Can I Practice Law in the US if I am From Another Country?

Question: The asker and I had a private conversation involving their interest in attending college and law school in the US.

Answer: People from other countries can come to the United States to practice law under certain circumstances.

First, if you want to have a career in the US, you need to obtain the required education. Various states have various educational requirements.  Most states require that you obtain a law degree from an ABA accredited law school. To attend an ABA accredited law school, you need to have an appropriate under graduate degree from a four year institution.

In the US, unlike in some other countries, law is a graduate program and you cannot become a lawyer with only an undergraduate degree. Once you obtain your law degree, you are required to sit for a bar exam. You also have to take an ethics test, and pass a character and fitness background check.

Keep in mind, that we take bar exams for each state in which we want to practice. After five years of practice, sometimes we can waive into other states. This means sometimes we can avoid the bar in certain states, after five years of practice in a different American state.  Not all states are reciprocal though, and some states require all people to take their bar exam if they want to practice. California and Florida are two examples.

Don’t Have a Law Degree Yet

If you are from another country, do not yet have a law degree, and wish to study in the US, you may be able to do so. You need to go through the process of getting accepted to an accredited college/university and getting the appropriate visa to study in the US. If you already have an undergraduate degree, you can move on to the next step.

After you have an appropriate undergraduate degree, you need to get attend an ABA accredited law school and obtain (or maintain) the appropriate visa. During your last year of law school, you will begin applying to take the bar in one or more states.

Do Your Research!

It is critical that you do the research prior to beginning your education in the United States, to make sure that you will be able to complete your education and sit for the bar in a US state. This will take some work on your part. t will be worth it though. You don’t want to end up with a very expensive degree that you cannot use.

Already Have a Law Degree from Another Country?

In a few states in the US, you can have your degree reviewed and a determination made as to whether you can sit for the bar exam in the state in which you desire to practice. The assessment can take a year or more. If you are approved, you will be allowed to take the bar exam. If not, you may be allowed to take law school classes or obtain an LLM and then be approved.

Remember though, an LLM is not a guarantee that you will be able to take the bar exam. Do not just take an LLM course of study in an American law school and think you can sit for the bar. Do the necessary research for the specific state in which you desire to practice. You don’t want to waste your time and money on an LLM if it will not help you take the bar in the state where you want to practice.

How Much Does a Legal Education Cost in the US?

In many countries people can obtain their undergraduate and legal education for free. This is not generally the case in the US. Some students are able to get scholarships, but rarely will that cover the full cost of the degrees. Many students have no scholarships and have to fund their entire education.

In the US, American citizens automatically qualify for special student loans. In most cases, these loans are not enough to cover both undergraduate and law school. As a result, most students turn to private loans. Private loans require appropriate credit, and sometimes parents will co-sign for their children.

It is important to understand that if you can get through an undergraduate degree and law school only owing $100,000.00, you should consider yourself fortunate. More likely, you will find yourself owing $150,000.00-$200,000.00. You may even owe more. Law school, on its own, will cost between $75,000 and $200,000 for the three year education. There is a substantial range in cost for both undergraduate and law school.

What I am trying to make clear to non-Americans is that you are going to have to find a way to fund a very expensive education if you decide that you want to study in the United States. Some non-citizens may qualify for American financial aid if they fall into an exception. If not, you will need to look into some other source of funding. I suggest you make sure that you will be able to fund your entire degree or degrees, before you begin your studies. You don’t want to be left without money when you only have a year left.

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