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BLE holds hearing on admission of foreign-trained lawyers

By Emily Eschweiler


0420-Peak-in-box-650On February 5, 2020, the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners conducted a public hearing to discuss the issue of admitting lawyers with foreign legal education. In advance of this meeting, the board received and reviewed 15 written comments submitted by individuals in response to the board’s request for input on this issue.1

John Koneck, the chair of the Rules and Professional Conduct Committee, and Doug Peterson, the board president, commenced the meeting by thanking the parties who had submitted comments and confirming that the board is genuinely interested in this issue and mindful both that the world is increasingly connected and that applicants from other countries have the potential to increase the diversity of the bar. Over the course of the two-hour conversation that followed, the board heard from individuals who had asked to present, as well as other attendees. Many of these individuals described their reasons for selecting Minnesota law schools for their LL.M. programs and their desire to be admitted in Minnesota. Presenters also noted the ways that a diverse and robust legal profession will benefit clients throughout Minnesota and positively impact Minnesota’s position in the global market. The comments from presenters reinforced the reasons the board is committed to studying this complex issue and the interest the board has in exploring a pathway for well-qualified foreign educated applicants to pursue admission.

By way of background, in 2010, the board filed with the Supreme Court a comprehensive report studying the issue of non-ABA legal education, including foreign education.2 The Court requested the report in response to a petition filed in 2009 by four Minnesota lawyers who sought a pathway for admission without an ABA degree. The board noted in the report that the issue of foreign education is complex. The complexities of evaluating foreign education include:

  1. Differences in the basis for the legal education, including common law, civil law, religious law, customary law, or a mixture of legal systems.
  2. Undergraduate versus graduate studies for law and the curriculum of the foreign law school
  3. Differences in whether an examination is required to practice in the foreign jurisdiction and whether an applicant is required to be licensed to practice.

Notably, there is significant variance in how other U.S. jurisdictions approach the issue.3 

In August 2011, following submission of the board’s comprehensive report, the Court amended Rule 4A(3) to include a provision for graduates of non-ABA-accredited U.S. law schools to sit for the Minnesota bar examination if they have practiced for five of the last seven years in another U.S. jurisdiction. The Court did not expand the rule to permit foreign educated graduates to sit for the bar examination at that time. The board advised the Court that it would continue to review the issue. Over the past eight years, the board has received a handful of inquiries from foreign-educated lawyers interested in licensure in Minnesota. The board has also met with foreign-educated lawyers interested in having the board review this issue further and make additional recommendations to the Court. 

At the public hearing, some speakers advocated for an LL.M. degree from an ABA-approved law school in the U.S. in order to sit for the bar exam. A number of states impose this additional requirement on foreign-educated lawyers. The committee asked presenters for additional input on how such a rule could be structured. At present, only JD degree programs, not LL.M. degree programs, are accredited by the ABA.4
There is no uniformity among ABA-approved law schools concerning what combination of courses is required to achieve an LL.M. degree and many LL.M. programs are focused on a specific subject matter, such as compliance, federal taxation, or criminal law. There is currently no nationally recognized standard for an LL.M. or other educational program that would offer training on the basics of U.S. law or the U.S. legal system. There is also no international accreditation agency or any other recognized standard that is comparable. 

A number of compelling circumstances work together to present the board with another opportunity to study this issue: access to justice concerns; the changing global marketplace for legal services; an ever-increasing diversity in the legal profession as more doors are open and our world becomes more mobile; and the continued interest of the legal community in this issue.

Specifically, the board is considering the following:

  • whether licensure in another U.S. jurisdiction should be required (as is required by 10 U.S. jurisdictions);
  • whether to require licensure in the foreign country in which the lawyer obtained their law degree (as is required by 16 U.S. jurisdictions);
  • whether an educational equivalency determination should be made (as is required by 18 U.S. jurisdictions), and if so, how to accomplish that; and
  • what impact, if any, an LL.M. should have on the determination, since there is no body that accredits LL.M. degrees (five U.S. jurisdictions consider completion of an LL.M program sufficient to permit applicants to sit for the examination without meeting additional requirements).

As next steps, the committee will bring the discussion back to the full board for further action. Individuals interested in this issue may follow the board’s activities on the Board of Law Examiners’ website (www.ble.state.mn.us). Individuals interested in providing additional input on this issue are welcome to submit written comments to the Board of Law Examiners, Attn: Douglas Peterson, Board Chair, 180 E. 5th Street, Suite 950, MN 55101 or emailed to ble@mbcle.state.mn.us


EMILY ESCHWEILER is the director of the Minnesota Board of Law Examiners, Board of Continuing Legal Education, the Board of Legal Certification, and the Office of Lawyer Registration. Eschweiler earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School.


Notes

1 https://www.ble.mn.gov/minnesota-board-of-law-examiners-seeks-comments-related-to-foreign-legal-education/ 

2 https://www.ble.mn.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Report-BLE-Report-and-Recommendation-Legal-Education-Standard-for-Admission-to-the-Minnesota-Bar-1.pdf 

3 Additional information on requirements in other jurisdictions may be found in the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements – 2019 at http://www.ncbex.org/assets/BarAdmissionGuide/NCBE-CompGuide-2019.pdf 

4 Standard 313 of the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2019-2020 states that the program cannot interfere with the ability of the law school to “operate in compliance with the Standards and to carry out its program of legal education.” Interpretation 313-1 states, “Acquiescence in a degree program other than the J.D. degree is not an approval of the program itself and, therefore, a school may not announce that the program is approved by the Council.” https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2019-2020/2019-2020-aba-standards-chapter3.pdf