International law students: U.S. employment and state bar exam considerations


[ Makenzie Way, 3L at the University of Pennsylvania ]

When I decided to attend an American law school I knew I would most likely be sitting for a US bar exam and accepting an employment offer in the states – it was simply a necessity if I wanted to be able to pay off my heavy student loans following graduation, since the Canadian legal pay is not equivalent to America’s in any way, shape, or form.

Now that I’m a 3L and graduation is just around the corner, the reality of what it means to stay in the USA is finally settling in – or should I say, slapping me in the face. Maybe I was naïve, but I expected the process to be more clear and much easier.

  1. First and foremost, if you’ve accepted an employment offer from a US employer you need to confirm their ability, and willingness, to sponsor you for a visa if you’re unable to secure one independently. Without appropriate sponsorship, your work visa options are severely limited.
  2. Once you’ve confirmed that your employer can, and will sponsor you, you need to then confirm what the application process looks like, and their involvement therein. I was under the impression that my firm would handle my visa forms for me, but unfortunately, that’s not the case, and it may not be the case for you – so check in now if you haven’t already.
  3. Unless you’ll be leaving America shortly after graduation and not returning anytime soon, except as a visitor, you’ll need to figure out what to do visa wise after graduation. You have 60 days after your F-1 visa expires to depart or obtain a new visa or depart, or 30 days for J-1 visa holders. You should consult with your school’s international office and your employer, but popular choices include the following:

a. OPT: you must apply for OPT before you graduate (it can take up to 3 months to be approved, so start now) and you do not need a job offer to apply. OPT lasts for a maximum of 12 months, and the OPT start date must be no later than 60 days after graduation. You are permitted to remain in OPT status for 90 days unemployed, after which time you either need to begin working in a legally relevant job, or depart the US within 60 days, or get a new visa.

b. H1B: you are not able to apply for an H1B visa independently, rather your employer must file a petition for you (meaning you must have a job offer). Getting a visa isn’t necessarily easy since there are caps and a hierarchy in play, but if you win one you’re able to stay on the visa for a total of six years.

c. NAFTA: Canadian and Mexican professional workers can stay for up to 3 years under TN nonimmigrant status with a job offer in an appropriate field. The application process is fairly straightforward.

Again, when it comes to visa applications make sure to consult your law school, your employer and/or an immigration attorney. Also, note that different visas have different policies relating to spousal visas.

  1. Annoyingly, many employers seem to be hesitant to give an exact start date for new hires. You may need to push your employer to set a start date, or at least provide a tentative start date for immigration purposes.
  2. In addition to permanent/temporary work visa considerations, you’ll also want to ensure that you have a visa in place for writing the bar exam. My university has advised me that as I Canadian I’m eligible to enter under a visitor visa for the week that I’ll be in the USA for the bar exam, but you’ll want to confirm based on your home country’s entry eligibility. No matter what status you’re entering under (unless it’s a permanent status) it’s a good idea to have your employment offer, a letter from your law school, and your bar registration forms on hand.
  3. Since there’s a chance you’ll be studying for the bar outside of the USA (which admittedly I hadn’t considered previously), you’ll need to ensure your bar course offers a sufficient online study option. Some also offer limited international course offerings so check into that.
  4. You can also expect the bar application process to be somewhat more complex since you’ll need to obtain international transcripts, language proficiency certifications, and in some states, provide access to your international criminal record, etc. alongside your American records.
  5. Once you’ve figured all that stuff out (a piece of cake, right), you’ll then have to figure out housing, banking, and taxes. The ability to get loans and mortgages from US banks can be limited for non-green cardholders, so keep this in mind when deciding whether to rent or buy. While we’re discussing banks, it’s also worth noting that if you have foreign loans that you need to pay regularly then you’ll want to consider the best way to make payments without paying high foreign transaction fees every time. Finally, switching from nonresident alien status for tax purposes, to a resident alien means you’ll have to submit different tax forms during the next tax season in the USA and you’ll need to apply for exemption from your home country’s taxes to avoid double taxation.
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