10 Questions For a Foreign Trained Lawyer: Sonia Daoui

Nov 10, 2021

Sonia Daoui is a French lawyer who passed the California bar exam in February of 2020. 


Q1: Please describe your background: Where are you from? Where and when did you obtain your original law degree? What foreign legal education do you have? Can you describe your work experience?

My name is Sonia Daoui. I am from France and a member of the Paris Bar. After graduating from law school in Paris in 2004, I worked 11 years for a Paris-based international law firm. Seconded to its Algiers (Algeria) office, I practiced M&A and cross-border transactions for top tier international clients and structured foreign investments.


Q2: Was pursuing an LLM worth the time, money, and effort? How has it benefited you? 

I pursued an LLM in International Dispute Resolution at Queen Mary University of London. The program was taught in Paris, which allowed me to continue working in parallel.

On top of widening my perspective and acquiring new skills in a specialized area, this experience was incredibly refreshing. After several years of practice, this learning experience was an opportunity to reset and embrace new perspectives and approaches to practice.

In hindsight, practicing essay-writing in English and taking exams long after my graduation in 2004 had been a valuable introductory prep for the CA Bar exam (though sitting for this exam was not in my plans at that time).


Q3: Please tell us about your experience taking the CA bar exam. How hard was it? What are some tips of advice you have for foreign trained lawyers sitting for the bar? What strategies could help foreigners succeed when studying? What would you have done differently (if anything)?
The CA Bar exam is one of the most difficult U.S. bar exams with a relatively low passing rate. The prep and the exam are demanding, and my personal experience with this journey was akin to a challenging trial and error process. 

The main takeaway is that there is no "one size fits all" preparation for this exam and that a tailored approach is necessary depending on "where you start from." Hence, I would like to share some tips that would have improved my chances to pass on my first try.

The first thing to keep in mind is the importance of thoroughly understanding the exam's "mechanics." Before even starting studying the law, it is essential to dive into the exam's structure to "crack the code." Understanding the questions' structures, the features of a passing answer, and the graders' expectations will allow the applicant to invest time and effort efficiently. 

For instance, the applicant needs to have a clear comprehension of the structure of a passing essay answer. Therefore, it is crucial not only to know how to apply the IRAC rule (Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion) that governs essay writing in California but also to lay it out in format in line with graders' expectations.

In a nutshell, it is essential to grasp the "Californian" way for essay writing. For me, the best approach to achieve this is to allocate substantial time reviewing past released answers on the Cal bar website to identify patterns. I think that this should be done before even starting studying the Law.  

The same applies to the MBE part. The applicants need to understand how the questions are structured to avoid traps. As I learned (the hard way), there is some "science" behind the MBE questions. It is of paramount importance to read about the mechanics of the MBE questions, the significance of certain words in the narrative, the way to identify patterns, and the best strategies when facing a close call. Emmanuel's book Strategies and Tactics for the MBE has been a game-changer as it includes a chapter that was critical to understanding many of these aspects.

The second piece of advice I would like to share is related to bar prep tutoring. In my view, it is a requisite for foreign-trained lawyers. However, the choice of the right bar prep greatly depends on where you start from. 

If the exam taker has U.S. law education, "mainstream" bar preps might be the right choice. In my view, these preps are suitable for building on some prior acquired knowledge/methodology earned in a U.S. law school. They offer detailed "California" materials to refresh knowledge and to practice essays and questions, and some grading essay options. 

However, my experience taught me that it was not sufficient for someone like me who had no prior exposure to U.S law. I first enrolled in one of these bar preps. Although It has been useful to approach the 13 tested subject matters and dive into U.S. law, this prep was not a good fit for me to learn the basics of the methodology. 

