Update February, 2017: Read In-Depth: The American Bar Exam for more information on the US bar exam.
When foreign students make their way to the United States to pursue an LL.M., they often have one major goal in mind: gaining eligibility to sit that white whale of legal tests, the American bar exam.
These foreign students choose to sit the American bar exam for a variety of reasons, according to Susan Karamanian, associate dean for comparative and international legal studies at George Washington University School of Law. Some foreign students need their bar results because they want to try to find a job as a lawyer in the United States. Others are undecided about where they ultimately want to live and practice law, and plan to take the bar so they’ll have the option to work in the US down the road. Still others have no intention of ever working in the US, but want a passing grade on an American bar exam to show to potential employers in their home countries.
But gaining eligibility to take the bar is not a simple process—and it’s one that often changes. That’s why directors and officials at LL.M. programs advise students to get their ducks in a row as early as possible by starting the eligibility verification process with a state’s licensing board.
“Start [the eligibility process] immediately,” says Julie Sculli, Brooklyn Law School’s Director of International Programs. “In an ideal world, have a response [on whether you are eligible] prior to starting your LL.M. degree.”
The requirements for foreign lawyers who want to sit the bar exam vary from state to state. Thirty states allow foreign-trained lawyers to sit their bar exams, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, but each of those states has a different stipulation beyond that, with eligibility determined by factors such as whether students attended a foreign law school that meets the American Bar Association's standards, whether they were educated in the common law or civil law system, whether they are authorized to practice law in a foreign jurisdiction, or whether they are of sound moral character.
Of those thirty states, five—New York, California, Georgia, Washington and Wisconsin—allow students to sit the bar exam based on the completion of an LL.M. at an American school.
“Most want to use our LL.M. to take the bar,” says Sculli. “For us, that’s the number one reason why students are earning an LL.M.”
Using an LL.M. to sit the New York bar exam
New York is commonly known as the most popular state for foreign law students to sit the bar, since the state has a reputation for friendliness towards foreign lawyers. In fact, students who attended a three-year law school in an English-speaking, common law country are often eligible to sit the bar without even pursuing an LL.M.
But students from non-Anglophone, civil law countries who are planning to use an LL.M. to take the New York bar should be wary: the state tightened its eligibility requirements in 2012, with students now required to take a more strictly codified set of classes, including Professional Responsibility, legal research, writing and analysis, American legal studies, and topics tested specifically on the New York Bar. In 2015, the state also instituted a policy of requiring bar applicants to complete 50 hours of pro bono work.
And even students from Anglophone, common law countries should do their research to make sure that their degrees fulfill ABA requirements, which stipulate that students must hold degrees from schools that are accredited by a governmental agency in their home country. Students in this situation should also be aware that their programs need to be meet the standards set by the ABA. To prove that they meet these requirements, students must submit an online foreign evaluation by November 30 and supporting documentation from their law schools by February 1 if they are planning to sit the bar in February, with deadlines of April 30 and June 15 respectively for students sitting the bar in July.
Using an LL.M. to sit the California bar exam
The California bar exam is another popular target for LL.M.s. To gain eligibility to sit the bar in California, students must have a law degree from a law school that meets American Bar Association requirements, then pursue an LL.M. at an American school.
To prove that their foreign law degree confers bar eligibility, students must use a credential evaluation service to certify either that their degree is substantially equivalent to an ABA-approved program, or that their degree authorizes them to practice law in their home country. Then, students must complete at least 20 hours of coursework at an LL.M. or other law program, which must include courses in four subjects tested on the California bar exam, including a course on professional responsibility that covers the California rules of professional conduct. These courses must be completed within three years of the beginning of the student's studies in the United States.
How to prepare for the bar exam while pursuing an LL.M.
Of course, it can be difficult for students to parse all of these requirements, as well as study for the bar, all by themselves, especially when J.D. students have three years to prepare compared to the one year granted to most LL.M. students. That’s why many schools offer specific resources for LL.M. students to prepare to qualify for and take the bar. Boston University distributes a memo to its LL.M. students about how they can gain eligibility for and pass the New York Bar. Schools such as Penn State Law and Columbia Law School post detailed information about qualifying for the bar on their websites. In Georgia, a state where foreign lawyers must have already gained eligibility to practice law in their home country before sitting the bar exam in the US, Georgia State Law offers an LL.M. with a special bar preparation track. And law prep companies Kaplan and Barbri offer bar review courses specifically geared towards LL.M. students.
"Since LL.M. programs are so short, it's hard for them to do everything they need to do for the bar during that one-year program,” says Sculli of Brooklyn Law, which also offers a bar prep course independently of its LL.M. program. “This is a nice way for them to get a summary.”
Many schools that run LL.M.s geared towards foreign lawyers say they see these evolving requirements as an opportunity. Susan Karamanian, associate dean for comparative and international legal studies at George Washington University School of Law, says that her school’s LL.M. program adjusted its course offerings to make sure they corresponded with the requirements for the New York Bar. But she says it wasn’t difficult to revise the school’s curriculum, and that in fact, she and other officials view the pro bono requirement as an opportunity to encourage students to engage with the community.
“I consider [pro bono work] very important as it allows students to have first-hand experience in dealing with the needs of those who are unable to pay for legal services,” says Karamanian.
But although many schools are working to keep students up to date on bar requirements, all prospective students should keep in mind that these requirements are continuously changing and evolving. Starting in 2018, New York will institute a skills competency requirement for foreign-trained lawyers who want to sit the bar, which will result in more paperwork and more boxes to check off when students are applying.
LL.M. programs with bar preparation tracks
Several schools across the country offer LL.M. programs with specific bar preparation tracks. These programs are designed with bar examination requirements in mind, to ensure that students emerge from the programs with their LL.M. as well as with all the information and skills needed to pass the bar exam. Schools that offer these bar track programs include:
- Georgia State University
- University of Iowa
- Duquesne University
- Boston University's Fundamentals Track
- Drexel University
Photo by Philip Larson.