Can a foreign lawyer take the California bar exam

Last Updated on December 22, 2022 by

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.

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.

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

  • Registration as a Foreign-Educated General Applicant Not Admitted to the Practice of Law in Any United States or Foreign Jurisdiction Form 
  • List of Credential Evaluation Services Approved by the Committee of Bar Examiners
  • Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary

which states accept foreign law degrees

In the other camp are the five US states which allow a foreign lawyer to take the bar: New York, California, Alabama, New Hampshire and Virginia. These states allow some foreign-educated lawyers to take the bar examination without earning their degree locally.

strong>Unfortunately there is no easy answer for foreign lawyers who wish to practice law in the United States. The issue is a very complicated one because all lawyers that wish to practice law in the United States must be admitted to the Bar of the State where they intend to practice law and the US bar system is administered at the state level.

You must first be licensed to practice law in one state and after compliance of rules framed under another state of the United States, you can or cannot be permitted to practice law in that state unless there is a reciprocity between the states.

This means that each US state (and the capital, Washington D.C.) sets its own rules for bar admission and the question “can I move to the US and be a lawyer?” has, essentially, 51 different answers. If you are taking the bar as a foreign lawyer this translates to drastically different admission standards among the different states, so a fair bit of homework is in order. Broadly speaking, however, US states fall into one of two camps with some significant outliers.

In the first camp are those states which require all bar applicants – domestic and foreign – to earn a Juris Doctor(JD Degree) from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association. Because no schools outside of the US have received this accreditation. In practice this policy means that fully 23 states will not consider graduates of foreign law schools as eligible for admission to their state.

If this is the case for the state this can be a lengthy and difficult process, requiring admission to (and completion of) an ABA recognized law school. [Although foreign educated lawyers are not eligible to be admitted to the bar of these states directly, a system of reciprocity between states allows those admitted elsewhere in any other State of reciprocity in the United States itself to practice, eventually, in any state.]

In the other camp are the five US states which allow a foreign lawyer to take the bar: New York, California, Alabama, New Hampshire and Virginia. These states allow some foreign-educated lawyers to take the bar examination without earning their degree locally. In this case, however, foreign-educated lawyers must begin the process by getting their law degree reviewed and analyzed by the American Bar Association (ABA) with an option to complete either JD or LLM degree from ABA approved Law school.. Easier said than done, it can take up to a year for the foreign law credentials are even assessed.

Once reviewed, the application is either accepted or deferred. If accepted, foreign lawyers are allowed to sit for that state’s bar exam in much the same way a domestic applicant would. In New York, one of the jurisdictions most open to foreign lawyers, this would allow foreign lawyers to sit for the bar after completion of 20 credit program or LLM – Master of Laws from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved law school in US. But all that is explained here is not as easy as it appears. Not only passing bar exam is difficult but it is also difficult to be accepted without going to ABA approved law school in the United States to comply with the requirement of JD or LLM.

Even if deferred, applicants may be asked to complete coursework at an ABA-approved law school before sitting for the bar exam. This coursework usually takes the form of a one-year LL.M program at an ABA accredited school of law The LL.M, from the Latin Legum Magister or Master of Laws, is essentially an overview of US law for foreign lawyers and is most often requested of applicants who were educated or practiced in Common Law as opposed to Civil Law countries.

If this is the case, once the candidate completes their LL.M and obtains ABA approval, taking the bar as a foreign lawyer proceeds as outlined above. Please learn more about the International LLM here.Given the intricacies of this process, it can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years for a foreign educated lawyer to take the bar and this does not even begin to cover the preparation required to take the bar itself! Fortunately, for anyone taking the bar as a foreign lawyer, preparing for the bar exam is a typical, if daunting challenge.

Many American law students spend months preparing to sit for the bar exam by taking bar review courses and classes and foreign-educated lawyers should consider doing the same. Regardless of their backgrounds, so many applicants take these review courses that the model answer the examiners are looking for is invariably in the style taught by these courses. Such classes can be time consuming and expensive but well-recommended ones are generally worth it. After all, the goal of taking the bar as a foreign lawyer is well within sight! It is not a child’s play to become an Attorney and Counselor at Law in the United States for a foreign lawyer not only especially because it is very expensive but also because the success ratio of foreign lawyers passing the bar exam is low for those who have English as a second language in the country of their origin.

FINALLY even if you complete your Master of Law(LLM) degree from ABA approved law school and pass the bar exam of the State by which you are permitted to do so and get licensed as Attorney on record, you cannot practice law independently unless you have a green card.

International students who complete the process and get licensed as stated above try hard to get sponsored from the law firm in H-1B visa which is a non-immigrant temporary working visa status granted initially for a period of three years and extendable for another three years but the beneficiary cannot live in the United States for more than six years unless green card is under process. If every thing goes well it takes around 12 years to get employment based green card.

Now in H-1B visa status also, a licensed Attorney cannot practice law independently because he is permitted to work for the petitioner i.e law firm and for & on its behalf, but if caught practicing law independently, he or she is subject to deportation because it is a violation of immigration law.

Better the Attorneys in such a case should return to the country back home and keep the US Attorney’s license active and work from his country for example from NIGERIA through an associate law firm in the United States and if necessary an attorney on per diem basis can be hired in case representation is required.