Illinois Lawyer Professional Licensing Guide
Attorneys and the practice of the legal profession are regulated at the state level and generally not by the federal government. The Illinois Supreme Court's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) has the power to license attorneys to practice law in Illinois and to carry out disciplinary action against them. Once you receive a license to practice law in Illinois you will need to renew it every year by registering with ARDC and paying fees.
The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar ("the Board") administers the Illinois Bar Exam. This is the set of four exams any lawyer must pass before being eligible to practice law in Illinois. You must receive the Illinois Board of Admissions' permission to take the Illinois Bar Exam.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops three of the tests that make up the Illinois Bar (the Bar also includes a fourth exam with Illinois-specific essay questions):
- Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE), a multiple-choice exam containing fundamental and federal legal content
- Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE), an essay exam with content similar to the MBE
- Multi-State Performance Test (MPT), a written exam simulating a real-life legal scenario
NCBE develops one more exam required for licensure and administers it directly in a separate testing session. This exam is usually taken by law school students before graduation, but you can sit for it after receiving special approval:
- Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), a professional conduct exam
The American Bar Association (ABA) is another important organization that influences the practice of law in Illinois and nationally. It is a professional association which accredits U.S. law schools and provides continuing legal education, among other activities.
Licensing options for foreign-educated attorneys
This guide assumes that you:
- Are a graduate of a foreign law school or degree program
- Already have professional experience as a lawyer in your country of origin
- Do not already have a license to practice law in any U.S. jurisdiction
- Wish to pass the Illinois Bar so that you can practice law in the state of Illinois
You have two options to take the Illinois Bar:
1. Earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA):
The JD is the basic three-year degree that students in the US earn after completing a minimum of a Bachelor's degree. A few law schools have accelerated JD programs that can allow foreign degree holders to receive partial credit and complete a JD in two years of full-time study. Earning a JD is usually very expensive and can easily reach $100,000 for 3 years, not including living expenses. As a permanent resident, refugee or asylee, you may qualify for financial aid grants and loans
2. Qualify under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 715 on the Admission of Graduates of Foreign Law Schools:
This topic will look closely at this possibility, although in reality very few foreign-educated lawyers are able to meet all requirements set out by the Board
After completing either option 1 or 2, you will still need to apply for and pass examination and other licensing requirements before you will become licensed to practice law in Illinois.
- There is another license available to foreign-educated lawyers in Illinois: the Foreign Legal Consultant. It is a very restricted license to "render legal services and give professional advice within the State only on the law of the foreign country where the foreign legal consultant is admitted to practice." It does not allow you to interpret or practice any Illinois or US law. More information is available on the Board website and in Supreme Court Rules 712 and 713
- There are many differences in legal requirements for Bar examination and law practice from state to state. You may want to research if other states consider foreign law degrees sufficient to sit for their Bar, or if a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from an ABA-approved school without a JD can make you eligible. New York, Alabama, California, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia all allow some form of foreign degree recognition. You will need to do your own research to see if you qualify under their processes; also, if earning a license in these states can be the basis for applying to practice law in other states (this is not always allowed)
Job competition in the legal field can be very high, and lawyers also often work long hours. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 37% of full time lawyers work 50 hours a week or more. This is especially true for traditional large law firms where Associates may work very long hours for several years in pursuit of being named partner, part-owner of a firm.
Most attorneys are employed in legal services, in business, or in government. In 2011, average salaries for these sectors are as follows: Management of companies and enterprises, $161,570; legal services, $137,170; federal government, $129,430; local government, $93,070; state government $815,960.
Nationally, 27% percent of lawyers are self-employed in their legal practice (this includes partners of corporate law firms). It is common for trained lawyers to work in other fields as well, such as adjunct or other teaching jobs or politics, not necessarily practicing law. Additionally, keep in mind that some firms hire attorneys with foreign language skills on a temporary basis.
