California Bar Exam Prep For Foreign Attorneys

Last Updated on December 15, 2022 by

The California Bar Exam is a rite of passage for foreign attorneys who have been admitted to the California State Bar. The most challenging of the bar exams, it has been called “an extreme adventure” and “hell with no prayer of parole.” It requires an intense, all-consuming study which typically consumes 30+ hours a week for six months. Passing the California Bar Exam can be an extremely daunting experience for an International Attorney. If you are frustrated by your lack of progress, this is the article you have been looking for.

If you are a qualified lawyer in your home jurisdiction, you can sit for the California Bar Exam. You still have some other requirements to fulfill, but your foreign license is a shortcut in the application process. If you have a law degree but are not licensed, you may qualify to sit for the bar if you complete an LL.

Right her on Collegelearners, you can rest assured to obtain all the relevant information you need on states that allow foreign lawyers to take the bar, California bar exam requirements for foreign lawyers, UK bar exam for foreign lawyers, New York bar requirements for foreign lawyers, and so much more. Be sure to surf through our catalog for more information on related topics.

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California Bar Exam Requirements For Foreign Lawyers

The State Bar of California includes attorneys who have been educated abroad. They do not have to be citizens to be a licensed attorney in California, but they do have to fill out some extra paperwork.

If an applicant wants to practice law in California as a foreign-educated applicant not admitted to practice law in any United States jurisdiction, the information and forms are below.

These guidelines do not apply to attorneys who are already admitted to the active practice of law in a foreign country or in another U.S. jurisdiction and are in good standing. These attorneys are qualified to take the California Bar Examination without having to complete any additional legal education.

The requirements are different for those who have received a first degree in law from a law school in a foreign jurisdiction than those who may have completed study in a foreign law school, but did not receive a degree. For the specific requirements, refer to the admissions rules.

State Bar rules require applicants to:

  • Pass the California Bar Examination
  • Receive a positive moral character determination
  • Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination
  • Comply with any California court order for child or family support 

Applicants for admission are also required to provide a Social Security number. If you don’t have a Social Security number, request the form to request an exemption when you register with the State Bar. 

Foreign Law Students With First Degree of Law

Law students who received their first degree in law from a law school outside the U.S. must establish their eligibility to take the California Bar Examination by showing that their degrees are equivalent to a Juris Doctor (JD) degree awarded by an American Bar Association (ABA)-approved or California-accredited law school in the U.S.

They must also show that they have successfully completed a year of law study at an ABA-approved law school or a law school accredited by the committee in the areas of law as outlined in the committee’s “Guidelines for Implementation of Chapter 2, Rule 4.30″ of the admissions rules.

Law students in this category seeking to qualify to take the California Bar Examination must provide the following to the State Bar’s Office of Admissions in Los Angeles:

  1. A completed “Registration as a Foreign Educated General Applicant” form with the required registration fee of $119
     
  2. An evaluated law degree equivalency report and a “Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary” form, which must be completed by a credential evaluation agency approved by the Committee.  A detailed course by course evaluation report is required

Read more about the admissions guidelines for applicants who have a foreign law degree.

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Foreign Law Students Without A First Degree of Law

Law students who completed their legal education outside the United States without receiving a qualifying first degree in law must establish their eligibility to take the California Bar Examination by showing they have:

  1. successfully completed the equivalent of two years of undergraduate studies
  2. passed or established exemption from the First-Year Law Students’ Examination
  3. completed four years of legal studies in the United States

Law students who do not have a first degree of law who want to take the General Bar Examination must provide the following to the State Bar’s Office of Admissions in Los Angeles:

  1. A completed “Registration as a Foreign Educated General Applicant” form with the required registration fee of $119
     
  2. An evaluated course breakdown of all post-secondary education and a “Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary” form completed by a credential evaluation agency approved by the Committee. A detailed course by course evaluation report is required.

Documents in a language other than English must be accompanied by a notarized translation by a disinterested party, which is attested to with respect to accuracy.

Information provided by a credential evaluation agency regarding the completion of a law degree and number of years of study is considered advisory; the Committee reserves the right to make the final decision with regard to law study equivalency and how much credit the law student will receive toward qualifying to take the General Bar Examination. 

A determination of eligibility will be made after review of all required documents and applicants will thereafter be notified of their status regarding eligibility to take the California Bar Examination, exemption from the First-Year Law Students’ Examination or the requirement to take the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, and whether any additional course work is required.  First-Year Law Students’ Examination exemption is established by passing the bar examination of another jurisdiction or successfully completing the first year of law study at an ABA approved or California accredited law school.

Read more about the admissions guidelines for foreign students without a law degree.

Registering As A Foreign-Educated Applicant

General and attorney applicants who intend to seek admission to practice law in California must register in accordance with the Business and Professions Code, Article 4, section 6060(2)(d), and Title 4, Division 1 of the Rules of the State Bar of California (Admissions Rules). The registration form is not an application to take an examination.

