Practicing Law in the United States with a Foreign Law Degree

Bar admittance among states can vary considerably

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If you research how to become a lawyer, most of what you’ll find will be about how to do so in the United States. You'll learn about the typical path: law school, then the bar exam, plus a few additional requirements. But what about law professionals who were trained abroad?

It can sometimes be difficult to practice law in the U.S. as a foreign-trained lawyer, but it's not impossible. Each state has different requirements, so it can depend to some extent on where you want to live and work. Every potential lawyer must sit for the bar exam in the state in which he hopes to practice.

New York and California are popular destinations that offer the most flexible requirements.

State-Specific Regulations—New York

The New York Board of Law Examiners administers the New York bar exam and it has a dedicated set of requirements just for foreign-trained lawyers who want to practice here.

A foreign-trained lawyer will fall into one of two categories in New York: Her foreign education will transfer to the U.S. system, or it will not. If a foreign-trained lawyer has completed a program that was at least three years and was focused on English common law, her education will usually transfer. She can sit for the bar after receiving an Advance Evaluation of Eligibility from the Board.

Be sure to plan ahead because Board approval can take six months to a year or longer. It’s advisable that you submit all your materials at least a year in advance of the date you want to take the exam.

All other foreign-trained attorneys must complete a Master of Laws (LLM) degree program that meets certain qualifications before they can sit for the bar exam.

California Requirements

Like New York, the California Board of Bar Examiners Bar has relatively liberal admission standards for foreign lawyers. In fact, it might be even easier to sit for the bar exam here than it is in New York. Foreign-trained lawyers who have been admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction outside the U.S. are often eligible to take the bar exam in California without completing any additional requirements.

If the foreign-trained attorney has not been admitted to practice outside the U.S., however, he can still be eligible to take the bar exam after completing an LLM degree program that covers four separate subjects tested on the California Bar Exam. One of these 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.

California additionally offers a provision for an additional one year's schooling at a law school approved by the ABA or accredited in California. The year should be dedicated to bar examination subject material.

Other States

Foreign-trained lawyers can gain admission to the bar in 34 other jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia and five territories. In almost all cases, the American Bar Association must first review and approve your foreign law degree. This can take a year or more.

Only Vermont recognizes foreign law degrees with any regularity. The state has an apprenticeship program in place to help foreign-trained attorneys prepare for the bar exam.

Foreign-trained attorneys can take the bar exam after earning an LLM in four states, including New York and California, and the territory of Palau. Having an LLM degree would also allow a foreign-trained lawyer to take the bar exam in Washington and Wisconsin.

Georgia imposes two additional requirements: You must have received your education from a school that was sanctioned or recognized by your foreign government, and you must also be admitted to practice law there.

Additional requirements to become eligible to sit for the exam exist in the remaining 29 jurisdictions. These include but aren't 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 are listed on the bar exam website and are summarized by the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Bar Admission Guide.

Go Back to School If Necessary

Completing the specified graduate education in your area of study should be high on your priority list in the states where only an LLM is required. The states that allow foreign-trained attorneys to sit for the bar exam after earning an LLM require specific courses and subjects covered, so it's 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 to get them to the point of bar exam eligibility in that jurisdiction. But 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 U.S. is a competitive and closely-monitored profession.

The Bar Exam

The exam typically takes place over two days. The first day is a multiple-choice test covering laws that are not necessarily unique to any one state. The second day's test focuses on the law in the state in which you want to practice. Most states require that you take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam as well.

Bar exam passage rates for foreign-trained lawyers are lower than the national average, which is about 58 percent. The average for foreign-trained lawyers is around 30 percent.

Law school studies in the U.S. are rigorous, and students come out with a specific set of skills and a knowledge set that helps them study for and pass the bar. Foreign-trained lawyers might not have all these same tools, and their passage rate could be lower for that reason.

Foreign students should plan to take a full commercial bar review course, and they might want to explore private bar tutoring options as well.

If You Don't Become an Attorney

You can also use your foreign law degree without becoming a fully-admitted state bar member in a couple of ways. One of the most common is to become a foreign legal consultant (FLC). This is a foreign-trained lawyer who has set up a limited practice in the U.S. Thirty-one states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have foreign legal consultant rules in place.

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 serve as in-house counsel. Earning bar admission allows for the most opportunities for a foreign-trained attorney, but these other opportunities exist as well.