Q&A: Admission to the California Bar as a foreign attorney or foreign law graduate

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Since being admitted, I’ve received many questions about the admissions process from foreign attorneys and law grads. How long does the process take? Do I need to undertake additional study to qualify? How expensive is it? Can I undertake the process while living abroad? Can I work in California once I am admitted to the bar?

My hope for this post is that it can address these high-level questions that foreign applicants often have, and link to CA bar resources that provide additional information.

Disclaimer: this post is based solely on my experience of the admissions process. I can’t guarantee that anyone else will have the same experience, or that the admissions process, bar policy or costs involved will be the same as discussed here.

Question: What does the California Bar admissions process involve?

Answer: This will depend on your education, your admission status in your home jurisdiction and your home country’s legal system.

If you are a foreign attorney, you will need to undertake the following steps:

  1. Register with the California Bar as an attorney applicant;
  2. Provide evidence of admission and good standing in your home jurisdiction – this involves providing the bar with certificates of admission and good standing from your home jurisdiction. Note that the date on the certificate of good standing must be within 6 months of the submission of your moral character application;
  3. Comply with any California court order for child or family support;
  4. Submit a moral character application, which includes:
    • Submitting a copy of your CA drivers license (if you have one);
    • Submitting driving record(s) for the past 5 years from other states or countries in which you are licensed to drive;
    • Submitting fingerprints via a LiveScan service or two FD-258 cards if outside CA;
    • Providing personal and professional references for the Bar Committee to contact;
  5. Pass the California Bar Exam; and
  6. Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE).

If you are a foreign law graduate but not a foreign attorney, you will need to:

  1. Register as a foreign-educated applicant;
  2. Show that your degree is equivalent to a Juris Doctor degree awarded by an accredited US law school;
  3. Successfully complete a year of law study at an ABA-accredited law school;
  4. Complete steps 3 to 6 above.

Question: Do I need to be a US resident or have a social security number to apply for admission to the California Bar?

Answer: No. You do not need to be a US or CA resident to be admitted to the CA bar. If you do not have a social security number and you are not eligible for you, you will need to submit an exemption during the registration process.

See more information on the CA bar’s admission requirements page.

However, keep in mind that even if you are admitted in California, you may not be able to live in California or be authorized to work in California (discussed below).

Question: What does the admissions process cost?

Answer: Costs will vary based on your admissions status in your home jurisdiction and the amount you spend on study. If you are recognized as a foreign attorney by the CA bar, you can expect to pay a minimum of around $2,100, plus an additional $6,000 to $8,000 for a study program. If you are recognized to be a foreign law graduate, you will also need to undertake an additional legal study before admission, which can cost between $12,000 and $70,000.

Foreign attorneys can expect to incur the following expenses:

  • Registration: approx. $119
  • Documentation from your home jurisdiction showing admission and good standing: varies, generally upwards of $100
  • Multistate professional responsibility exam (MPRE): approx. $135 (late fees may apply)
  • Moral character application: approx. $551
  • Live fingerprint scanning: Varies (often between $70 and $80)
  • California bar exam – registration: approx. $983 (foreign attorney rate, late fees may apply)
  • California bar exam – laptop fee: approx. $153 (late fees may apply)
  • California bar exam – preparation courses and/or tutors: Varies (often between $6,000 and $8,000 for resources tailored to foreign applicants)

More information is available at the CA bar’s page on fees.

Foreign law graduates can expect the incur the same expenses as above, as well as the cost of completing additional legal studies, which can amount to between $12,000 and $70,000.

Question: How long does it take to get admitted?

Answer: The admissions process takes a minimum of 1 year, but often takes longer. To minimize wait times, start studying for the bar exam ASAP. Also be sure to register for the MPRE prior to taking the bar exam, so you can take the MPRE in the weeks following the bar exam.

Here are some time estimates for each step:

  • Registration with the CA bar: varies, can take several weeks;
  • Providing proof of foreign admission: varies, depending on how long your home jurisdiction takes to process and send the required certificates. This can take upwards of 1 month;
  • Completing the moral character application: several weeks;
  • Moral character application processing: 6-8 months;
  • Studying for the CA bar exam: a minimum of 6 months full-time and 1 year part-time;
  • Waiting for CA bar results: 3-4 months;
  • Studying for the MPRE: approximately 1 month;
  • Waiting for MPRE results: approximately 5 weeks;
  • Waiting for admissions packet: several weeks; and
  • Waiting for a bar number: several weeks.

If you are a foreign law graduate and need to complete additional legal studies, this will add about 1 year to the admissions process.

Question: Can I undertake the admissions process from overseas?

Answer: Currently, it appears that you may undertake majority of admissions process from overseas, except for the MPRE.

Re fingerprinting: It appears that you can fulfil the fingerprinting requirements by completing two FD-258 cards. You can download these cards from the FBI’s website and print them on standard white paper stock. The fingerprint impressions can be obtained from local police stations.

Re MPRE: It appears that applicants need to take the upcoming MPRE (November 2021) from inside the US. Previously, the NCBE has allowed MPRE testing outside the US, but it has since ceased offering this option. I recommend contacting the NCBE to confirm if foreign test-taking is possible before you apply for an upcoming MPRE.

Re attorney’s oath: Applicants do not need to be in the US to take the attorney’s oath. You can take an affidavit before an ambassador, minister, consul, vice-consul, or consular agent of the United States or before any judge of a court of record having a seal in such foreign country. (Code Civ. Proc. § 2014.)  For more information, see here and here.

Re mailing address: It is unclear whether you are required to have a US mailing address for California Bar correspondence and/or your attorney profile once admitted. Be sure to contact the CA bar to check if this is a requirement.

Question: How long does it take to study for the California Bar Exam?

Answer: Studying for 6 months full-time, or 10-12 months part-time, will set you up for success.

It is generally recommended that foreign students take a significant amount of time to study for the California Bar Exam, especially if they are not familiar with the foundations of US law.

Read more about preparing for the California Bar Exam here.

Question: Can I take the California Bar Exam from overseas?

Answer: It appears that you may take the upcoming California Bar Exam from overseas, as the exam will be administered primarily online.

Note that you will need to take the exam at the same time as applicants in California, that is, according to the exam schedule in Pacific Standard/Daylight time. This may mean taking the exam at an unusual hour. Keep this in mind when preparing for and simulating the exam.

Question: Can I work as an attorney in California once I am admitted?

Answer: Being admitted as an attorney in California does not grant you the right to work in California or the US.

If you already live in the California and are authorized to work, you are in the best position for landing a legal role in the state.

If you live overseas, are not a US resident and are not authorized to work in the US, you will likely face additional obstacles. My experience while job searching was that most employers were only interested in hiring local applicants. Employers were also hesitant to sponsor applicants for visas, and they preferred applicants who could show proof of work authorization.

That said, landing an attorney role in California while living overseas isn’t impossible. Larger employers are more willing to sponsor employees for a work visa, especially if they come from a certain country or have a particular background or skillset.

If you’re based overseas, you could also consider working for a transnational law firm with an office in your home country. Working at a transnational law firm may enable you to transfer roles internally and relocate to an office in the US. Transnational law firms will be much more likely to sponsor an employer for a work visa. I personally know several people who have taken this route, so it is doable.

Question: What is the best way to contact the California Bar?

Answer: Email admissions@calbar.ca.gov. Be sure to check out the website first, in case your query has already been addressed there. If you already have an applicant number, be sure to list that in your email.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions and I’ll try to answer them.

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