Using an LL.M. to Pass the Bar Exam in 2023

Many law schools offer additional preparation for the bar, helping alumni to pass the all-important attorney licensing test

The proportion of test candidates passing the bar in New York, California, Texas, Florida and many other states has fallen in 2022, underlining the difficulty of passing the all-important attorney licensing test. In California, the pass rate for first-time test takers fell to 62 percent from 71 percent last year, while in New York the first-time pass rate fell to 75 percent from 78 percent. 

There were state variations, but the national average was expected to have fallen this year. These pass rates are a closely watched metric in the legal industry. Law school graduates cannot practice law without passing the test in most cases, and low pass rates constrain the hiring pool for legal employers. 

Law schools with poor pass rates among alumni also risk losing their American Bar Association accreditation, which foreign-trained LL.M. candidates need to in order to qualify for the bar exam.

Many LL.M. students chose to sit for a bar exam in the U.S., as a route to practising law in the largest legal market in the world. “The ability to practice law in another country can be a large value-add as it relates to their career. It also distinguishes them in comparison to others who do not have an additional license to practice law,” says Cecilia Caldeira, the assistant dean for international and non-J.D. programs at Fordham Law School, in New York.

For those who wish to return to their home country after their LL.M. studies, bar admission can provide a career boost or short-cuts to their home country’s national bar. Some students may choose to sit for a U.S. bar exam as a personal goal, even if it does not provide immediate career advantages.

“Admission to the New York Bar is especially popular since New York is a global financial and business center with many contacts globally being subject to New York law,” says Sandra Friedrich, the assistant dean of international graduate law programs at University of Miami School of Law, in Florida.

Foreign-trained lawyers may need an LL.M.

Each state has its own test and admission rules. Most states require a J.D. degree from a U.S. institution to sit the bar, but about a dozen such as New York and California allow foreign trained lawyers to sit the exam if they meet other requirements, usually requiring an LL.M. degree from an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved law school.

“In the majority of cases if you have a foreign law degree you will need an LL.M. from an ABA-approved law school in order to qualify to sit for the exam,” Caldeira, at Fordham Law, says.

At least three law schools have fallen below the bar pass rate minimum, 75 percent, set by the ABA, putting them at risk of losing accreditation. Those schools are Vermont Law and Graduate School, Ave Maria School of Law, and the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law.

Many law schools offer additional preparation for the bar, helping alumni to pass the exam. Fordham offers classes in all of the subjects that the bar exam tests. 

“Our first-year classes help students strengthen their written legal English, which makes a significant difference on the bar exam,” says Caldeira. “Additionally, we offer the Legal English Institute, which helps to bridge any gaps in knowledge of U.S. law and enhance English language skills before starting the LL.M.”

At Miami Law, foreign-trained students interested in staying in the U.S. long-term can also pursue a joint LL.M./J.D. degree program, where they receive both degrees in as little as 2.5 years, without needing to sit for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), allowing for greater flexibility in taking a U.S. bar exam.

“Usually, states also have curricular requirements, including overall credit number and specific courses, like Professional Responsibility, that an LL.M. student will have to take to qualify,” says Friedrich.

Preparing for the all-important bar exam

Some states also limit online and summer coursework, like New York, which may have implications for those studying on online or hybrid LL.M. programs. Across the U.S., the July 2022 bar exam was the first to be administered in person after remote exams introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some states also require that foreign students wishing to sit for the bar exam provide all documentation supporting their eligibility to sit for the exam many months in advance. “It is therefore important for students to understand and comply with all deadlines, and work with their academic advisor from the start of their LL.M. studies,” Friedrich says.

Every semester, Miami Law offers two bar prep courses to LL.M. students. Moreover, the school organizes seminars and workshops for students, including a Pass the Bar Seminar every Fall focusing on critical essay skills and practical multiple-choice strategies.

“One way for students to successfully prepare for the exam is to start studying early and take the preparation for the test seriously. It is a challenging exam with many components which require time and effort,” Caldeira says.

Oftentimes, sitting for and passing the bar exam is only the first step, Friedrich adds. “The admissions process can be equally lengthy and complex, requiring the completion of state-specific coursework and exams, legal pro bono hours, practical lawyering skills, character and fitness evaluations, and sometimes even an in-person admission interview.”

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