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Brexit fallout: Is it worth taking the New York bar exam?

Written by: Richard Simmons
Published on: 10 Jul 2016

Brexit fallout article

With the events of last month reverberating across the UK, the wry comments started almost immediately. “Anyone up for starting a commune in Sweden?” “How do I get a Canadian passport?”

In many cases, these are not just flippant remarks. As Lawyer 2B has reported, one law student has already set up a website designed to help graduates escape the UK. Meanwhile, solicitors and barristers alike are considering whether applying to the Irish roll and Bar is a good idea in the event of Brexit, with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Norton Rose Fulbright and Hogan Lovells all said to be looking at putting lawyers forward and barristers’ sets with a commercial and competition focus, such as Brick Court Chambers also understood to be interested.

But the idea of qualifying in other jurisdictions has been gaining traction since long before the referendum first hove into view. Law is an increasingly globalised business and it’s no wonder that many lawyers – and law students – have been considering if adding another string to their bow might be a good option.

For British law graduates, one of the most obvious potential options is to take the New York bar. It speaks to both the heart and the head. The Lawyer’s recent Global 200 report – the first of its kind – showed once and for all that New York is the world’s richest, biggest and most important legal market. Of the 200 firms included in the ranking, 138 have an office in New York – more than any other (London, naturally, came second).

As an English-speaking jurisdiction with a legal system based on common law, New York seems a logical fit for UK lawyers seeking to cross-qualify. And on an emotional level, the idea of working for one of the big, famous Wall Street firms and living the American Dream is an attractive one.

But how realistic is it, really? “The lure is definitely to work in the States,” says Sarah Hutchinson, the managing director of Barbri International, the organisation that preps non-US people for the New York bar. “Students have watched a lot of TV.” The world of Suits (or any number of other American legal dramas depending on your preference) is an enticing one. But why would a top New York law firm hire a British graduate – however bright – over a homegrown candidate who has been through the gruelling JD degree in the States?

“Some universities have four-year degrees with a year in the States, so you do see some people who come back really enthusiastic about becoming an American attorney, but the reality is, it doesn’t instantly open all the doors,” cautions Hutchinson’s colleague Imogen Burton.

“If you’ve got no contacts, no family there, and no right to work in the US, you’re going to have to get some specialist experience and build your network at the same time as getting your qualification.” That’s a tough ask and not one that just anyone can manage. Small wonder that many people from this side of the Pond who take the New York bar already have some kind of American connection.

What’s the point?

So if it’s not an instant passport to Yankee riches, what is the US bar exam good for?

“We tend to see two groups of people taking the exam,” says Hutchinson. The first is lawyers who are already qualified in the UK but are looking to add a second string to their bow. The second group is graduates who haven’t got a training contract, so they qualify as a US attorney and then cross-qualify as a solicitor through the Qualified Lawyer Transfer Scheme (QLTS) route. That has the unexpected benefit of bypassing the training contract requirement.

“I think this is going to be an increasing trend, particularly as the US firms start to expand in London,” says Hutchinson. “We’ve seen a lot of paralegals who have been working for two or three years, have good experience, and could get promoted to associate – but they’re not qualified.” The equivalent means ‘paralegal short-cut’ route caters for them, but another way to get qualified is to become a US attorney.

Whether qualified or not, what both groups of US bar hopefuls have in common is that they will very often be working in an international law firm or the in-house legal team of a big American company.

John McGovern was one such person. Dublin-born, he studied law and business at university before taking a job in Northern Ireland with consultancy firm First Derivatives. “A whole swathe of new regulations were coming in and affecting investment banks: the firm was looking for graduates with experience in business and legal acumen to interpret the regulations and help banks implement compliance programs,” McGovern says. “It was though First Derivatives that I came to do the New York bar. I was working on American regulation and they paid for a group of us to do the exam.”

Taking the exam “reignited” McGovern’s interest in law. “Having not studied for a couple of years, I was becoming more of a business analyst, and I guess the combination of wanting something more stimulating and having passed the New York bar made me start to look for training contracts,” he says. “I applied mostly to corporate international firms hoping to capitalise on my experience and was lucky enough to have a few offers.”

McGovern accepted an offer from Baker & McKenzie and is currently completing his LPC, ready to start a training contract in September – even though having passed the New York bar, that’s not strictly necessary. “I think it’s as much a socialisation issue as an academic one,” he says. “If I had taken the QLTS it would have been very isolated and I wouldn’t have got the opportunities to meet my fellow future trainees. If you’ve already got lots of practical experience I’m sure the QLTS would be the preferred route – there are two women who studied with me who did go down that route.”

