When I graduated from law school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, in 1972, I never imagined that I would end up practicing law in California and more recently in New York. I never thought that I would immigrate to the United States and continue practicing law in Canada as well. But I did. Nevertheless, today there are thousands of attorneys like me, graduates from law schools all over the world seeking to come to the United States or Canada to practice law. When they arrive, they encounter a difficult marketplace to enter for their services. The question is how to do it successfully.
For graduates of law schools such as Harvard and Yale, entering the marketplace for a job has been less of a problem. For others, entering the legal profession poses a series of challenges: getting accepted to law school, paying tens, or even over a hundred thousand dollars for a legal education only to then have to pass a bar exam. There are 206 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), but not all of them are of a quality like Harvard or Yale. Graduates from those law schools at the lower end of the rankings are not doing so well. This year will see the closing of an ABA law school for the first time in living memory, as Whittier Law School in California closes its doors. Graduates at the lower end of the rankings in any law school, but particularly those on the lower ranks of ABA law schools, are having a hard time of it. Imagine how much harder it must be for those who come from foreign law schools.
There are simply too many lawyers being trained for too few jobs. In the U.S. in 2016, there were 35,749 graduates of American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools, compared to 39,183 in 2015. They managed to secure 23,928 jobs after passing the Bar in 2016, compared to 24,961 in 2015. Because the number of candidates graduating from law school fell far more than the amount of legal jobs available, the employment rate actually improved to 64.5 percent in 2016, compared to 62.4 percent in 2015, but this may be cold comfort for people struggling to find a job and manage a large student debt load.
While the situation is difficult for lawyers trained in their respective jurisdictions, today it is even more difficult for those that study law in a foreign country (even a common law country like the UK or Australia) and then want to set up shop in North America. While the situation isn’t nearly as bad as it is for doctors with foreign degrees (where they are generally forced to repeat nearly their entire professional education to be able to work), it is not good either. For example, no matter what jurisdiction one wants to practice in, one is required to write the bar exam for the state. The statistics for the results of these bar exams are stark. In New York state, for example, students of ABA law schools passed the Bar on their first try 81 percent of the time in 2016. Only 43 percent of foreign educated candidates passed.
The situation in Canada is a little bit better, but it too suffers from an over saturation of law graduates competing for too few places. In the Canadian case, the situation is bad enough that many graduating students in the province of Ontario are forced to choose between the normal route into the profession of articling (ie. legal internship) for a year for free (or almost free), or paying money to spend eight months at Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program, just to be able to be admitted to the Ontario Bar. Foreign lawyers must compete in this milieu as well.
In short, law remains a highly competitive profession, attracting some of the best and smartest people in the world. This was always the case. If I were asked by a young law graduate today how to break into a career in law, I would offer the following advice. Find your unique ability and put it into the service of others. You may find your unique ability in law, or despite your studies and efforts in that direction, discover it is in another field. It does not matter. Law can be a good career, but it may also be a great opening to a career elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with that. What matters is that you must learn what your natural talent is and work hard at it. Do that one thing, really, really well. The law of supply and demand will take care of the rest. This is as true for domestic law graduates as it is for foreigners coming here.
This article is reprinted from an article formerly published in the Forbes.