Normal job growth is expected in law, with the following areas generating an increase in demand: health care, intellectual property, venture capital, energy, elder law, antitrust, and environmental law.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is another trend that is expected to grow over time and influence the legal profession. Lawyers and others trained in ADR use mediation and arbitration instead of lawsuits to settle conflicts that might otherwise go to court. The process is used increasingly in divorce and other proceedings that may need a lawyer but can be resolved more efficiently, cheaply, and amicably through ADR.
This section will look at the steps that a foreign-educated lawyer needs to take to become licensed to practice law in Illinois. Remember that Illinois law requires you to return to school for a US JD unless you qualify for the 715 exception, as outlined below.
The steps to licensing are as follows:
I. Receive authorization to sit for the Illinois Bar through Supreme Court Rule 715 on the Admission of Graduates of Foreign Law Schools
This process is managed by the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar. If you have a degree from a foreign law school, Illinois Supreme Court Rules on Admission and Discipline of Attorneys Rule 715 explains a process for requesting permission to take the Illinois bar exam. It is a three-step process.
If you meet the following requirements, submit form Preliminary Questionnaire (PQ) for Rule 715 on the website of the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar:
- Licensure: you must have been licensed to practice law in the foreign country where you received your degree for at least 5 years
- Standing: you must be in good standing (fully eligible; in full compliance) as an attorney, counselor of law, or an equivalent in the country where you were admitted to practice
- Practice: For at least 5 of the 7 years before you apply to sit for the bar, you must have worked at least 500 hours per year in your country of licensure
If your PQ is provisionally approved (i.e. based on your answers so far, if it looks like you qualify), then you can complete an actual request for permission to sit for the Illinois bar exam. This will be a set of paper forms and electronic links to other forms especially for people applying under Rule 715.
You will have to provide details about your education and experience and also include payment for your Bar exam application.
This step includes having your foreign degree evaluated. The package you receive from the Board will include details on accepted credentialing organizations as well as translation guidelines if your education and degree was given in a language other than English.
The Board will consider all of your documentation and will either accept or deny your request to sit for the Bar. When evaluating a foreign education, the Board of Admission considers a number of factors, including jurisprudence of your country, the curriculum and coursework you completed, the accreditation of your law school, and other legal education or practice issues. The Board will advise you on whether returning for a JD is your only option.
II. Apply for and pass the four exams of the Illinois Bar plus the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination
Once you receive Board approval, you must take and pass the Illinois Bar and its four exams: the Illinois essay exam, Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE), Multi-State Performance Test (MPT), and the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE). In addition you must pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). All of these exams are discussed in more detail in the section Tests.
III. Receive certification and license to practice law in Illinois
Your scores will be forwarded to the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar if you selected this option when registering for your exams. If you forgot to do this, you can pay a fee to have the scores forwarded to the Board.
Once the Board receives your passing scores, it certifies these scores and your case to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court awards you a license as a lawyer and swears you in as a member of the Illinois Bar.
You must then register as a lawyer in Illinois through the Supreme Court's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC), which you can do online. You must renew your registration annually. For more information refer to the section Beyond Licensing.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops all of the tests required for Illinois legal practice with the exception of three Illinois-specific essay items featured in the Illinois Bar. The Bar is a two-day examination administered by the Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar. It consists of four exams: Illinois essays; the Multi-State Performance Test (MPT); the Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE); and the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE).
In addition to the Bar you must also pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This is a professional conduct and ethics exam that most law students take while still in their JD program. It is offered separate from the Bar and with greater frequency.
The Illinois Bar - Administration
The two-day Bar is offered only twice a year, the last consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday in February and July each year. It is only offered in Chicago, Illinois.
