Preparing for the bar is an enormous task for even the most accomplished of American law students. Foreign law students have additional sets of barriers to overcome, but passing the bar is absolutely possible. It is a rigorous exam in every jurisdiction and to succeed, you must begin preparing well in advance. As with most bureaucratic processes, there are arcane rules and piles of paperwork to sort before you are even cleared to take the exam.
Give yourself the gift of time
If you are thinking about taking the bar in the United States, then you probably already know that different states have different requirements for licensure. When you need to begin preparing depends mostly on whether you have a foreign law degree, are seeking a JD in the United States, or are seeking an LLM.
If you are seeking an American JD, you have the benefit of getting trained in American legal English, but if English is not your first language, you will want to spend your time in law school developing your writing skills. Consider joining a journal or doing research for a professor so that you can practice these skills in other contexts. The more exposure you get to legal writing, the better off you will be when you start preparing for the bar.
If you plan to seek an LLM, be careful about where you apply. This may not matter for your particular circumstances, but some states will not accept an LLM for the purposes of sitting for the exam. If you wish to take the exam in the same state you attend school, you might want to verify the state’s rules before matriculating.
There are very few states that allow examinees who do not have an LLM or JD to sit for the exam, but if you are planning to take the bar with only a foreign law degree, you will need to give your jurisdiction plenty of time to verify your records and clear you for the test. This process can take over a year, so you will need to plan for this well ahead of time by gathering all the required documents.
Deciding when to take the test is a highly personal decision. It is a large investment – the exam and application fees are high, and bar preparation and tutoring programs can run thousands of dollars. Many people are not able to work full time (or at all) during bar preparation because of the time investment required. It is never worth scrimping on prep, however, so if you suspect that you might not be prepared for the next sitting, you should strongly consider waiting until you are able to get more practice and fluency. As you decide when to take the bar, be sure to build in plenty of time to strengthen your grammar and writing skills. Of course it is possible to retake the exam, but that can be a tiresome and expensive endeavor.
Each jurisdiction has its own rules about who is allowed to sit for the bar and who is allowed to seek licensure in other ways. Before you start working through the application process, make sure to scrutinize these rules. It would be painful to make headway into all the forms only to realize that a jurisdiction doesn’t allow examinees to take the test without an American JD.
Take a look at the NCBE guide for students with a foreign legal education. This tells you exactly who is eligible to sit for the exams and where, but double check with the jurisdiction where you would like to sit before making final decisions.
Read and write like you are running out of time
Be hungry. Open your nearest casebook. Read the cases that weren’t assigned to you, read law review articles, read legal blogs, follow legal thought leaders on Twitter. Live and eat legal words. Read like your future depends on it, because it does. If you are still in law school, go to office hours and talk to everyone you can. Ask questions about anything you do not understand.
This mandate to read applies to you even if you are fluent in English, but are from a different English speaking country. The nuances and terms of art are different here and your ability to master the kind of legal writing required by the bar depends in part on your ability to master the subtleties of American legal English. Use mnemonics and other tricks to help the new vocabulary and terms of art stick.
Now that you are reading non-stop, it is time for you to write. This is true for every bar examinee. Practicing writing is the only way you will pass. Set a goal for how much you think you will need to write to be ready for the test. Now double that. You will get writing practice in through a commercial bar preparation company, but the feedback you get may not be sufficient to truly prepare you, so plan to seek out feedback from other sources. Do your best to get feedback on as much of your writing as possible. Hire tutors, beg friends in the legal field to read it, join study groups, and take every single practice exam you can get your hands on. No one can master every topic covered on the bar exam, but you increase your odds of passing by writing more.