The primary reason that lawyers practising in the UK can comparatively easily transition to working in the US is that the US legal system, similar to the English, is based on common law. This system is heavily reliant on precedents, the doctrine of stare decisis and creates many similarities between the legal systems in the two countries. Perhaps the greatest difference is that in the US, as a federalist system of governance, States have been derogated certain judicial and legislative powers. The derogated powers have allowed all 50 states to develop their own requirements for lawyers intending to practice within state borders.
While it is not mandatory for states to create a specific foreign-trained lawyer pathway, many of the states with cities that act as international business and legal hubs, such as New York State and California, have developed state-specific regulations to more swiftly admit foreign-trained lawyers to the bar.
Some states have opted to put in place the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE); once passed, the UBE acts to qualify the lawyer to practice in all UBE states. There are currently 41 UBE jurisdictions including Colorado, Connecticut, Arizona, New York and Washington to name a few.
In the States without specific foreign-trained lawyer requirements, it is most often required that they either complete their Juris Doctor (JD), a three-year postgraduate degree, or a Master of Law (LLM), a one-year postgraduate degree, at an American institution. Many American law schools offer LLM courses specifically targeting foreign-trained lawyers.
The New York Board welcomes foreign-trained lawyers to directly sit the bar, provided that they completed their legal education in a system that focuses on the study of the common law, as is the UK’s LLB program. To determine whether a degree is acceptable and transferable, the New York Board of Law Examiners perform an Advance Evaluation of Eligibility where they look for three years of education, primarily focusing on common law. Unfortunately, the process of being evaluated can entail up to a 12-month wait; for such reasons, UK lawyers should be conscious of their moving arrangements as it is a slow process.
Once the evaluation has been made by the New York Board, UK lawyers looking to transfer to the US will need to prepare for the highly rigourous bar examination – a process which can take up to twelve months of preparation. If upon sitting the bar examination, the UK lawyer isn’t successful, they would generally be encouraged to complete a US Master’s in Law (LLM).
Following a successful evaluation, a UK educated lawyer is eligible to sit the bar examination. While this is an achievement in itself, the bar is an extremely rigorous process, with the studying alone described as a 9-5, full-time commitment.
To compare, California invites lawyers that have fully qualified in their jurisdiction, which in the UK entails having a qualifying law degree, completing the LPC and a training contract, to sit the California bar examination directly. Many states advise foreign-trained lawyers to take a one-year Master of Laws (LLM) program at an American institution.
Qualifying in a state, such as New York that has adopted the UBE provides lawyers with slightly more freedom in practice jurisdiction. It is important to note that the US does not differentiate the role of a barrister from solicitor and vice versa, in the US a lawyer who has passed the bar is eligible to fulfil the duties of both a solicitor and barrister.
For qualified foreign lawyers who are perhaps looking for another route to providing legal consultation in the US, without sitting the bar, there is the option of becoming a Foreign Legal Consultant. This role which allows qualified foreign lawyers to represent clients in the US, is a far shorter process, however, legal consultants are under far greater restraints regarding what services they can provide. To become a legal consultant, a foreign lawyer must apply for the role through the State Bar Office.
Another possibility for UK qualified lawyers to work in the US, is to be transferred internally to the US office of their firm or to complete an international secondment in the US – now offered by a few law firms in London. If you’re working at a US firm in London, it may also be possible to be transferred to a US office internally.
Alternatively, US law firms also hire candidates directly from the UK, although it’s worth noting that this process is highly competitive as it would require the hiring firm to sponsor your visa to be able to work in the US. This option is required for more experienced lawyers with at least a few years of experience within a relevant practice area, with the most popular being in Corporate and Finance law. You’d also be required to demonstrate your experience and knowledge of working with US markets in order to be considered.
Every state has tailored requirements, so before starting the transition process, you should decide which state you would like to qualify in and take the time to understand the state-specific processes. All pathways to transition from practising in the UK to qualifying in the US come with advantages and drawbacks.
Entering the American education system to receive a JD or LLM may offer a far greater understanding of the US constitution and federalism, however, will add up to another four years of academia and will require hefty fees. On the other hand, the process of validating an international qualification requires an evaluation of eligibility which is again a lengthy process, and regardless, both pathways require admission to the bar, which is a challenging test of knowledge and understanding.
For students with interest in qualifying in the US, and have yet to select a university program, it is worth looking into the double degree LLB/JD four-year bachelor program that selected British universities offer in partnership with Columbia Law School in New York. A dual degree program offers students the opportunity to receive both an LLB and JD after only a four-year program.
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