Answer all applicable questions on the registration form. Answers must be specific and complete. If the space for an answer is insufficient, the answer may be completed on a separate sheet of paper, which should be attached to the registration form. Before filing the registration form, make sure all questions have been answered, the registration form is signed and the correct fee is included.

Any registration form not meeting these requirements is considered incomplete and will not be considered filed until it is brought to a complete status. If there are deficiencies in the registration form, you will be notified.


Registration forms not brought to a complete and filed status within 60 days of receipt will be deemed abandoned. No fees will be refunded if a registration is abandoned.

After completing and signing the registration form, the form and correct fees in the form of a cashier’s check or money order payable to the State Bar of California must be mailed to the following address:

The State Bar of California
Office of Admissions
845 South Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017-2515

All applicants seeking admission to practice law must register with the Committee of Bar Examiners (committee) prior to filing any applications, petitions and requests for waivers or before any services can be provided. If an applicant has registered previously, there is no need to complete the registration form or pay the fee.

General Applicant Registration Fee: $119

Caution: Separate and distinct application forms are required for the bar examination and moral character determination. The “Application to Take the California Bar Examination” and/or “Application for Determination of Moral Character” will not be processed prior to completion of the registration form.

All correspondence from the committee and the State Bar’s Office of Admissions will be mailed to the current mailing address (initially as shown on the registration form). It is the applicant’s responsibility to notify the State Bar’s Office of Admissions in writing, of any changes in name, address or law school. If notification of such changes is not received by the State Bar’s Office of Admissions, it may result in the applicant’s failure to receive important information. 

It is the applicant’s responsibility to maintain compliance with the Admissions Rules. Copies of amendments to the Admissions Rules are not routinely sent to registrants. The current Admissions Rules are available online at www.calbar.ca.gov/admissions or upon request from the Office of Admissions.

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Equivalency Report

You must attach an evaluated law degree equivalency report and a “Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary,” which must be completed by a credential evaluation agency approved by the Committee and a certified transcript of all legal studies completed, which must include the beginning and ending dates of enrollment, each class taken, the grade or mark received for each class and the date the degree was awarded.

General information to assist in completing the registration form follows:

Question #1.1 – United States Social Security Number

All applicants for admission to practice law in California are required to provide a Social Security number pursuant to Business and Professions Code Sections 30 (State of California’s tax enforcement provisions,) 6060.6 (alternative identification acceptable in lieu of social security number,) and Family Code section 17520 (Child Support Enforcement Programs.)

Applicants without a social security number because they do not qualify for one, may request that they be exempted from the requirement of providing one at the time they register as a law student or as an attorney. Such applicants may request an exemption from the social security number requirement by completing page 4 of the Registration as a Foreign-Educated General Applicant Not Admitted to the Practice of Law in any United States or Foreign Jurisdictions’ application and attaching the requested documentation.

Question #2.0 – Names, former names and aliases
If an applicant’s name has been changed by court order, a photocopy of such order should be attached. This includes divorce decrees or dissolution papers.

Question #2.2 – Foreign Legal Education
All foreign law study completed or currently in progress should be indicated, even though there is no intention to claim credit. An evaluated law degree equivalency report, which must be completed by a credential evaluation agency approved by the Committee, a completed “Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary” form and a certified transcript of all legal studies completed, with a notarized translation if in a language other than English, must be attached to the application form.

Question #2.3 – United States Law School Education
List the law school you are attending in the United States, and any other United States law school where study was previously completed, and indicate whether you intend to receive credit for law study obtained at the school toward qualifying to take the California Bar Examination. If you are intending to qualify to take the examination as an foreign educated applicant with a first degree in law through an additional year of law study at an ABA approved or California accredited law school, in addition to listing the law school, indicate the degree program in which you are enrolled, the courses in which you are enrolled and the date you intend to complete the program. Refer to the Committee’s “Guidelines for Implementation of Chapter 2, Rule 4.30 of the Admissions Rules”  of the admissions rules for the specific courses that must be completed in order to qualify to take the California Bar Examination.

Withdrawal / Abandonment / Ineligible
Registration forms may not be withdrawn. Registration fees that accompanied forms that are abandoned because they are incomplete will not be refunded. Applicants for registration found to be ineligible due to a lack of pre-legal education will qualify for a refund.

Registration Number
A file number will be assigned to you. The file number is the permanent identification number and must be indicated on all subsequently filed applications and on all correspondence. Registration confirmation letters will be mailed approximately four (4) weeks from the date of approval of the registration.

Communicating with the Committee of Bar Examiners or Office of Admissions
An official record of all communications is required. Applicants with inquiries should contact the Office of Admissions by sending an email directly through the Applicant Portal. Inquiries in writing or by telephone should be directed to the appropriate office listed below.