Making the choice

How do you know if the New York bar is worth the effort? “The first thing I’d say that it’s a big sacrifice of your personal time and energy,” says McGovern. “You need to be sure exactly what you are going to get out of it. Is this the most practical way into the profession for you? It’s not a decision to take lightly.”

Burton concurs: “It’s not for everybody. It depends on your individual goals. I think you have to have a game plan and you have to decide where you want to end up. If you’ve got an interest in an international career there’s no doubting that the New York bar is a really good way to demonstrate your international outlook.”

The cost is also something to take into account: Barbri’s London preparation program will set you back £5,000 and with exam fees, flights to New York and so on, a total budget of £7,000 is more realistic. In other words, this isn’t a course to do because you’re at a bit of a loss and think it might add something to a CV.

However, £7,000 is still less than half the cost of the LPC or BPTC in London, and since passing the New York bar gives a vocational qualification, it might be a better bet that a Masters degree.

“My motivation was because I was in an in-house role and I wanted to get the stamp of approval to take on more autonomy,” says another bar exam alum, Priya Krishnan. Her route to law was a circuitous one: graduating from Oxford Brookes, she funded her own LPC but struggled to get a training contract.

A period of paralegalling followed before she picked up a role as a contract negotiator at JP Morgan in London. The bank paid for her to take the exam and once she was qualified promoted her to assistant general counsel. Krishnan has since cross-qualified as a UK solicitor through the QLTS: “Being dual qualified will open more doors for me in the future,” she says.

Passing the Bar

The New York Bar exam is famously one of the toughest in the world – , I honestly believe it is THE toughest, ” says Krishan. It can be especially daunting for British students flying over to take it because it’s so unlike anything they have experienced before.

Taken over two days in a vast hall in New York with thousands of other students, one of those days is devoted to a multiple-choice exam. That might sound simple enough – but these are long, complex multiple-choice questions, with long, complex answers. And there are 200 of them. “It’s a minute and a half on each question, each one covering a specific point of law,” recalls Priya Krishan. “Your mind is constantly having to switch from one area of law to another and then drilling down to the specifics. That’s a lot of pressure on the mind, then there’s all the distractions in the hall – papers shuffling and so on. Earplugs definitely do help!”

“My practical advice is to try and go the weekend before – you don’t want to be jet-lagged,” adds McGovern. “The exam is usually on a Tuesday and Wednesday –get yourself a nice hotel if you can, as you’ll want to be in comfortable surroundings doing as may practice questions as you can.”

Brains and stamina required

Prep for the bar exam needs time and effort. Barbri’s course runs over six months and is intense to say the least. There’s an initial month running over the foundations of US law – about 90 hours of work – followed by five months of study, either in the classroom or online, that involves around 20 to 30 hours per week of lectures, reading, and practice.

It’s a tough course – especially when you consider that the majority of Barbri’s students are working full time as well.

“I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s a big time commitment,” says McGovern. “I did classes by video link on a Friday evening and all day on Saturday, which leaves Sunday as your only free day to study, then before and after work too.” The consolation is that, in McGovern’s words, “you smash out the study over one summer.” The course is typically six months long (though Barbri has also introduced a less intense 10-month verson), “so there is light at the end of the tunnel. The qualified lawyers are used to working on deals where it’s hell for six months, so they treat it like a deal,” says Burton. “They focus on the end result and just go for it.”

Barbri actively encourages competition between students. It has an app with thousands of test questions, designed to allow busy lawyers to practice on the train or in any idle moment. “We track the performance of the students – what scores they are getting, how many questions they practicing,” says Hutchinson. “We tell the students and they can see instantly how they are performing in comparison with the rest of their cohort. The New York bar exam has a 50 per cent pass rate, so you know you have to be in the top half with the practice questions.

“It feeds the competitive nature of lawyers,” she adds, “and it allows us to prove that input directly correlates with results. The people who stick with it, do the practice, keep up with the weekly schedule, pass. The people who are knocked sideways by events, or lack of motivation, don’t. It’s almost direct correlation. You do the work, you pass.”

“It’s all about trusting the course and its methodology,” concludes Krishan. “A lot of candidates prefer passive study – looking at their notes and reading. This course encourages students to do the multiple-choice question even when you’ve just had a lecture an hour ago. There are mock exams quite early in the course. It works.

“They crack that whip…. I really loved it.”

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