New York 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 New York State Board of Law Examiners has the power to license attorneys to practice law in New York and operates under the auspices of the New York State Court of Appeals. Once you receive a license to practice law in New York you will need to renew it every 2 years by registering with the New York State Unified Court System and paying fees ($375).
The New York State Board of Law Examiners ("the Board") administers the New York Bar Exam. This is the set of three exams any lawyer must pass before being eligible to practice law in New York. You must receive the New York State Board of Law Examiners' permission to take the New York Bar Exam.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops two of the tests that make up the New York Bar:
- New York Bar Examination, which contains 5 essay questions, 50 multiple choice questions prepared by the New York Board, and one Multistate Performance Test question, which is developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
- Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE), a multiple-choice exam containing fundamental and federal legal content
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 New York 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 New York Bar so that you can practice law in the state of New York
You have three options to take the New York Bar:
1. Earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree or an LL.M. 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. If you have a foreign equivalent of a JD and prefer to earn an LL.M. (master of laws) degree as the basis for licensing eligibility, you will need to find a year-long LL.M. program at a law school approved by the the New York State Board of Law Examiners. As a permanent resident, refugee or asylee, you may qualify for financial aid grants and loans.
2. Study law through the New York State Bar Law Office Study Program
This program allows New York residents to become attorneys in New York without graduating from law school. You will have to study under a judge or lawyer for four years and you must have one year of academic study at an approved law school before being eligible to take the exam. However, this is not the recommended course of study by the ABA.
3. Be a licensed attorney in a foreign country
Foreign attorney applicants do not have to comply with the requirements above, but you should check with Board to make sure that you have met the prerequisites for admission. Foreign-educated lawyers with at least 3 years of formal education in the common law can take the Bar exam in New York. Attorneys with 2 years of common law training or 3 years of civil law training must complete a 1 year LL.M. program at an ABA accredited institution before taking the Bar.
After completing either option 1, 2, or 3 you will still need to apply for and pass examination and other licensing requirements before you become licensed to practice law in New York.
- There is another license available to foreign-educated lawyers in New York: 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 New York or US law. More information is available on the Board website.
- 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). New York allows admission on motion to applicants who have practiced at least 5 of the last 7 years in one of the 36 states that allows reciprocity to applicants from New York.
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 $81,960.
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 New York. The steps to licensing are as follows:
i. Get approval to take the New York Bar from the First Department’s Committee on Character and Fitness
This process is managed by the First Department’s Committee on Character and Fitness or “the Committee." All attorneys in New York State are admitted to practice through one of the four Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court, based on your address. The First Department covers Manhattan and the Bronx. To pass the Bar, you must pass through an application process administered by the First Department’s Committee on Character and Fitness.
If you have the foreign equivalent of a JD or LL.M. Section 520.6 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law contains information on the eligibility requirements for foreign attorneys applying to sit for the New York State bar examination. Before applying, you should carefully review Sections 520.6 and 520.3 of the Rules of the Court Appeals and must also complete a Request for Evaluation of Foreign Academic Credentials Form, which is on the Board website. You must send the completed form to the Board office along with providing a course breakdown of your post-secondary education by a credential evaluating agency approved by the Board. A detailed list of requirements is specified in the Foreign Legal Education section of the Board website.
The New York State Board of Law Examiners encourages applicants to request an evaluation of their eligibility up to a year in advance of the application filing period for the exam you intend to sit on. It will take eight to ten weeks for the board to make a decision of your eligibility after they have received all necessary documentation. The Committee will consider all of your documentation and will either accept or deny your request to sit for the Bar. When evaluating a foreign education, number of factors are considered, 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 Committee will advise you on whether returning for a JD is your only option.
ii. Apply for and pass the four exams of the New York Bar plus the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination
Once you receive Board approval, you must take and pass the New York Bar and its two exams: the New York Bar exam 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 the board website.
iii. Receive certification and license to practice law in New York
Your scores will be forwarded to the the Board 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 New York State Unified Court System.
The Court awards you a license as a lawyer and swears you in as a member of the New York Bar.
You must then register as a lawyer in New York through the New York State Unified Court System which you can do online. You must renew your registration bi-annually. For more information refer to their website.