Office of Admissions                                    Office of Admissions
The State Bar of California                          The State Bar of California
845 S. Figueroa Street                                 180 Howard Street
Los Angeles, CA 90017-2515                      San Francisco, CA 94105-1617
(213)-765-1500                                             (415)-538-2300

Over the past few months, I have had several email conversations with foreign-trained JDs who want to know about which bar exam preparation courses are best and how they should prepare for a bar exam in the United States.

Since I anticipate these issues are common for many foreign attorneys and JDs who want to take a US bar exam, I thought I would put together this post.  I hope that some foreigners who have taken and passed a US bar exam can add their experiences and thoughts in the comments to this post.

Potential obstacles for foreigners

The first thing to consider is how well you can communicate in written American English. I emphasize American English because many foreign JDs have received education in British or Indian English, which has many different idioms and usages.

For example, the British may “take a decision” but Americans “make a decision.”

The bar exam is a pressure-cooker environment [<– another idiom, meaning that during the test, you must perform under substantial time constraints]; if you are confused about what is being asked of you or if you cannot understand essay or performance test fact patterns because of a language issue, you start at a disadvantage.

Another issue to consider is the format of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), which is a standardized multiple choice test administered by almost every US jurisdiction.

In my opinion, the MBE is designed to trick you into getting the wrong answer. The questions are usually dense, with the correct answer often based on a single word or phrase.

Standardized test questions are often more difficult for people outside a culture to answer.   So, the MBE and its format must be studied early and often.

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Which preparation course to take?

If you have a strong command of American English, you may be able just to take BarBri.  If you will be studying outside of the US, you can get access to the video lectures if you have a good internet connection.

Since the MBE is difficult, you should probably supplement your preparations with an MBE exclusive course.  Kaplan/PMBR may be a good choice because its example questions are notoriously difficult, which is good preparation for the actual test.  If you can’t afford the course, try to find the practice books for sale used on Amazon or Craigslist.

If you prefer an exclusively on-line solution, you might try Adaptibar, which I used while preparing for the California bar exam.  I liked the convenience of being able to access the questions without having to carry around a huge book.  Adaptibar also keeps statistics so you can see where your strengths and weaknesses are and focus your studies accordingly.

If you want ultimate portability, you could try BarMax’s MBE App for iPod and iPad.  I have not used this, but it has good customer reviews.

If you feel like you need more help than you can get from the programs listed above, you may want to consider a tutor or a bar preparation service that includes individual counseling and tutoring.

I do not know any bar tutors, so maybe someone can recommend one in the comments.

As for more individualized bar preparation programs, you may want to try Celebration Bar Review, which has a preparation program specifically for foreign-trained JDs and attorneys. 

If you need additional advice on how to approach MBE questions, I highly recommend reading Strategies and Tactics for the MBE.  For many years, it has been by far the best book for helping students learn how to succeed on the MBE.

This foreign attorney who struggled with essays passed the California Bar Exam with the lowest July pass rate (40%)

Lars was a Canadian attorney taking the California Bar Exam. He took it once in 2018 February. Then he passed the following July.

“I took it twice. The first time was in February and I got 1393, and then I wrote again in July and passed the second time.”

Lars was decent enough on the MBE and the PT thanks to his existing lawyering skills, but he needed help with the essays.

“I came really close on the MBE the first time. I think I missed one question but I struggled with the essays. I did well on the PT, the first time, which I think I can attribute to being a lawyer.”

Unlike the MBE and the PT, essays force you to work your “origination muscle”—to come up with words to write (instead of filling in letters) based on what you’ve memorized. We can break it down to a three-step process: Memorize the law, be able to recall it, and able to apply it.

“I kind of thought going in the first time, I would be able to just sort of manage the essays better than I could. . . . As a whole, the issue with the grading of the papers, there is a real issue where I don’t feel like a lot of the graders are grading equally.”

Challenges As A Foreign Attorney

What’s more, like many foreign attorneys, Lars had to unlearn and learn new subjects he’d never seen before as a Canadian lawyer.

“U.S. Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure were completely new to me. I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t take Evidence in law school, so that was also a fun, new challenge. And then for the essays, obviously all the California-specific subjects were all new to me.”

One of his biggest challenges came from being used to an open-book format throughout his academic career, where he didn’t have to memorize. Lars now had to write essays closed-book.

“One of the issues was, I graduated from law school ten years ago. In Canada, all of our exams for all of law school and the bar are open book. So I hadn’t written a closed-book exam since my undergraduate degree.”

One of the biggest traps of memorization is familiarity—feeling like you could use it based on mere familiarity but not being able to retrieve it from memory. Lars found that knowing the rules conceptually was vastly different from knowing how to use them.