- Morning session: Illinois essay questions and Multi-State Performance Test (MPT)
- Afternoon session: Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE)
- Morning and afternoon sessions: Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE)
Registration and fees
Registration and fees cover all parts of the Bar exam. Filing deadlines and fees are:
For the July 2012 exam:
- Regular Registration: February 15 and $850 ($400 if retaking)
- Late Registration: April 1 and $1,050 ($600 if retaking)
- Last Registration: May 31 and $1,450 ($1,000 if retaking)
For the February 2012 exam:
- Regular Registration: September 1 and $850 ($400 if retaking)
- Late Registration: November 1 and $1,050 ($600 if retaking)
- Last Registration: December 31 and $1,450 ($1,000 if retaking)
To access application forms on the Illinois Board site you must first agree that you have read all website instructions regarding the Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE). The link to this page is under Important Links.
The Illinois Board combines the scores from each part of the Bar and gives them different weights:
- Multi-State Bar Examination: 50%
- Multi-State Essay Examination + Illinois essays: 43%
- Multi-State Performance Test: 7%
Actual test scores are compared against earlier tests and "scaled" to adjust your score based on whether the exam was easier or more difficult than earlier versions. Only your scaled score will determine if you pass the Bar. The minimum scaled score accepted in Illinois is 140.
It takes approximately 2 months for scores to come out. Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the Illinois Board or you will have to order extra reports.
A note on test preparation:
The Bar exam is very difficult. US law students often dedicate months to full-time test preparation. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has Information Booklets for each of its tests with extensive lists of content areas and practice questions. NCBE also offers an online practice test, available for purchase through its online store. However, you may also want to seriously consider paying for a Bar exam preparation class for additional and structured study. While 89% of first-time candidates passed the Illinois Bar in 2011, this does not reflect the experience of most foreign-educated lawyers. The one state which reported foreign-educated lawyer passage rates separately and in large numbers was New York. It passed only 33% of over 4,400 foreign-educated candidates in 2011. Since it shares the MBE, MPT, and MPRE with Illinois this can serve as one predictor of performance and should highlight the need for intense preparation. Check Important Links for test preparation resources.
The Illinois Bar - Exam Content
This part of the bar consists of three 30-minute essays based on principles and practice of Illinois law given in the morning session of Day One.
MULTI-STATE PERFORMANCE TEST (MPT)
Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE)
The afternoon of Day One offers nine 30-minute Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) questions. Its legal topics are similar to those of the Multi-State Bar Exam, but the MEE specifically evaluates the written skills of candidates.
Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE)
The MBE is a six-hour long exam that consists of 200 multiple-choice questions (only 190 are scored). The exam is taken in one day with a morning and afternoon session.
The 2012 exam content is distributed into six major subjects with the following subdivisions:
Contracts: 33 questions
Formation of contracts; consideration; third-party beneficiary contracts; assignment of rights and delegation of duties; statutes of frauds; parole evidence and interpretation; conditions; remedies; impossibility of performance and frustration of purpose; discharge of contractual duties
Criminal Law and Procedure: 31 questions
Homicide; other crimes; inchoate crimes - parties; general principles; constitutional protection of accused persons
Torts: 33 questions
Intentional torts; negligence; strict liability; products liability; other torts
Evidence: 31 questions
Presentation of evidence; relevancy and reasons for excluding relevant evidence; privileges and other policy exclusions; writings, recordings, and photographs; hearsay and circumstances of its admissibility
Constitutional Law: 31 questions
The nature of judicial review; the separation of powers; the relation of nation and states in a federal system; individual rights
Real Property: 31 questions
Ownership; rights in land; contracts; mortgages/security devices; titles
Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination
The state of Illinois requires applicants to take the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in addition to the regular bar examination. The MPRE is an ethics exam that tests the candidate on established standards for a lawyer's professional conduct.
