because all lawyers that wish to practice law in the US must be admitted to the bar and the US bar system is administered at the state level. This means that each US state (and the capital, Washington D.C.) sets its own rules for bar admission and the question "can I move to the US and be a lawyer?" has, essentially, 51 different answers. If you are taking the bar as a foreign lawyer this translates to drastically different admission standards among the different states, so a fair bit of homework is in order. Broadly speaking, however, US states fall into one of two camps with some significant outliers.
In the first camp are those states which require all bar applicants – domestic and foreign – to earn a Juris Doctor from a school accredited by the American Bar Association. Because no schools outside of the US have received this accreditation, in practice this policy means that fully 23 states will not consider graduates of foreign law schools as eligible for admission to their state. If this is the case for the state this can be a lengthy and difficult process, requiring admission to (and completion of) an ADA recognized law school. [Although foreign educated lawyers are not eligible to be admitted to the bar these states directly, a system of reciprocity between states allows those admitted elsewhere to practice, eventually, in any state.]
In the other camp are the five US states which allow a foreign lawyer to take the bar: New York, California, Alabama, New Hampshire and Virginia. These states allow some foreign-educated lawyers to take the bar examination without earning their degree locally. In this case, however, foreign-educated lawyers must begin the process by getting their law degree reviewed and analyzed by the American Bar Association (ABA). Easier said than done, it can take up to a year to before the foreign law credentials are even assessed. Once reviewed, the application is either accepted or deferred. If accepted, foreign lawyers are allowed to sit for that state’s bar exam in much the same way a domestic applicant would. In New York, one of the jurisdictions most open to foreign lawyers, this would allow foreign lawyers to sit for the bar without being forced to complete any further law school study in the US.
Even if deferred, applicants may be asked to complete coursework at an ABA-approved college before sitting for the bar exam. This coursework usually takes the form of a one-year LL.M program at an ABA accredited school. The LL.M, from the Latin Legum Magister or Master of Laws, is essentially an overview of US law for foreign lawyers and is most often requested of applicants who were educated or practiced in Common Law as opposed to Civil Law countries. If this is the case, once the candidate completes their LL.M and obtains ABA approval, taking the bar as a foreign lawyer proceeds as outlined above. Please learn more about the International LLM here.
Given the intricacies of this process, it can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years for a foreign educated lawyer to take the bar and this does not even begin to cover the preparation required to take the bar itself! Fortunately, for anyone taking the bar as a foreign lawyer, preparing for the bar exam is a typical, if daunting challenge. Many American law students spend months preparing to sit for the bar exam by taking bar review courses and classes and foreign-educated lawyers should consider doing the same. Regardless of their backgrounds, so many applicants take these review courses that the model answer the examiners are looking for is invariably in the style taught by these courses. Such classes can be time consuming and expensive but well-recommended ones are generally worth it. After all, the goal of taking the bar as a foreign lawyer is well within sight!