How To Gain US Bar Admission The Easy Way For Foreign Trained Lawyers


While the new amendments to the ABA (American Bar Association) model ethics in resolutions 107A and 107B, would come as a relief to foreign lawyers nursing any ambition to secure employment of some kind in US. Especially bearing in mind its recognition of the globalization of law practice by relaxing the regulation on in-house counsel.

A caveat must be served here at this point. The foreign lawyer’s employment waters are very murky at the moment. To begin with, one major snag on the path to law firms hiring foreign lawyer’s lies primarily with their work authorization or immigration status. The majority of law firms are required to comply with labor certification requirements and are equally bound to pay hired foreign lawyers the prevailing wage rates and no less. If a lower wage rate had been permitted it may have served as an incentive to law firms in hiring foreign lawyers. Beyond that, in 9 out of 10 cases foreign lawyers seeking employment in the US lack the necessary employment authorization to work here. Hence most hiring law firms would naturally want to shirk from the hassle of procuring any foreign lawyer a work visa along with the costly fees that go with visa application processes. Furthermore, the foreign lawyer may not be familiar with the dynamics of the US legal system, especially when they may be coming from a foreign country whose legal system may be dissimilar to the US, say a civil law jurisdiction. This therefore limits law firms to hiring US trained lawyers. In most other cases foreign lawyers are caught by legal regulations in the US restricting practice to specific states (qualification to practice law in the US is state specific, unless of course the qualifications to practice law in another state are similar to those of the state in which a foreign lawyer obtained the bar qualification, otherwise they may just have to re-sit the bar exam in that other state).

Of the 50 US states only a few states allow foreign lawyers or graduates to practice law in their jurisdictions that includes New York, California, New Hampshire, Alabama, and Virginia. In the other states however, a JD (the US equivalent of an LLB degree in some foreign jurisdictions) is required of foreign lawyers seeking to practice law in those jurisdictions. You can access the jurisdictions with rules regarding foreign lawyer practice at the American Bar official website . Of these five jurisdictions, California and New York have both become something of a haven for foreign lawyers. This of course is due to the availability of a teeming legal market in these jurisdictions. In California, in recent times the San Francisco Bay Area, home to Google and other mega corporations and which also has the second-most fortune 500 companies has become notable for its high demand in legal services.  Even before a foreign lawyer can practice law in these jurisdiction they must have their law degrees or qualifications reviewed and analyzed by the American Bar Association. This can take up to a year, after which a foreign lawyer’s application may either be accepted or deferred. In some cases the applicant may be required to continue further advanced studies at an ABA approved law school (it could be in the form of an LLM).

In New York, foreign lawyers seeking New York bar admission are required by the New York Board of Law Examiners (the body which administers the New York Bar Exam) to satisfy two criteria before they can be eligible to take the bar exam;

(1) The foreign trained lawyer received legal education under a legal system which transfers to the US legal system. Thus a foreign lawyer who has received legal training from a reputable law university in a common law jurisdiction for at least 3 years would be deemed to have fulfilled this criteria.

(2) The foreign law program does not transfer to the US legal system.

This might cover cases of foreign trained lawyers whose legal system isn’t based on the common law. In such cases, the foreign trained lawyer will be required to complete a US LLM before they can take the bar exam. You can access the full requirements from the New York Bar Exam official website

In California however, the requirements for bar admission for foreign trained lawyers are a bit relaxed relative to New York. The rules are only relaxed for foreign trained lawyers who have completed their legal education and accordingly admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction outside the US. In order words, it refers to lawyers who are qualified to practice law in any jurisdiction outside the US. For foreign trained lawyers in this category, they are eligible to take the California Bar Exam without needing to complete any additional US training. But if the foreign lawyer has not been admitted to practice law in a jurisdiction outside the US, they can cure this defect by completing an LLM in an ABA approved US law school. Usually the LLM would cover courses that are tested on the California Bar Exam which include the California Business and professional code, the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct and other federal and California case law.  For more details, please do visit the California Bar official website.

My advice to aspiring foreign lawyers seeking US bar admission would be that they rather err on the side of surplusage by first applying for admission for an LLM at any ABA approved law school within the jurisdiction they intend practicing and then thereafter submit their certificates to the ABA for review. That way the applicant would stand better chances of been accepted. Furthermore, an LLM from an ABA approved law school could really come in handy in the search for a job in the US legal markets.

Beating The Foreign Lawyer Job Search Hurdle

It goes without saying that in any US law job hunt, the JD graduates rank tops while the foreign lawyer comes second best. As earlier mentioned the would-be foreign lawyer would usually not be much schooled in US law, this therefore explains why the JD graduates  would be selected in any job interview ahead of the foreign lawyer even with a US bar qualification assuming they have obtained the necessary work authorization. So In order to compete on a level playing field with JD candidates for jobs, the foreign lawyer can seek further grounding in US law by either seeking admission into the Accelerated 2 year JD program offered by most law schools in the country as against the standard 3 year JD. Alternatively, the foreign lawyer can apply for an LLM in any ABA approved school and look to specialize in areas of law that require technical or expert knowledge. Generally, LLM’s are not the game changers in securing jobs in law firms as they do not form part of the entry level requirements for employment with the exception of LLM’s in tax law. The LLM in tax law represents something of an exception to the general rule. Due to the technicality of tax related undertakings, a specialized knowledge of tax law combined with an LLM in that field of law will no doubt put the foreign lawyer in the job hunt mix.

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