For the "outsiders," i.e., fellow foreign lawyers coming from a civil law jurisdiction with no prior U.S. education (the most challenging position), I would recommend focusing on the California based bar preps. Usually, the tutors are former CA bar exam graders and can provide the specific guidance and the soft knowledge not covered in "mainstream" bar preps. For example, I learned the word count usually expected for an essay (at least 1,400 words) and the keywords to use to start a paragraph. In my case, a California-based tutor helped me to get the extra push I needed to pass with this type of tips.

My third recommendation is to adopt a "learning by doing" approach. Even though this appears counter-intuitive, it is essential to start practicing essays/MBE questions as early as possible, even if the black letter law is not well assimilated. Before readjusting my methodology, I felt I had to master a given subject matter before considering practicing essays/MBE questions, which was not a good strategy. The more you practice essays/MBE questions, the more you learn from the model answers. This strategy allows managing time constraints while building up more knowledge, and overall to improve at a faster pace.  

I strongly recommend Mary Basick and Tina Schindler's book Essay Exam Writing for the California Bar Exam. It is an excellent book to understand the structure of a passing essay answer and to practice and learn from the model answers.  

My fourth tip is not to overlook the Performance Test (PT). This is one of the most critical parts of the exam as its grade is worth twice that of an essay. Drafting a good PT can be life-saving if things do not go well for essays on exam day. Also, the PT obeys a particular methodology and varies depending on the type of task assigned on exam day (memo, letter, etc.). I felt that my first prep did not provide much guidance/focus on this part. Therefore, it is essential to practice past exams available on the Cal Bar website and carefully review released answers.  

My fifth tip relates to practicalities. 

  • Typing the exam: I first decided to handwrite the exam because I wanted to keep things simple, and I did not want to add more constraints in terms of laptop settings and registration ahead of the exam (by the way, it is a straightforward process.) Typing is crucial to reach an acceptable word-count in an essay answer and to structure the outline for the PT. 
  • Exam days: this is a 2-day exam. Hotel stay is necessary if your residence is far from the exam location. It is essential to book a room at the time of enrolling for the exam for availability purposes. If the exam taker is traveling from abroad, the time-zone/jet lag issues should be factored when planning the stay in California. I would also recommend packing lunch in advance, at least for the first day. There is less than an hour break between morning and afternoon sessions, which gives no time to figure out where to get lunch.


Q4: How much time did you spend preparing for the exam? 

For my first try, I prepared for six months on a full-time basis. This is the average time recommended by bar preps. 


Q5: What motivated you to pursue a law degree and legal license in the United States? What were/are your career goals? 

Three years ago, we relocated with my family to Stanford, California, where my husband pursued graduate studies. I wanted to make the most of my experience in California career-wise and decided to get licensed there.


Q6: Did coming from a civil law jurisdiction make your bar exam experience more difficult?

Definitely! Coming from a civil law jurisdiction requires approaching the exam with a beginners' mindset and an ability to set aside your standard approach to legal analysis. Also, I found “Evidence” challenging to approach from a conceptual perspective. This is why getting material condensing the core knowledge is so important. 


Q7: What benefits has membership to the bar provided you in your career?  

I just passed the California Bar exam (Feb. 2020), so it's too early to assess these benefits.


Q8: Do you believe you were at a disadvantage as a foreign trained lawyer in the U.S. job market? How can foreign trained lawyers best leverage their skillset to secure a good job in the U.S.? Where should they be looking for jobs?

I have not been involved in a job search yet. From my observation of the market and peers' experience, not having a J.D. from an American law school can be a disadvantage for purely domestic practice. For foreign-trained lawyers with no U.S. education, I think the best strategy is to leverage your background/experience and to join teams with an international focus (ideally related to your home jurisdiction). 


Q9: What visa considerations did you need to consider as a foreign trained lawyer studying/working in the US?

As a Stanford student, my husband had an F1 visa, and I was on an F2 visa (which is attached to F1). U/S. immigration law is complex and requires you to have an attorney, and this needs to be planned well in advance. 

Our blog is an awesome library of resources for foreign lawyers interested in taking the Bar Exam.

Let's see!

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