The MPRE is an exam that lasts just over two hours. It contains 60 multiple choice questions (only 50 are scored). These are spread over the following 12 content areas as described in the 2012 MPRE information booklet:
- Regulation of the Legal Profession (6-12%)
- The Client-Lawyer Relationship (10-16%)
- Client Confidentiality (6-12%)
- Conflicts of Interest (12-18%)
- Competence, Legal Malpractice and Other Civil Liability (6-12%)
- Litigation and Other Forms of Advocacy (10-16%)
- Transactions and Communications with Persons Other than Clients (2-8%)
- Different Roles of the Lawyer (4-10%)
- Safekeeping Funds and Other Property (2-8%)
- Communications About Legal Services (4-10%)
- Lawyers' Duties to the Public and the Legal System (2-4%)
- Judicial Conduct (2-8%)
Registration and fees
You can register online directly with National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).
The Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is offered in March, August and November of each year at 10 sites in Illinois. It is available in more places than the Bar because law school students are allowed to take the exam before graduation.
The regular filing deadline is about five weeks before the exam and costs $70; late registration is open for approximately two weeks more and costs $140. Payment should be made to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
A scaled score of 80 is the minimum passing score for the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in Illinois.
Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the Illinois Board. One copy will be sent to you and one to the Board; you will have to pay extra to have reports sent to other jurisdictions.
Test preparation: the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has an online practice test available on its website which costs $35 for one year of access.
The time and costs involved in becoming licensed as a lawyer in Illinois depend on a number of factors, including:
- Acceptance or rejection of your request to sit for the Bar based on Rule 715. If you have to return for a JD degree it is not uncommon to spend at least $100,000 for an in-state JD
- The completeness of your educational and professional records (the more documentation, the better)
- Your performance on both the Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE) and Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
- Your free time and expendable income, and whether or not you choose to pay for a test preparation course or materials
We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become lawyers in Illinois. These scenarios assume that you are able to take the Bar Exam based on Rule 715. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Your experience will vary.
|Step||More Efficient Scenario|
Approximate Time and Cost
|Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
Qualify for Rule 715
Apply for and pass Illinois Bar and MPRE
Receive certification and license to practice law in Illinois
|More Efficient Total
About $1,450 and 1 1/2 years
|Less Efficient Total
About $3,000 and 2 years
Other careers related to law
Considering the high costs of a legal education, some foreign-educated lawyers choose to work in the legal field without becoming an Illinois lawyer. You will be able to utilize the skills you gained practicing law in your home country, and your foreign experience as a lawyer may give you a competitive advantage when looking for a job. You can read more about some of these positions in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, available online.
- Legal Secretary/ Assistant
- Legal Work at a Legal Related Non-Profit
- Law Related Work at a Business
- Interpreter for Courts
- Law Clerks
- Claim Adjusters
Paralegals work in many different types of organizations, but they are most commonly found in law firms. Their main task is to assist lawyers in preparation for court; however, they perform a number of other functions, such as drafting contracts and mortgages and maintaining financial records.
There are two common ways of becoming a paralegal. The first is to earn an associate degree from a community college in paralegal studies. These programs usually last two years. The second method is to earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Certification takes varying amounts of time to complete; some can be completed in less than a year.
Some people are hired as paralegals without any sort of certification, and simply receive on-the-job training. If you can demonstrate that you have practiced law in your home country, have good knowledge of legal issues, and maintain excellent writing and research skills, then you should be a good candidate for a paralegal position.
The work of a legal assistant is similar to that of a paralegal, except that it often involves more administrative work than substantive work. A legal secretary is more than simply a typist. A legal secretary may be asked to compile complex documents or complete court filings. The experience required to become a legal secretary is similar to that of paralegal.
Although most employers do not require certification for a position as paralegal or legal assistant, having a certificate makes you look more attractive in the labor market. Apart from schools and universities, associations offer paths to certification. For example, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established a set of standards, and if you pass their test you can use Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) credential. The American Alliance of Paralegals and the National Federation of Paralegal Associates both offer their own verification.
Once you have been accepted to the Illinois Bar you will need to register annually to maintain your license. In November of every year you should receive notice to register for the coming year. Your registration and payment must be received before the first of January every year. As of 2012, the registration fee is $105 for the first three years after passing the Illinois Bar (and for registrants aged 75 or older); the fee is $289 after three years. Not paying on time means that you are not authorized to practice law until you are re-registered and pay fines.
