Foreign Attorneys Practicing in the United States

By: Michelle D. Patrick

The United States follows a common law legal system. Legal precedent in a common law legal system is set by judges and their opinions as they interpret the laws of our countries. The United States has both a federal and state court system, each with a unique set of rules and procedures that are unlike those that exist even in other common law countries. 

As part of this legal system, strict requirements must be met in order to become an attorney practicing in the United States. Attorneys must first earn a bachelor’s degree from an undergraduate institution. They must then obtain a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from an accredited law school. While there are a variety of ways to earn the required degrees, most attorneys spend 4 years earning their undergraduate degree and 3 years in law school. For those that are certain that they want to be an attorney before entering college, there are some institutions that offer dual degree programs. These programs vary from school to school, but typically allow students to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in only 6 years. The final step needed to then practice law in a particular state,  is passing that state’s bar exam in order to obtain a license.  

What about attorneys who attend law school overseas? 

Attorneys who attend law school outside of the United States might have a difficult time practicing law in the United States. It is up to the individual state to decide if they will allow foreign-trained attorneys to practice law in their state. At a minimum, a foreign-trained attorney will need to submit materials to the American Bar Association (ABA) for approval and then take the bar exam for each state in which they wish to practice law. This can be a lengthy process, ABA approval can take a year or more and, in most states, the bar exam is offered only two times per year. 

Many, but not all, states allow foreign-trained lawyers to sit for the bar exam in their state. Almost every state imposes additional requirements that must be completed before taking the bar. New York, California, Washington, Wisconsin and Georgia are currently the least restrictive states for foreign-trained attorneys. Examples of requirements by state include: 

New York

Foreign-trained attorneys are permitted to take the New York Bar if their education 1) lasted for 3 years; and 2) it was based on English common law. Foreign-trained attorneys are required to obtain approval to take the bar from the New York Board of Law Examiners. Approval can take 6 months to 1 year. 

If a foreign-trained attorney does not meet the above educational requirements, then they must attend a US school and obtain a Master of Laws (LL.M) prior to sitting for the bar exam. 


In California, foreign-trained attorneys admitted to practice in a jurisdiction outside of the U.S. are generally automatically eligible to sit for the California bar. Attorneys who have not been admitted to practice are eligible to sit for the bar exam after attaining an LL.M degree or studying for one year at an ABA-accredited law school. The LL.M program or the additional year of study must cover subjects that are tested on the California Bar. Therefore, a foreign attorney looking to take the California bar would be wise to obtain their LL.M from a California school.


Unlike California and New York, Florida does not allow foreign-trained attorneys with an LL.M to sit for the Florida bar. Rather, foreign-trained attorneys need to graduate from a 3 year-ABA approved law school. Since the ABA only approves law schools in the US, foreign-trained attorneys will essentially need to attend law school again, but in the US. 


Foreign-trained attorneys are permitted to sit for the Pennsylvania bar if they: 1) completed law school in a foreign country, 2) are admitted, and a member in good standing, of the bar of a foreign country, 3) practiced in that country for 5 of the last 8 years; and 4) completed 24 credit hours in certain subjects at an ABA approved law school. 

Since the rules and requirements vary from state-to-state, it is important that a foreign-trained attorney know and understand the rules of the state that they wish to practice law in.  

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