How to Practice Law in the United States as a Foreign Attorney

law school admissions Apr 23, 2021

Finding employment can be difficult when coming to the United States from another country. However, if you studied and/or practiced law in another country, your skills are transferable to the United States. Below, we provide an assessment of three potential paths a foreign attorney can take to practice law when they come to the United States. Followed by answers to frequently asked questions that include several considerations.


Obtaining a Master of Laws (LLM)

If you have your initial law degree from another country, obtaining your LLM could be the best option for you. This is especially true if you are a foreign attorney coming from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Or another country that practices common law like the United States. An LLM program is only one year of study, and you can sit for a U.S. State Bar Exam in the state where you wish to practice.

If you are a foreign attorney coming from Europe, Asia, or Africa, you likely have a civil law background. So obtaining an LLM will not give you the foundation you need to practice law in the United States. Additionally, each state has different requirements for foreign-trained attorneys with 30 states allowing them to sit for a bar exam. An LLM from a U.S. law school will only suffice in five states: New York, California, Georgia, Washington, and Wisconsin.


Three-Year Traditional Juris Doctorate (JD) Program

A JD is the basic law degree someone must get to practice law in the United States. It includes a standardized curriculum that broadly covers legal theories and concepts and their application in the U.S. legal system. Foreign-trained attorneys who come from civil law countries will be best served by going the traditional route. However, this typically is the most expensive option. Getting a traditional JD from a U.S. law school puts foreign-trained attorneys at the same level as their U.S. counterparts. In fact, it often provides an advantage because of added international law experience. Opening up more opportunities with firms and businesses that have a global presence.


Two-Year Accelerated JD Program

A two-year accelerated JD program is another option especially beneficial for attorneys coming from civil law countries. The curriculum of a two-year program is identical to a traditional JD program. However, you must complete the work in a condensed period of time. Two-year programs are an excellent choice for all foreign-trained lawyers who can realistically commit to a condensed schedule. But those with children or other family obligations might find it difficult. An accelerated program offers you two big financial advantages over a three-year program. First, tuition costs are typically lower by about a third. Second, you can enter the workforce one year sooner and start earning income.

Although a two-year JD program saves money, the condensed schedule means students cannot participate in co-curricular activities such as law clinics and law journals. Foreign-trained attorneys who have little experience practicing need these activities. Clinics provide needed hands-on experience and law journal experience is valuable for finding a job after graduation.



FAQ About Practicing Law in the U.S. as a Foreign Attorney

If you have relocated to the United States or relocation is in your future, you likely have more questions about law programs and practicing law in the U.S. The answers to the following frequently asked questions provide some more specific information to guide you with your choice:


  • Does it Matter What Kind of Law I Want to Practice?

An LLM allows you to specialize in a specific type of law. Such as corporate law, environmental law, tax law, etc. If you are a foreign attorney coming from a common law country and want to pursue a specific type of law, an LLM gives you that opportunity. You can take classes within your JD program about areas of interest. But you don't have to single out a specialization.

  • Are There U.S. Jobs I Cannot Hold Even After Obtaining a JD/LLM?

It depends. You can hold any job with a private firm or company as long as you comply with visa and immigration requirements. You likely will have a difficult time getting a job with the federal government. As a general rule, the government hires U.S. citizens first. However, they might appoint a non-U.S. citizen for a position when no qualified citizens are available for the position. The exact position for which you apply matters. In some cases, the law prohibits hiring a foreign national, often related to security clearance issues.

  • Does My Location in the United States Impact My Options?

Yes. Each state has different requirements. Regardless of your choice, you will have to sit for the bar exam in the state(s) where you wish to practice. Some prefer or require an LLM, and others require a JD. For example, the New York Board of Law Examiners reviews each application and denies the transfer of foreign law education or provides an Advance Evaluation of Eligibility. Those who are ineligible must complete an LLM in the United States. California has similar rules. Those who have been admitted to practice law outside the U.S. can sit for the California bar exam without completing an LLM.

  • What Preferences Do Big and Small Law Firms Have for Foreign Attorneys?

Smaller firms typically provide more individual hands-on experience, while larger firms have new associates work as part of a team. For this reason, smaller firms often favor someone who has a 3-year JD. If you come from a common law country and have proven experience, you won't need additional hands-on experience in a JD program. However, if you haven't practiced for long in your country, going the JD route will give you the experience you need for a small firm.

  • How Can I Practice Law in the U.S. If I Am a Judge in My Country?

You cannot sit on a bench and hear cases in court if you are non-U.S. Citizen. However, if you come from a common law country, you have likely practiced law for years before becoming a judge. Your education and experience put you in a position to sit for the bar exam in many states. However, you might be required to obtain an LLM.


If you want to practice law in the U.S., you have three main options as a foreign-trained attorney to prepare to sit for a bar exam: LLM, traditional JD, or an accelerated JD.  Your choice depends on what type of law you studied, your experience, your budget, and your ultimate career goals. Contact me with further questions about practicing law in the United States and any other questions you might have about your transition.

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