New York Bar Exam: A Finnish Lawyer's Perspective
18 January 2023
The New York bar exam is a standardised test you need to pass in order to practise law in the State of New York. Many foreign-educated lawyers take the exam even if they do not end up practising in the United States. Finnish lawyers typically take the exam after completing an LL.M. degree in a U.S. university. Was the exam worth spending a summer on, even though I now practice in Finland? I would say yes, because the experience taught me a lot and provided a platform for working abroad later.
The first thing you should know is that the bar exam is not easy. Most people study for it full time for a couple of months, but the overall passing rate for foreign-educated lawyers was still only 41% in July 2018. In my view, there are two key challenges for foreign-educated lawyers: taking the exam in a second language and unfamiliarity with relevant common law rules.
Let us look at language first. Essays are a significant part of the bar exam, and you write them under considerable time pressure but may still be tempted to spend precious time rephrasing your arguments and trying to find the mot juste. In contrast, multiple-choice sections of the exam should be easier for a non-native speaker.
Then there is the substance of the exam, which will likely be uncharted territory for you. For example, my LL.M. degree focused on advanced interdisciplinary approaches to corporate governance. I thus had to start from scratch with common law concepts such as easements, trusts, or larceny for the bar exam. This makes for an intense cramming process, which starts right after receiving your fancy degree diploma wearing your funny hat and robe.
I took my bar exam in Buffalo, NY, near the famous Niagara Falls (of which I saw nothing). The exam venue was a huge conference centre, with people nervously queueing around the block to get in each morning. The exam lasted two days. Of its content, I remember precious little. What I do recall is that after the second exam day, my cab driver told me he liked to watch old golf tournaments on repeat. And then it was over. I flew back to Finland to continue my career here. After completing the required 50 hours of pro bono work, I eventually travelled to Albany, NY to solemnly affirm to support the Constitutions of the United States and the State of New York. All in all, it was a good experience, and I would recommend it to all LL.M. students, provided that you are able to put in the hours to ensure successfully passing the exam.
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