Paula Pera was studying for her LL.B. in Chile when she packed up and joined her husband in Seattle. A year later, she flew back, passed the bar, and returned to the Pacific Northwest intent on pursing an LL.M. in global business at UW Law.
As an international student, Pera was setting out on an impossibly demanding journey that would compress three years of study in nine months while culminating with a test unlike any she had seen. That’s when she met Carrie Sanford.
“One of the first pieces of advice Carrie gave me,” Pera said, “was that this was a different beast.”
Sanford is UW Law’s Director of Academic Skills for Graduate Programs and one of the first faces graduate students see after setting foot in William H. Gates Hall.
She finds herself working most often with international students who want to take the bar — students who face unique challenges that include a shorter preparation window, different backgrounds in education and writing, and foundational differences in the test’s content and format compared to other countries’ bar exams.
I know a lot of us would not have passed without Carrie. Salome Stahl
It can be a lonely journey, but for many, Sanford becomes a close and constant companion.
"My goal is to create community and a supportive space to land against the very isolated nature of bar prep,” Sanford said. “Once you’re here, I will work with you until you pass the bar.”
UW Law’s bar preparation program is one of most comprehensive in the country. From the very first information session through every touchpoint during the year, Sanford accompanies students through every step as they travel the difficult road.
Available resources include individualized academic advising; extended online early-start courses; bar courses with dedicated LL.M. instructors; a four-unit bar preparation course; and a strong network of peers, advisors and graduates that provides support every step of the way.
Still, even with so much support, the difficulty in passing for foreign-educated students is substantially heightened.
"It’s a really hard experience because [the preparation time is] so short,” said Salome Stahl LL.M. ‘18, who moved from Switzerland after studying at the University of Zurich. “It’s extremely intense, and I rarely got the feeling I was doing well, like I was always on the edge.
“I know a lot of us would not have passed without Carrie. She was always there.”
The need for speed
Washington is one of several states, including New York and California, that allows non-U.S.-trained law graduates to sit for the American bar. Because every state has different parameters, it can be a confusing landscape to traverse.
”Our goal is to give students a road map to navigate the various state bar requirements,” Sanford said. “Upon admittance, we provide students with the information they need to be successful. We want all of our students to feel empowered about the bar exam process.”
Time, or the lack thereof, compounds the challenge. Foreign-educated students generally spend significantly less time earning an LL.M. degree before taking the bar, which makes the efficiency and effectiveness of the preparation critically essential to success.
“I was very nervous because I only had one year to learn what J.D.s learn in three,” Pera said.
Much of this is addressed in UW Law’s bar preparation course, which streamlines subjects bar takers need to master.
Sally Shi LL.M. ‘16 worked for a multinational company in China for over a decade before moving stateside. She attributes much of her success in the United States to that course specifically.
“The materials for the exam are so overwhelming, but with that course the prep materials were highly simplified and included everything we needed to master,” Shi said. “That was the key to passing for me.”
With the added pressure to pass comes extra support, which Sanford brings to life throughout the year for her diverse cohort of students. This too, however, can be a bit of a culture shock.
“Back home [in Chile], most universities think of their students as people who have to go through a torturous road to get a degree, so that’s what I was used to,” Pera said. “If you had two or three tests in a day, no one would accommodate you.
That’s not the case at the UW, and as the bar preparation program has continued to grow, UW Law is one of the most desirable destinations in the country for international graduate students.
In the end, that sense of community makes all the difference.
“Carrie made it way easier for me to be prepared and understand what I was going through, and I know that gave me a leg up,” Pera said.
Learn more about UW Law’s bar preparation program and the resources available at the LL.M. academics page.