Registration includes reporting other information such as:
- Malpractice insurance
- Pro bono services offered
- Trust accounts (holding of assets of clients or others involved in a legal case)
You can register online or by mail.
Continuing Legal Education:
You will also need to have Continuing Legal Education (CLE). The hours vary from between 20 and 30 hours per two-year period and depend on how long it has been since you were accepted to the Bar. Other requirements apply; the Illinois State Bar Association helps you by offering an online learning portal called FastCLE.
Joining a professional association
State and national associations are resources for working lawyers, paralegal, and legal secretaries and provide opportunities for professional development and networking with others in your field. Many of them offer different types of certification, but they do not help with the job search. They also provide Continuing Education to their members.
- Illinois State Bar Association
- American Bar Association
Beyond these two associations spanning general legal practice, there are a large variety of professional associations for lawyers that emphasize areas of practice, workplace type, ethnicity, gender, or religion.
Licensing mobility (reciprocity)
Once you have received your license to practice law in Illinois, you may find that your career brings you opportunities to work in other states. At this point you will need to learn more about reciprocity. Reciprocity is when two or more states agree to accept the credentials or license of each other's residents. Illinois has reciprocity with 30 other states for practicing lawyers, but you may still have to meet several conditions, including having a JD from an accredited law school. If you were licensed through Rule 715 you will need to research states individually to learn if you will be eligible for reciprocity.
Common Words used in this article
- The Illinois Supreme Court Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) registers Illinois attorneys annually
- Supreme Court Rules affecting foreign-educated lawyers, including Rule 715 on Admission of Graduates of Foreign Law Schools and Rule 712 and 713 for Foreign Legal Consultants
- The National Conference of Board Examiners' 2012 Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements has many useful comparisons of regulation of attorneys across states, especially requirements to sit for the Bar exam and licensing mobility. They also provide charts that show which states allow a foreign law degree; which do not require a JD; which allow out-of-state residents to test, etc.
The Illinois Board of Admissions to the Bar site has many important pages to visit:
- Exam information
- Frequently Asked Questions about being admitted to the Illinois Bar, including the application process
The National Conference of Bar Examiners(NCBE) has a page for each exam used in the Illinois Bar and in licensure which includes Information Booklets with content outlines and practice questions:
- The Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE)
- The Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
- The Multi-State Essay Exam (MEE)
- The Multi-State Performance Test (MPT)
- The NCBE also offers practice exams in its online store
- Illinois Supreme Court
- ABA-accredited law schools in Illinois (scroll down to the bottom of the page)
- Continuing Legal Education through the Illinois State Bar Association
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook includes descriptions of several types of careers in the legal field
Invest in test preparation
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the Bar exam and consider investing early in test preparation: the money you spend here might save you from paying for a retake. Also, get your applications in early: the late fees are very high and completely avoidable
Get a thorough degree evaluation
World Education Services is one of the foreign degree evaluation services accepted by the Board if you request permission to take the Bar based on Rule 715. It is a recommended as a nonprofit service with a reputation for thorough evaluations
Provide complete documents
All documents you submit either on paper or online are official: take your time to fill them out carefully. If you accidentally or purposefully put incorrect information on these documents it can create unnecessary complications and maybe even rejection of your applications. You should make copies of all documents that you submit
Consider an LLM Program
A LLM degree without a JD will not qualify you to sit for the Illinois Bar. It may, however, allow you to do so in another state, particularly New York. A LLM program may be only one year and cost significantly less than a JD degree
Compare State regulations
If you are flexible in where you live and practice law, you may want to carefully study the National Conference of Bar Examiners' Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (see Important Links). It has side-by-side comparisons of state regulations for Bar passage across the US, including standards of acceptance of foreign legal degrees