How Long Does it Take to Become an Immigration Lawyer?
Immigration lawyers are general practice lawyers who choose to focus on immigration law. Since the US does not offer separate licenses for different legal practice areas (with limited exceptions), an immigration lawyer is typically entitled to practice in any area of law, and many immigration lawyers do exactly that. Be wary of this type of “jack of all trades” lawyer.
Immigration lawyers perform the following tasks, among others:
Prepare visa, permanent residency, adjustment of status and citizenship petitions;
Fight deportation proceedings instituted against their clients;
Represent clients in a variety of matters before US immigration courts;
Obtain immigration benefits for the loved ones of US citizens and permanent residents; (a foreign spouse, for example);
Help US employers hire and retain foreign workers; and
Prepare applications for political asylum and other humanitarian immigration benefits.
Before you can go to law school, you are going to need to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university. Although a few US law schools occasionally accept students who have not completed a bachelor’s degree, this practice is the exception rather than the rule. An aspiring immigration lawyer can major in any undergraduate subject he pleases because law schools accept students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds.
After completing a bachelor’s degree, an aspiring immigration lawyer must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and apply for acceptance at one of the 200 accredited US law schools. Law schools do not offer specialties in different legal practice areas, although some do offer postgraduate degrees focusing on particular areas of law.
Although an aspiring immigration lawyer should seek to enroll in as many immigration-related courses as possible in law school, this is not a formal requirement — in fact, many US law schools do not offer a single course in immigration law. A law student will need three years of full-time study to graduate with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
Admission to the Bar Association
An aspiring lawyer must pass a state bar exam, which covers virtually all major areas of law. The bar exam itself might not contain a single question relating to immigration law. Pass rates range from 44 percent (California) to 79 percent (Missouri). If the candidate fails the exam, he can try again — most states offer the bar exam twice a year.
The candidate will also have to meet certain other requirements, such as an evaluation of his moral character and fitness, to be licensed as a lawyer. Candidates who graduate in May are usually licensed by December of the same year, assuming that they passed the bar exam on their first try.
Once the newly-minted lawyer is licensed, he is legally entitled to practice in almost any area of law (patent law is a notable exception). The lawyer will be subject to annual Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements to maintain his license to practice.
From High School Graduate to Licensed Attorney
All told, an aspiring immigration lawyer needs a total of seven years of full-time study after high school to obtain a Juris Doctor degree. He will also need a few more months to pass the bar exam and meet local bar association requirements. Those who pass the bar exam on their first try can be licensed as attorneys about seven and a half years after graduating from high school.
Professional Requirements for Immigration Lawyers
Most US law schools offer few if any courses in immigration law. Additionally, immigration law is ignored on my state bar exams and bar review courses. Because of this, and because few immigration cases are published, the typical immigration lawyer’s knowledge comes from hands-on practice experience. The lawyer may start his career in a junior position at an immigration law firm, work his way up, and perhaps even open his own law office.
Immigration law is one of the most politically sensitive areas of law, and it can change with astonishing rapidity. Changes in immigration law have proceeded at a dizzying pace during the Trump administration, for example. It is for this reason that when you select an immigration lawyer, you should choose a candidate with recent experience in immigration law.
Specialty Certifications and Professional Recognition
Some states offer specialist certification in particular areas of law, and these certifications may require a period of additional study. These certifications do not grant an attorney a superior right to practice law in that specialization. Instead, it reassures his clients that he is knowledgeable in that particular field. Only four states offer specialist certifications in immigration law, and Ohio and Michigan are not among them.
Other private organizations, such as Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers, and Avvo.com, rate lawyers based on client and peer evaluations. Some of these organizations offer awards and honors that are only granted to immigration lawyers with a minimum number of years of experience.
Immigration law is federal law, not state law. As a consequence, obtaining a license to practice law in any state will entitle you to practice immigration law anywhere in the United States without taking the time to join that state’s bar association. If you were licensed in California but live in Kentucky, for example, you can practice immigration law in Kentucky without breaking any laws or ethical standards.
Practicing US Immigration Law Overseas
If you wish to practice overseas, as some immigration lawyers do, you are likely to need a license to practice US law from your overseas jurisdiction. You are likely to need to prove that you are licensed to practice law in the United States and that you have accumulated a certain number of years of practice experience back home.