International prelaw students are students who are attending a U.S. undergraduate institution on a visa and who plan to attend law school in the United States upon graduating. Such students should keep in mind certain challenges they may encounter in their application process and future ability to practice law in the US. The below factors — revolving around the transferability of their legal degrees, funding, and visas — should be considered as students assess their professional goals.
Preliminary: Reasons for Obtaining a U.S. Legal Degree
The first task for international students who are considering attending law school in the United States is to reflect on their ultimate career goals.
Students, with the guidance of an advisor, should reflect on whether an American juris doctorate is necessary and desirable in the context of their career goals. A very important consideration is where students want to ultimately practice law once receiving their legal degree. U.S. law degrees and licensing are usually non-transferable to other countries. Students should research the licensing requirements for the country in which they intend to practice law.
Students should communicate their intentions to pursue law school in the U.S. well before graduation. Timing is critical because there is no way to extend a student visa unless there is a degree–related compelling academic purpose.
Researching Law Schools
Students should ensure that the schools they are applying to admit international students. Some American law schools may not admit international students and others may enroll a small percentage. Once they determine what schools of preference do indeed accept international students, they may want to inquire whether it is possible to meet with the law school’s international student advisor to receive answers to state–specific questions.
Financing Law School
International students often face challenges in financing their legal education. Early financial planning is essential for F-1 visa law students. International students may have to present an affidavit of financial support demonstrating sufficient financial resources for the first year of study. Typically, students present a bank statement showing sufficient funds to cover tuition, books, and living expenses for their first year of legal study. If an individual student does not have personal funds available, the student may be able to present documentation showing family sponsorship, agency/government sponsorship, or a fellowship. Students are encouraged to explore all loan and scholarship options available to them. Most law schools do not offer fully funded fellowships to international students. However, students should contact the schools individually to inquire whether merit-aid and needs-based scholarships are available.
International students are not eligible for federal financial aid (Direct Stafford and Direct Graduate PLUS Loans, or Work-Study). Most private educational loans cannot be obtained without a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen. International students should contact law schools directly to inquire whether the school is aware of lenders that may offer loans to international students without the need for a co-signer and students should carefully examine the qualifications, terms, and maximum amounts of those loans.
F-1 visa classification is a nonimmigrant visa category available to full-time, enrolled students working toward a degree at a U.S. institution of higher education. F-1 is the most common immigration status for degree seeking international students. The F-1 status is valid as long as the student remains at the University sponsoring the F-1 status and the student carries a full course load. Students who want to remain in the states upon graduating, but before matriculating into a U.S. law school, must determine whether this is allowable under their visa’s requirements. NYU’s Office of Global Services should be utilized in making this determination.
Employment Restrictions (Prior to Law School)
The U.S. immigration regulations, under certain circumstances, allow international students to pursue part-time or full-time employment through Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT is a
work authorization benefit available to students who have been studying full-time in the U.S. for at least one academic year. International students receive one twelve (12) month work authorization for each higher education level. Students must complete OPT within 14 months of graduation. Students who wish to use their OPT after graduating from NYU must apply for post-completion OPT 90 days prior to the end of their academic program. After OPT is complete, students must exit the U.S., or they may transfer to another degree program or visa status. Failure to maintain lawful status and the accompanying paperwork may result in the inability to return to the U.S. in the future. For further detail on OPT, limitations placed on such employment, and travel restrictions, students should consult NYU’s Office of Global Services.
Employment Restrictions During and After Law School
International students attending American law schools on student visas often face limited employment opportunities, both during school (e.g., summer internships) and after graduation. Due to federal regulations, the only summer work opportunities usually available to them are externships – jobs for which the law school grants academic credit – or a position as a research assistant for a law school professor.
Remaining in the U.S. after law school can be difficult for international students. As previously mentioned, OPT is available for 12 months, with the clock starting to run within 60 days of graduation. While international students may sit for U.S. bar exams in most (if not all) states, the timing can become problematic since students usually devote full-time study to passage, and results can take months to post. For any graduate with an F-1 visa who wants a job that requires bar passage and licensure, the timetable is, therefore, pretty much incompatible with OPT rules. If a student/graduate does not intend to take and pass a bar exam, getting a “JD-Advantage” job that starts within 60 days of graduation is possible, but employers are still less interested in hiring a person who must leave in a year. However, as with any set of regulations, the current rules regarding OPT are subject to change.
A student’s immigration status does not preclude him or her from attending law school.
While undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, they may be eligible for other types of aid under certain criteria. Students should reach out to law schools to determine their student aid eligibility. Further, law schools determine tuition rates for undocumented students differently depending on how such student populations are classified (i.e. international student rates v. out-of-state/in-state rates). Students should also research state-specific or school–specific grants and scholarships available to undocuments students.
Undocumented students should review the following websites for more detailed information:
- National Immigration Law Center
- Department of Education’s Guide on Supporting Undocumented Youth
- Santa Clara University’s Guide for Undocumented Students
- DACA and Other Key Laws Impacting Undocumented Students
Employment — Professional Licensing
In general, Congress prohibits undocumented immigrants from obtaining a government-issued professional license unless the state they are requesting it from has specific laws authorizing the issuance of said license.