In this two-part series, I will outline how to pass the Bar after your LL.M. In the second installation, I will address how to find a job in the United States.
While the legal profession in the United States may not be as glamorous as shows like ‘Boston Legal‘ and ‘Suits’ make it out to be, many applicants to LL.M. programs have dreams to stay and work in the United States after completing their LL.M.. To do this, most LL.M. applicants who intend to stay sit for the New York Bar Examination; while there are some students who decide the California Bar Examination (like myself), this is rare and the exception.
In this brief post, I intend to: first, provide an overview of the New York Bar examination; secondly, detail the requirements to applying, and the general timeline for applying for the bar; and, lastly, provide some information of the other jurisdictions’ Bar Examinations that LL.M. students may be interested in sitting.
A. New York Bar Examination
The United States, for the purposes of admission, is effectively 50 different countries. To be admitted to a State, you need to: sit the Bar Examination set by the State’s Board of Bar Examiners; pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Exam; pass a moral character test; and be formally admitted.
While there have been some reforms to increase the reciprocity of admission between states, such as the development of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), the United States state-specific process of admission is cumbersome, and does not lend well to attorneys moving around this vast country.
Before you get your sights set on living in certain states like South Carolina or Alabama, it is also worth mentioning that foreign-trained lawyers, even with a United States LL.M., are not welcome everywhere. This institutionalized form of xenophobia/American-exceptionalism is more prevalent in the Southern States. If you are hoping to go off the beaten-track and not sit the Bar in California or New York, you should check out Chart 4 in the American Bar Association’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Exam Requirements. At the time of publication, 33 of the 50 states stated they admit foreign-educated attorneys – however, the requirements for each vary significantly. (For example, to be admitted in Hawaii, a common law foreign-trained lawyer needs to have practiced law in that jurisdiction for 5 of the 6 years immediately prior to be admitted in Hawaii).
Eligibility to Sit the New York Bar Examination
The New York State Board of Law Examiners makes a distinction based on applicants who completed their primary legal degree in a common law country (e.g. Australia, England, New Zealand) and those that did not (e.g. continental Europe). The eligibility requirements of admission are outlined in § 520.6 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals, but for ease of access, I outline them here.
- Common Law Graduates: For graduates from common law law schools, contrary to popular misconception, you do not need a United States LL.M. to sit the New York Bar Examination.
- Non-Common Law Graduates: For graduates who graduated from law schools that do not teach the common law, you can “cure” this by completing an LL.M. at an United States law school. However, you cannot take any old LL.M. with any courses you would like; to sit the New York Bar, your course of study is relatively prescribed. Your LL.M. must consist of:
- 24 credit hours;
- Classes need to be taken on-campus (i.e. online LL.M.s will not suffice);
- Courses comprising:
- Minimum of two credit hours on professional responsibility (i.e. take the legal ethics course);
- Minimum of two credit hours in legal research, writing and analysis (i.e. you may need to take a specific course on legal research and writing– many law schools offer such classes);
- Minimum of two credit hours studying the American legal system (i.e. a course designed to introduce students to distinctive aspects and/or fundamental principles of United States law). This requirement may be satisfied by a course in United States constitutional law or United States federal or state civil procedure; and
- Minimum of six credit hours in other courses that principally focus on subject matter tested on the New York State bar examination or the New York Law Examination. If admitted to an LL.M. your law school will indicate which courses will satisfy this requirement (e.g. torts, contracts, criminal law etc.). As a rule of thumb, anything not too philosophical/international focused will satisfy this requirement – just avoid courses that are titled like: ‘The Law of Whales and Porpoises”; “Veganism and the Law”; and “Plato, a Cave, and the Presidency of Donald Trump”.
Summary (tl;dr): if you’re from a common law country, you do not need an American LL.M. to sit the New York Bar. However, if you come from a non-common law country, you will need an LL.M. and will need to take specific courses to be eligible to sit the New York Bar exam.
Foreign Legal Education Evaluation
Congratulations if you’re eligible (or will be eligible after your LL.M.) to sit the New York Bar Examination!
However, that’s only the first hurdle. You must now have your overseas legal education “evaluated” (e.g. you went to a proper law school and are not a total fraud). The detailed steps that need to be taken to get evaluated are summarized here, In sum, you must submit to the New York State Board of Law Examiners a ‘Foreign Evaluation Form’ and all required documentation (e.g. diplomas and transcripts).
Importantly, you must get on to this very early – for some of you, almost a year in advance of you sitting the Bar in the July after you graduate from your LL.M. program. For the non-common law lawyers, you need to submit your evaluation form and accompanying documentation by October 1 of the year preceding the exam you wish to sit (yes, very early). For graduates from common law countries that do not need a United States LL.M., you must submit the foreign evaluation form by April 15 and the accompanying documentation by June 1 (i.e. just a few months before the July Bar Examination).
Register for the Bar
Once you have concluded that you’re eligible to sit the Bar, and your foreign legal education has been positively evaluated as sufficient, you can finally register to sit the Uniform Bar Exam. As stated above, to overcome the lack of admission reciprocity between states, this is a standardized bar examination, developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). So far, the Uniform Bar Exam had been adopted in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Thus, if your score is high enough, you can transfer it to other states – of course, you need to be able eligible to be admitted in that state (which, as explained above, is not as easy for foreign-educated lawyers).
