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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

March 13, 2017

Are lawyers with foreign law degrees at a competitive disadvantage in the U.S. job market?

Julie Q. Brush

Reader’s Question: I have a foreign law degree and practice law in the U.S. How much will my foreign degree hurt my marketability as I try to advance my career?

20+ years ago, it was challenging for lawyers possessing a non-U.S. law degree to compete for mainstream legal jobs in the United States. Not impossible, but the hurdles were high. Why? Because employers and hiring managers were not as familiar with the various international law schools, their grading systems and overall quality – compared to their knowledge…and dealings with the U.S. law schools and their graduates. In addition, the number of high quality domestic candidates was plentiful. So employers had an excellent selection of “local” contenders right at their fingertips when it came time to hire.

The U.S. legal profession began to materially change in 1997 when the economy caught fire. As a result, there was a shortage of lawyers in specialized practice areas to fill the skyrocketing number of legal openings. So while U.S. lawyers with U.S. law degrees remained the preferred hiring profile, employers were more willing to consider lawyers from foreign lands…if they possessed the requisite legal experience, personality, bar membership and other required criteria.

As we enter the dawn of 2017, the world has greater interconnectivity and much of the corporate and legal world is globalized. So U.S. employers are far more socialized, knowledgeable and appreciative of the quality of legal talent coming from international schools. Thus, facilitating the U.S. path for those with foreign law degrees. In addition, many top international students come to America to earn an LL.M degree from a U.S. law school. For these lawyers, marketability can be greatly enhanced if the LL.M is received from a reputable law school. And the higher the ranking…the greater the marketability.

For the international lawyer already practicing in the U.S., the foreign law degree becomes less of a factor as s/he gains more legal experience over time. This is especially true in the in house world where relevant experience is a critical factor when assessing candidate viability. Given the activity of today’s in house market, this is good news for those lawyers interested in pursuing this path. For the lawyer practicing in a law firm, foreign law school credentials will have far less significance or negative impact if s/he is able to develop a large book of business. This reality is true now more than ever.

The U.S. legal profession is a stage that has evolved to include more global players. So possessing a foreign law degree does not pose as many challenges as it once did 20+ years ago. With that said, it isn’t a walk in the park for those who seek to build a successful legal career in America. U.S. trained lawyers still dominate the legal landscape and competition is fierce. But the environment is now a bit kinder for diverse profiles. And should you seek to move your career forward, it will be less about your law school and more about all the other qualities that make you great.

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