Becoming a lawyer in the US is a complicated process, particularly for foreign nationals. One of the most important steps in the process is the bar exam. A bar examination is a test intended to determine whether or not a candidate is qualified to practice law in a specific jurisdiction. As an international student, taking the bar is even more complex than for US-born law students.
Why Should I Take the Bar in the US?
If you have chosen to study law in the US, you probably already have plenty of reasons for taking the bar exam. In fact, many international students choose to pursue an LL.M. in the US because they want to take a US bar exam. For international students studying in the US for other reasons, there are still several reasons to take the bar.
Taking the bar looks great on your resume or CV, both to US and foreign employers. By passing the bar, you can demonstrate your understanding of US law—an impressive and difficult accomplishment. Finally, passing a state’s bar exam will allow you to practice law in that state as a fully admitted lawyer, offering better prospects than working as a law clerk or foreign legal consultant.
Where Should I Take the Bar Exam?
The decision on which state in which to take the bar is highly personal and depends on a variety of factors. When making your decision, remember that (with very limited exceptions), you will only be permitted to practice law in the state in which you take your exam. So, if you are planning on practicing law in the US after taking the exam, it is a good idea to take the exam in a state in which you would like to live or work.
On the other hand, if you are not planning on practicing law in the US, you might instead base your decision on the simplicity of the state’s requirements. For example, New York is popular among international students, while California is considered to be one of the more difficult states in which international students can obtain a qualification.
What to Expect in the Exam
The bar exam is taken in several parts over at least two days. Most states will dedicate one day to the Multistate Bar Examination, a multiple choice exam covering topics not specific to the law of any one state, such as Contracts, Torts, Property, Constitutional Law, and Evidence.
Another day would cover the law of the specific state in which you are taking the exam. This might be a multiple choice exam, an essay exam, or both. Additionally, the exam may include the Multistate Performance Test, which is designed to evaluate lawyering skills rather than substantive law.
Finally, you will need to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which tests your knowledge of professional ethics. This exam is administered on a separate occasion from the regular bar exam.
Taking the Bar as a Foreign-Trained Lawyer
Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult for foreign-trained lawyers to sit the bar exam in the US. Completion of the LL.M. degree in itself does not guarantee eligibility to take the bar exam. Most states do require a J.D. degree for a US law school in order to sit for the bar exam. There are some states which do allow foreign law graduates to sit for the bar exam, including New York, California, New Hampshire, Alabama, and Virginia. In this case, however, foreign-educated lawyers must begin the process by getting their law degree reviewed and analyzed by the American Bar Association, and 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.
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!