It costs $750 to register for the Bar and you must file your application by April 30, in the year preceding the July test date.
After registering for the Bar exam, you can relax. Other than choosing a bar exam preparation company to help prepare yourself for the bar exam (read: you’ll need one) Enjoy the rest of your LL.M. year. It is not until after graduation that you need to commence studying for the Bar. (NB: I will provide a later post on how to choose a bar preparation company, how to study for the bar, and strategies for success).
One last comment: do not think that passing the bar is guaranteed – in fact, you are statistically more likely to fail. By way of illustration, only 48% of foreign-educated test takers passed the July 2017 New York Bar Examination. However, as is explained below, this is much, much higher than California!
B. California Bar Examination
If the dirty streets of Manhattan do not do it for you, you may be lured by California’s West Coast charm.
Whereas the New York State Board of Law Examiners makes a distinction between common law and non-common law law graduates for the purposes of admission/eligibility to sit the bar exam, the State Bar of California distinguishes between foreign attorneys and foreign-educated applicants (i.e. the latter not having been admitted overseas).
- Foreign Attorneys: you need to register with the State Bar of California and provide evidence of your legal education and admission overseas. Once this is completed, you will be eligible to sign up for the California Bar Examination. More information is available here.
- Foreign-Educated Applicants: if you have obtained, for example, your LL.B. overseas but have not been admitted, there are some extra hurdles that you need to jump through. You are required to undertake additional legal education (i.e. an LL.M.) to cure your supposed “deficiency”. While the nitty gritty details are detailed here, basically, you need to complete an LL.M. with specific courses (similar to the New York Bar for non-common law educated applicants). Your LL.M. must:
- Be based on a minimum of twenty (20) semester or equivalent units of legal education; and
- Includes a minimum of one course in four separate subjects tested on the California Bar Examination (e.g. torts, criminal law etc). One of the four courses must be Professional Responsibility that covers the California Rules of Professional Conduct, relevant sections of the California Business and Professions Code, the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and leading federal and state case law on the subject.
The last requirement may be particularly difficult for students pursuing their LL.M. outside of California – this is because, as far as I am aware, no law schools outside of California teach the California Rules of Professional Conduct. Thus, if you need an LL.M. to sit the Bar in California, you should complete your LL.M. at a California law school; with great schools like Stanford, Berkeley, UC Hastings, UCLA, USC, Pepperdine this is hardly a significant limitation or burden.
It’s Far From Easy
Before you get giddy about frolicking around San Francisco or Los Angeles, it is worth noting the comparable difficulty of the California Bar Exam. After Delaware, it is the hardest Bar examination in the United States; this is measured by the cut score (i.e. passing score). The difficulty of the exam is reflected in passing rates: in February 2017, of all test takers, only 34.5% passed!
If you haven’t slumped into your seat as to the prospect of sitting this difficult examination, wait until you hear the passing rates for foreign-educated students and foreign attorneys. For foreign-educated law students with an LL.M., the pass rate was a measly 15.9%! For foreign lawyers, the pass rate was a terrifying 12.8%!
I have not included these statistics to scare you, but rather give you a heads-up to the reality of sitting the bar examination. If your english language skills are not up to scratch and/or you do not prepare enough, you will not pass this difficult exam. That being said, if you are diligent, prepare, and take it super seriously, you can indeed pass. In a later post, I will detail how to successfully pass a United States Bar examination as an LL.M. student.
C. The Multi-State Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)
In addition to the Bar examination, most states (with the exception of Maryland), require applicants to have passed the MPRE. The MPRE is a two-hour, 60-question multi-choice test that only takes a few days to prepare for (I’ve even had friends that did 5 hours of study and passed). The MPRE is administered by the National Conference of Board Examiners and there are hundreds of test sites around the United States.
The MPRE is administered three times a year: in March, August, and November. It is encouraged that LL.M. students register for the November exam (during their first semester). This is for two reasons: first, if you fail, you can do it again in March before the Bar; secondly, March test date happens during spring break – I do not know about you but I would rather be drinking a beer on a warm Caribbean beach than learning about professional legal ethics.
Thus, once you settle into your LL.M. program you should register for the November MPRE exam (you usually have to apply by the third week of October) and get it out of the way. By way of illustration as to the difficulty of the exam, out of my LL.M. class at Harvard Law School, 80 students took the exam and only two failed.
I hope this post has helped you think about the steps involved in becoming an attorney in the United States. While the process is quite long, arduous, and involves lots of study, it is very possible.
- If you did your legal studies in a common law country, it is much easier for you to sit the New York Bar Exam (you do not even need to do an LL.M.); if you did not do your legal studies in a common law country, you will need to ensure that you complete certain courses during your LL.M. to satisfy the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ requirements.
- If you are an attorney (from anywhere in the world), you can sit the California Bar exam without having obtained an LL.M. If you completed your legal education from anywhere in the world (even in a common law country), but are not admitted, you will need to ensure that you complete certain courses during your LL.M. to satisfy the State Bar of California’s requirements;
- The New York Bar is much easier than the California Bar;
- Assess your eligibility to sit the Bar exam before your commence your LL.M. and start compiling the relevant documents (i.e. transcripts, certificate of admission etc);
- Register for the November MPRE test date; and
- Do not worry about studying for the Bar exam until you finish your LL.M. Enjoy your LL.M. and relax!
Prepare for the Journey, LLMSherpa