The legal system in the United States, at the federal level and in almost all 50 states, is based upon the British system of common law. One state, Louisiana, has a system founded upon the French/European civil code.
First Professional Degree
The U.S. first professional degree, the juris doctor (J.D.), provides an education strongly focused on preparation for U.S. practice, with little opportunity for comparative or specialty study. For this reason, and because preparation in U.S. law will not easily transfer toward practice in other countries, the J.D. is usually inappropriate for foreign nationals. Although law schools offer individual courses that emphasize particular subject areas such as environmental law or taxation, there are no J.D. programs concentrating on any single specialty. J.D. degree programs involve three years of study, and are entered following four years of undergraduate study in any major. Competition for admission is intense for both U.S. and international students. Requirements generally include fluency in English, an excellent undergraduate academic record, and a satisfactory score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). (See http://www.lsac.org for LSAT registration information.) To practice in the United States, graduates must also pass the bar examination and other requirements of the state where they wish to work.
Graduate Legal Education
The master of comparative law (M.C.L.), also known as the master of comparative jurisprudence (M.C.J.), is a particularly appropriate degree program for international lawyers. Recognizing that legal systems in many countries differ from common law as practiced in the United States, these programs acquaint lawyers from other countries with U.S. legal institutions and relevant specialties of U.S. law. Another graduate option is the master of laws (L.L.M.), a degree offered in a variety of specialties or as a self-designed program, with appropriateness for the international practitioner varying from program to program. Programs in international law or international business law may also be of interest. Almost all master’s programs in law last one year and admit students only for the fall semester. Programs can be planned according to the interests of the student. During study, international lawyers have the opportunity to observe courts and government agencies in the United States. Entrance requirements include a first degree in law, a strong academic background, letters of reference, a statement of purpose and/or writing samples, and a high level of English proficiency as demonstrated by the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for students whose law degree was not in the English language. Most graduate law programs do not require standardized admissions tests. Doctoral programs in law also exist. They admit only a small number of promising applicants, usually from among those who have completed a master’s program at a U.S. law school and who plan to enter a career as a law school faculty member. Financial assistance may be more readily available to law students intending to continue towards a doctoral degree than to those seeking only a one-year master’s program.
Short-term Legal Education
Many U.S. law schools offer programs, particularly in the summer, either designed for or appropriate for international lawyers. These usually last between one week and two months. Professional associations and private training organizations offer similar programs. Your nearest U.S. educational information or advising center may be able to provide information on other options, such as tours to visit U.S. legal institutions.