Most lawyers in the U.S. follow a typical path to practice: law school, then the bar exam, plus a few additional requirements. But some law professionals are 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 how you go about it can depend on where you live and want to work. Potential lawyers must sit for the bar exam in the state where they hope 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 has dedicated requirements just for foreign-trained lawyers who want to practice there.
A foreign-trained lawyer will fall into one of two categories in this state: Their foreign educations will transfer to the U.S. system, or they won't.
Education will usually transfer if a foreign-trained lawyer has completed a program that was at least three years in duration and was focused on English common law. These attorneys 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 even longer. Submit all your materials at least a year in advance of the date when 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.
Like New York, the California State 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.
A foreign-trained attorney who has not been admitted to practice outside the U.S. can still be eligible to take the bar exam after completing an LLM degree program. The program must cover four separate subjects that are 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 American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and leading relevant federal and state case law.
California also 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.
Foreign-trained lawyers can gain admission to the bar in 34 other jurisdictions as well, all with varying rules. In almost all cases, the ABA must first review and approve your foreign law degree. This can take a year or more.
You can sit for that state's bar if the ABA gives you a nod of approval and you meet the state's other requirements.
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 there.
Georgia imposes two 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.
Washington requires that the law school you choose for your LLM degree must be approved by the Board of Governors. It must include at least 18,200 minutes of instruction and 12,000 minutes on the principals of U.S. domestic law.
Wisconsin has permitted foreign-trained students with LLM degrees to sit for the bar since 2012. The degree must include 700 minutes of instruction per semester credit hour and must be completed in no less than two 13-week semesters.
Additional requirements in other states include but aren't limited to legal education in English common law, additional ABA-approved education, and the 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 look up the requirements in each state before settling on an LLM program.
Some states offer accelerated J.D. degrees for foreign-trained lawyers to get them to the point of bar exam eligibility in that jurisdiction. Earning a J.D. at an ABA-approved law school is the only way you’ll be able to practice law in all other states where foreign legal education isn't recognized.
The Bar Exam
The bar exam typically takes place over two days. The first day is a multiple-choice test covering laws that aren't 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 pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam as well.
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 in a number of ways without becoming a fully-admitted state bar member. One common option is to become a foreign legal consultant (FLC).
An FLC 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.