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops all of the tests required for New York legal practice with the exception of five New York-specific essay items featured in the New York Bar. The Bar is a two-day examination administered by the New York Board of Admissions to the Bar. It consists of two exams: New York Bar exam 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 New York Bar - Administration
The two-day Bar is offered only twice a year, the last consecutive Tuesday and Wednesday in February and July each year. The examination is given at the same time and day in various testing locations across the state.
- Morning session: From 9:00 A.M. to 12:15 P.M. Contains 3 essays and the 50 multiple choice questions, all New York specific.
- Afternoon session: From 1:45 P.M. to 4:45 P.M. Applicants must complete the remaining 2 essay questions and the MPT.
- Morning and afternoon sessions: Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE) 9:00 AM to 12:00 AM and 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM. 200 question multiple-choice examination covering contracts, torts, constitutional law, criminal law, evidence, and real property.
Registration and fees
Registration and fees cover all parts of the Bar exam. The fee is $250, in addition to a $100 non-refundable technology fee and the filing deadline is:
For the February 28-29, 2012 examination, the Application Filing period was November 1-30, 2011. For the July 24-25, 2012 examination, the Application Filing period was April 1-30, 2012.
To access application forms go to the New York Board. The link to this page is under Important Links.
The New York Board combines the scores from each part of the Bar and gives them different weights:
- Multi-State Bar Examination: 40%
- New York Essays: 40%
- Multi-State Performance Test: 10%
- New York Multiple Choice: 10%
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 New York is 665.
It takes approximately 7 weeks for scores to come out. Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the New York 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. New York was the one state which reported foreign-educated lawyer passage rates separately and in large numbers. It passed only 33% of over 4,400 foreign-educated candidates in 2011. Check Important Links for test preparation resources.
The New York Bar - Exam Content
Multi-State Performance Test (MPT)
In the morning session of Day One, you will complete 3 essay questions and 50 multiple choice questions prepared by the Board. In the afternoon, you will complete the remaining two essays along with the MPT.
Multi-State Performance Test (MPT)
In the afternoon session of Day One, the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) consists of just one 90 minute question. The MPT simulates a real-life legal scenario using multiple information sources: it has a file with a variety of case documents as well as a library of case law. Both sources have some irrelevant and conflicting information. The evaluation will look at your ability to analyze this information, pick out what is important, perform a lawyering task and present the results according to specific instructions.
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 Day Two with a morning and afternoon session.
The 2012 exam content is distributed into six major subjects with the following subdivisions:
Contracts: 34 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: 33 questions
Homicide; other crimes; inchoate crimes - parties; general principles; constitutional protection of accused persons
Torts: 34 questions
Intentional torts; negligence; strict liability; products liability; other torts
Evidence: 33 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: 33 questions
The nature of judicial review; the separation of powers; the relation of nation and states in a federal system; individual rights
Real Property: 33 questions
Ownership; rights in land; contracts; mortgages/security devices; titles
Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination
The state of New York 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 various sites in New York. 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 85 is the minimum passing score for the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in New York.
Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the 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 New York depend on a number of factors, including:
- Acceptance or rejection of your request to sit for the Bar based on your qualifications. If you have to return for a JD it is not uncommon to spend at least $100,000 for an in-state degree.
- 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 New York. 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
Get approval to take the New York Bar from the First Department's Committee on Character and Fitness
Apply for and pass New York Bar and MPRE
Receive certification and license to practice law in New York
|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 a New York 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 New York Bar you will need to register bi-annually to maintain your license by registering with the New York State Unified Court System. As of 2012, the renewal fee is $375. Your registration and payment must be received within 30 days of your birthday. Not paying on time means that you are not authorized to practice law in New York 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.
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.
- New York 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. Visit the Resource Board to see some of these legal associations or to share associations with us that are not currently listed.
Licensing mobility (reciprocity)
Once you have received your license to practice law in New York, 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 others residents. New York has reciprocity with 36 other states for practicing lawyers, but you may still have to meet several conditions, including having a JD from an accredited school.
Common Words used in this article
- 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 New York State Bar Law Office Study Program
The New York State Board of Law Examiners site has many important pages to visit:
- Exam information
- Frequently Asked Questions about being admitted to the New York Bar, including the application process
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has a page for each exam used in the New York 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
- New York State Unified Court System
- Continuing Legal Education through the New York State Unified Court System
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook includes descriptions of several types of careers in the legal field
Invest in test preparation
Provide complete documents
Consider an LLM Program