Many prospective LL.M. students come to US law schools with one goal in mind: to practice law in the US, one of the most revered legal systems in the world.
But an LL.M. degree does not qualify one to practice law in the US. That requires slaying a different beast: the bar exam.
In America, the bar exams are administered by individual states, granting one permission to practice law in that state only.
Passing a bar exam can be a passport to working in the US, which is home to many of the world’s top law firms, such as Latham & Watkins and Jones Day.
Even overseas LL.M. graduates who return home value passing the bar, a “highly valuable credential” around the world, says Clare Coleman, associate professor of law at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law in Pennsylvania.
However, studying for an LL.M. does not automatically make one eligible to sit the bar. Requirements differ from state to state, so students will need to do their homework to pass the bar.
According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, 34 US states allow overseas lawyers to sit their bar exams, including legal centers like New York and California. Each state has different requirements, which frequently change.
Only six states that allow foreign-trained lawyers to take their bar exams will allow them to practice law on the basis that they have obtained an LL.M. degree from an American Bar Association-approved law school (and passed that state’s bar exam).
These are California and New York, popular states for foreign-trained lawyers, and Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and Palau.
Do research on the LL.M.s and bar exams of your choice
“The critical first step for any student wishing to use an LL.M. degree to sit the bar, is to conduct thorough research to make sure the degree fulfils ABA requirements,” says Richard Gaffney, director of bar studies at the Duquesne University School of Law in Pennsylvania.
But many states require additional legal education at a law school approved by ABA before allowing an applicant to sit their bar exam, in some cases, beyond what may be taught in an LL.M. For overseas students, some states require actual practice of law in a foreign country before a candidate can sit the exam, or a foreign legal education in English common law.
Or an assessment of the quality of an overseas law school, if they attended one. In this case, students are required to submit an online evaluation and supporting documentation, such as academic transcripts. “Students need to be aware of the tight deadlines for completing this, which must come directly from the issuing institutions or governments in sealed envelopes,” says Gaffney.
Requirements often shift. In New York, considered to be one of the most popular states for overseas law students to sit the bar, eligibility requirements were tightened in 2012. The changes made candidates take a strict set of classes including on American legal studies and professional responsibility. Also, in 2015, the state made it mandatory for budding lawyers to complete 50 hours of pro bono legal work.
“Students should stay updated on the requirements for the state in which they are interested in practicing,” says Kline School’s Coleman.
US bar exams: “notoriously difficult”
Muddying the waters further are the pass rates, which refer to the number of test-takers who pass the exams, and vary wildly between states. “The biggest challenges for students are the exams themselves which are notoriously difficult,” says Peter Landreth, director of LL.M. professional development at Berkeley Law in California.
According to official state data, the toughest states to pass the bar are California (44 percent pass rate), Arizona (50 percent) and Alabama (52 percent).
Candidates have the best odds in Oklahoma, where 81 percent of bar exams are passed. In Missouri the sum is 79 percent while in Iowa its 78 percent.
Some law schools are keen to help their LL.M. students to pass the bar. Many offer specific courses and other support in their LL.M. programs. For example, in 2018 the Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School began offering a Bar Track LL.M., which provides academic support and other resources for students who would like to sit for a bar exam.
Likewise, the Duquesne School offers an LL.M. for Foreign Lawyers with a bar preparation track. The curriculum is designed to meet the stringent requirements of the New York and California bar exams. For example, students can complete 50 hours of pro bono work as part of the course. It also covers American legal studies and professional responsibility through a summer program before the LL.M. starts.
But Marra Guttenplan, director of graduate studies at St. John’s Law School in New York, says students should select a school that not only helps them to meet the basic qualifications to take the bar exam, but also fosters a community of support and engagement.
“They should also know the people at their law school they can go to with questions about their application or the right course choices,” she says.
To that end, St. John’s runs a workshop series focused on bar exam subjects and writing for non-native English-speaking students and alumni.
In the same vein, Duquesne School students have personal access to professors and a dedicated bar studies team throughout their test preparation.
Berkeley Law goes further, hosting an alumni panel in the spring so students can hear first-hand from LL.M. graduates who have taken American state bar exams.
Also, test prep companies are often on campus throughout the year to support students thinking about taking a bar exam. “We encourage all students to enroll in a commercial bar prep course to prepare for the exam,” says Landreth.
Gaffney at the Duquesne School agrees. “The difficulty and complexity of the current bar exam makes it necessary for students to take such a course, no matter which law school they attend. Foreign-trained students should factor this time and cost into their decision [to do an LL.M.].”
Although the fees can be dear, the programs may be a ticket to passing the bar and to a prosperous legal career in the US.