You belong here! International students are integral parts of the UW-Madison community. We are proud to support all students and alumni - of all immigration statuses - through the law school exploration and application process.
For students of international backgrounds, the process of applying to law school in the United States can be complicated. This is because application and admission policies for international students can vary greatly by law school. In addition to language requirements, international applicants must consider transcript evaluations (if you attended an institution outside the United States for more than a year), financing options, and bar exam requirements, among other factors. The process of finding employment after law school is also often complicated by sponsorship requirements and limitations on employment for non U.S. citizens.
Students of international backgrounds are strongly encouraged to schedule an appointment with the Center for Pre-Law Advising if they are considering law school. Advisors will work with students to address individual needs and help craft application materials. The Writing Center at UW Madison is also available to review law school personal statements and other essays.
Beginning the Law School Exploration Process
It is important to research the areas of law you are interested in and find out what limitations your citizenship status may place on your ability to work in the legal field of your choice. We strongly suggest setting up multiple informational interviews with lawyers and professionals in the field(s) of law you are interested in to find out more about how your status may impact job prospects in that area of law/with that type of employer. For example, only U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents can be registered to practice law before the United States Patent and Trademark Office, so this poses a barrier to international students wishing to practice patent law in the U.S. or hoping to land an internship with a law firm that specializes in patent law.
If you plan on going directly into law school, you will be preparing applications your junior year and applying at the start of senior year, so it’s helpful to do your research and begin your informational interviews early (freshman or sophomore year).
There are two kinds of law degrees that international students might be considering: a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree or a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.). In the U.S., earning a J.D. is the typical first step for a career in the legal profession. Graduates from an undergraduate institution in the United States would typically need to earn a J.D. to qualify to sit for the bar in most states and become licensed to practice law.
The LL.M. degree is primarily an additional, more focused degree that those who already have a law degree can pursue to increase expertise in a particular field (i.e. Tax Law). However, those with a legal degree granted outside the United States sometimes pursue an LL.M. to allow them to sit for the Bar in certain U.S. states. See more info on LLMs for international students here.
Using your degree outside of the U.S.: As you decide whether pursuing an American legal education is the right step for you, consider the usefulness of an American law degree in your country. Remember that American law schools teach American law, and that American law may not translate well, if at all, to the legal systems in your country. If you are seeking to practice law in your home country, you may want to do some research and reach out to attorneys there for more information.
Using your degree inside of the U.S: Many international students hope to be able to work in the United States after law school, but finding a job that will grant you a visa can be challenging. Often the organizations/firms who will hire law grads that need a visa will be foreign based ones that have offices here, or international U.S. law firms/organizations that have offices outside the country.
Your best bet is to look at very big firms and companies in the largest cities. Each firm and business has their own policies regarding hiring employees who need sponsorship in the U.S., so there aren’t any master lists you can check regarding where you can apply. There is a guide that Harvard put together, however, that lists some of the hiring policies at public interest/government legal entities that you can check out if you’re interested in that type of law.
One other thing to keep in mind if you plan to practice law in the United States: you will need to study for and take the bar exam after law school graduation and that can delay the process of finding a law job in the United States right away.
How is the law school application journey different for international applicants?
If you are a native of an English-speaking country*, or if you graduated from college in an English-speaking country, you probably won’t have to take a language test. If, on the other hand, you graduated from a college outside of an English-speaking country, you may.
Check the specific requirements of each law school, and note that schools often impose different requirements for LLM applicants and JD applicants. (If you can’t find the language requirements of your law school online, just send the admissions office an email or call them.)
Some schools require you take the TOEFL or IELTS, and some require international students to complete an online interview to assess language skills.
This guide by 7 Sage gives more information about language testing requirements.
*“English-speaking countries” generally means the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland, often Canada, and occasionally Singapore, South Africa, Pakistan, and India.
Many international students wish to go directly to law school in the fall after finishing undergraduate study so they can stay in the United States. Unfortunately some top law schools (ex. Harvard and Northwestern) actively preference candidates who have gained additional experience between undergraduate study and law school. A large percentage of candidates for elite law schools will have that additional experience, and you will be competing with them. For example, Harvard reports that over 80% of accepted candidates have had at least 1 year of gap time, while more than 60% had 2 or more years of gap time. This gap time could be in the form of masters degrees, job experience, or volunteer programs.
Many U.S. law schools may have limited financial aid funds for international students. In fact, many U.S. law schools may require you to submit, along with your application, proof of availability of funds to pay for the entirety of your legal education. In addition, international students do not qualify for educational loans from the U.S. government, which is how many American students pay for their legal education.
It can be really helpful to reach out to individual law schools to find out what kinds of money might be available to international students (some may offer need based aid, some may offer merit scholarship aid based primarily on GPA and LSAT score). Your best resource for any questions related to financing law school is the nonprofit AccessLex. They have webinars, a scholarship search that allows you to filter for international candidates, and many more pre-law resources. They also meet 1:1 with pre-law students and alumni for free to help you plan to afford law school.
See our Financing Law School page for more information and financial resources.
International Pre-Law Student Resources
- Successworks Career Resources for International Students
- International Student Guide to Studying Law in the U.S.
- 7 Sage: Everything International Applicants should know when applying to law school
- Powerscore's International Student Guide to Applying to US Law Schools
- Guide to Informational Interviews
- F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- One International Student's Experience getting admitted to a T14 school in the US
- International Student Services at UW Madison
- What is an LL.M?
- LL.M. Admissions process
- Harvard Law Guide to getting hired as a Public Interest Lawyer in the U.S. as Non-Citizen