“I would go through my materials and feel like, ‘Oh, I could crush a practice essay.’ And then I could open it and just have no idea how to put down what I just read in a comprehensible form.”

The cherry on top was Lars’s full-time work schedule of 40 hours a week.

“I’m working full-time.”

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Advantages As A Repeater

But like many repeaters, Lars had an advantage going in: knowledge from his previous attempt. He was able to base his approach around his strong suits, the MBE and the PT, and build upon that for the essays.

“I was just coming up to the threshold, I guess 68% for the MBE, but I wasn’t getting it consistently. By the time I started for the second round, that was basically my base point. So it was easy to build on that.”

His experience also gave him a cushion and a hedge against subjects that hadn’t appeared in his previous attempt but might appear in the next one. This was a calculated risk that he took as a repeater, having seen particular subjects already.

“I just really focused on subjects I thought would appear that hadn’t been on the February exam and had been appearing in July more regularly. . . . I was really banking on having a cushion on the MBE and doing well on the PT.”

Improving on the essays

Lars found an efficient way to cover a broad range of practice essays on the MTYLT blog.

“I went back to time to time again when I was preparing was your post on essay cooking. I came to the understanding I wanted to be able to have gone through enough essay subjects, enough practice essays for every topic that there wouldn’t be anything that blindsided me.”

As for supplements, Lars used Mary Basick’s Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam in conjunction with BarEssays. (Note: These are only applicable to California essays.)

“Because the Basick book was dated, I wanted to be able to go through more recent essays and practice more recent topics. I would write the practice essays and then compare them to the graded one on BarEssays.”

(BarEssays offers actual graded essay answers that received a range of scores. You can see a pattern in high- and low-scoring answers. MTYLT subscribers can get $25 off BarEssays. Let me know where to send you the coupon code.)

For the MBE, there are a couple of popular go-to resources. One that comes up time and time again is Emanuel’s Strategies & Tactics, which was helpful not only for my own preparation but for many other passers as well. Lars studied the explanations for each answer choice, including for the questions he got right to make sure he got them for the right reason.

“I read it cover-to-cover. I used BarMax too. But Emanuel’s just had much better explanations. I read literally every single answer.”

Managing resource overload with condensed materials

That said, Lars was getting overwhelmed with study materials. He needed something that condensed and consolidated the topics for him.

“I was finding one of the problems that I had was, I had too much material. The first time and, partially through the second time, took the approach of, buy every resource I could and have all these different outlines to keep going through them. I was just getting overwhelmed by the amount of material. I felt like, to do the essays, I really needed to have something that was condensed that I could go over, that I could commit to memory as much as possible, and the Magicsheets were exactly that.”

Lars found that condensed materials made practice manageable, including issue identification. Condensed references are also handy to bring to the test venue!

“I had the Approsheets. They were good, but the Magicsheets were the only material that I ended up taking down with me this time. I just made a binder with all the Magicsheets. They were super good. . . . I would go through them and then I would write an essay. And then I would go through them again. I just found they were really well condensed and manageable, rather than having a 20-page outline. I would say they helped most with the issue spotting.”

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Relief from putting the bar exam behind him

Putting the bar exam behind once and for all is the goal of every bar taker. Lars achieved that goal and found immense relief from making it his last time taking the bar.

“It definitely gives me a path forward, and now knowing that I don’t have to do this again is amazing. It’s such a relief.”

Passing the bar enabled Lars to do leisure activities that he enjoyed, like sports and traveling, and to spend time with people he cared about in his free time.

“I play soccer. I am captain of a soccer team. I hang out with my friends like doing a bunch of traveling that I was nervous about booking without having known the result. Now I’ve got a bunch of trips planned. . . . I am going away tomorrow. I’m going away this weekend. . . . I’m a die-hard Minnesota Viking fan, and I’m going this weekend to Sunday night football in Minneapolis.”

Parting advice on maximizing your score

If Lars has a parting piece of advice to students starting out now, it would be to get those points on the MBE and take an extra 30 minutes on the PT (deducted from the afternoon essay questions). This leaves more of a buffer for those subjective essays.

“I still started studying by focusing on the MBE. And really ensuring that I have more than above a passing score on that because I knew there would be one or two essays that I would struggle with no matter how much I study. . . . Run up the score on the MBE, and take more time for the PTs, and then you’re maximizing your ability to get points on the most objective categories.”

Lars doesn’t agree with bar takers who feel that the questions on the MBE are different even from the past released questions. He felt comfortable with his preparation of having done the real questions ahead of time.

“I don’t understand why people keep saying this. I went through all four of the MBE official practice exams and all the questions of the bar. The older questions are very different, but I felt very prepared for the MBE. . . . I mean, look: There were definitely some weird questions that I hadn’t seen before, but in my mind when I was doing them, I was like, these are the tough questions.”

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