Oct. 3, 2012 – Wisconsin will join four other states that allow graduates of foreign law schools to take the state’s bar exam upon completion of a LL.M. degree from a U.S. law school.
At its open administrative conference Sept. 18, the Wisconsin Supreme Court unanimously adopted amended petition 11-08,1 submitted by the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners (BBE). The court will set an effective date after addressing administrative and other details.
The new rule allows graduates of foreign law schools to take the Wisconsin bar exam if they’ve acquired three years of practice experience in an English common law jurisdiction, or if the applicant earns a degree from a U.S.-based LL.M. program that meets certain requirements.
Only four other states – Alabama, California, New Hampshire, and New York – have a rule that lets graduates of foreign law schools take the bar exam based on the LL.M. degree only.2
BBE Director Jacquelynn Rothstein says the rule is intended to guide BBE decision making and create certainty for applicants wishing to sit for Wisconsin’s bar exam.
“With this rule, we have set consistent standards for bar exam applicants from foreign law schools and graduates who attend LL.M. programs in the U.S.,” said Rothstein, who told supreme court justices in May that the rule addresses increased globalization in law practice.
The new rule will replace a provisional rule, in place since 2009, which allowed the BBE to consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether a graduate from a foreign law school was qualified by education and experience to sit for the Wisconsin bar exam.
Rule Opens the Door for Graduates of Foreign Law Schools Who Get a LL.M. Degree
Bar exam applicants may include foreign students who complete qualifying LL.M programs in the U.S., but most will return overseas for jobs in areas such as international business, according to John Ohnesorge, director of U.W. Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center.
Ohnesorge, who practiced law in Seoul, Korea, in the 1990s and obtained both LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees from Harvard, says there’s an enormous foreign demand for lawyers educated in American law.
“As a foreign lawyer, if you want to do international business transactions, having an American bar admission is an important credential,” said Ohnesorge. “And I think Wisconsin would benefit from having a network of people around the world who are Wisconsin bar members.”
U.W. Law School has a one-year LL.M program specifically designed for graduates of foreign law schools. An average of 20-30 students have entered the program in past years, but that number jumped to about 60 students last year. Many graduates go on to take the New York bar exam.
New York (and Wisconsin soon) is among the handful of states that grant bar exam eligibility to foreign applicants who complete a LL.M. degree in the U.S. At least 30 states let graduates of foreign law schools take the state’s bar exam, but not based on the LL.M. degree alone.3
For instance, Illinois requires graduates of foreign law schools to have practice experience in the foreign jurisdiction. Missouri requires admission in another U.S. jurisdiction first.
Wisconsin’s rule allows applicants who graduated from foreign law schools to sit for the Wisconsin bar exam, without any prior law practice experience, if they obtain a LL.M degree from an ABA-accredited law school and the program meets specific requirements.
The LL.M. candidate’s foreign law school need not be located in an English common law jurisdiction, but the foreign law school must be recognized by an accredited agency there.
LL.M. Program Requirements
The LL.M. program must consist of a minimum of 24 semester classroom hours in substantive and procedural law and professional skills, meaning an applicant could not qualify by earning a LL.M. degree online through a program now offered by at least one law school.
The LL.M. program must also:
- Require a minimum of 700 minutes (11.6 hours) of instruction time for one semester hour of credit;
- Include a period of instruction not less than two semesters of at least 13 calendar weeks each (or equivalent), excluding reading periods and exam time, and a maximum of six credit hours can be completed in the summer;
- Be completed within 24 months of matriculation; and
- Be completed on a U.S. campus, unless otherwise waived.
LL.M. applicants must take a minimum of two credit hours each in ethics, legal research and writing, and American legal studies (including constitutional law or civil procedure).
Applicants on the LL.M. track must also take a minimum of six semester hours in subjects listed under SCR 40.03(2)(a) or (b), which include fundamental substantive courses.
A maximum of four semester hours can include clinical courses, so long as the clinical includes a classroom component, direct supervision, and sufficient time and effort is required to substantiate the credit awarded. A maximum of six credits can be taken outside the law school.
U.W. Law School’s LL.M. program meets the requirements of the rule, meaning successful graduates will be able to sit for the state’s bar exam when the rule takes effect. But Ohnesorge does not expect a big rush of new bar exam applicants based on the new rule.
“We don’t think it will be a huge number,” said Ohnesorge. “Not all of them will take the bar, and some of them may continue to take the New York bar.”
Addressing the issue of increased competition from foreign lawyers who gain admission to practice law in Wisconsin, Ohnesorge says the vast majority don’t stay.
In addition, pass rates for foreign LL.M. students are generally lower than American test-takers with J.D. degrees, and admission to a bar does not change one’s immigration status.
Rule Opens Door for Graduates of Foreign Law Schools Without an LL.M.
Like at least 30 other states, Wisconsin’s rule also allows graduates of foreign law schools to take the state’s bar exam, without an LL.M. degree, by meeting certain requirements.
Under the new rule, an applicant may take the Wisconsin bar exam if the applicant has a “first professional degree in law from a jurisdiction whose jurisprudence is based on the principles of English common law” and the law school was recognized by a competent accrediting agency.
According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the jurisprudence of approximately 80 countries is based on English common law. But civil law is the most widespread legal system, applied in approximately 150 countries, including China and several European countries.4
The applicant must also have been substantially engaged in the practice of law for at least three of the last 10 years in a common law jurisdiction, meaning graduates of foreign law schools can’t simply take the Wisconsin bar exam upon graduating from the foreign law school.
The new rule replaces a provisional rule that let BBE decide whether bar exam applicants were qualified to take the bar exam by “waiving” certain requirements. The provisional rule, implemented in 2009 at the request of then-BBE director John Kosobucki, was a departure from a previous BBE and Wisconsin Supreme Court stance against such waivers.5
Since the 2009 provisional rule took effect, 11 graduates of foreign law schools have gained admission through the provisional rule as of May 2012, including graduates of foreign law schools in England, Israel, Mexico, Ireland, and New Zealand.
Rory O’Sullivan, a native of Ireland, obtained a law degree from Trinity College in Dublin. To practice law in Ireland, an individual must obtain the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in law and complete a one-year apprenticeship under the guidance of experienced attorneys.
O’Sullivan practiced corporate law for several years at one of Ireland’s largest law firms. But he and his wife, a native of Wisconsin who met O’Sullivan abroad, hoped to move to Wisconsin.
“I was thinking we might have to move to New York and eventually I could get Wisconsin admission on reciprocity, which is something we didn’t necessarily want to do,” O’Sullivan said. “Then I saw Wisconsin’s provisional rule. It had a huge impact on our life plans.”
But the case-by-case nature of the provisional rule still left O’Sullivan wondering whether he would qualify. Fortunately for him, the BBE approved his application. He passed the bar exam in February, gained admission in May, and now runs a solo practice in Spring Lake.
“I think the new rule will give future applicants clear guidance on whether they qualify,” he said. “It will give applicants certainty before expending the time and resources to apply.”
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
1 With minor changes.
2 National Conference of Bar Examiners, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, Chart 4: Eligibility to Take the Bar Examination: Foreign Law School Graduates (2012).
4 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook, Field Listing: Legal System, at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2100.html (last visited Sept. 26, 2012).
5 See Altshuler v. Board of Bar Examiners, 171 Wis. 2d 1, 490 N.W.2d 1 (Wis. 1992) (the court upheld the BBE’s decision to deny a bar exam applicant who earned a law degree in Israel because the school was not ABA-approved).