Student visa rules relax some post pandemic

By Toni Jaeger-Fine

As the start of the new academic year approaches, so does the traditional arrival in the U.S. of thousands of international law students who are about to begin their LL.M. studies. They come from all over the world and, although all of them have prior formal education in the law, they have vastly different backgrounds, experiences, expectations and objectives.

Many are thinking about what the coming semester will look like — the first semester following the onset of COVID-19 that forced law schools in the U.S. and around the world to sharply reduce or eliminate altogether traditional classes.

Although most U.S. law schools are returning to in-person classes and activities, many may offer some online courses as part of their academic programming for the fall semester as we all ease our way back to “normal.” International LL.M. students may wonder whether they may enroll in such courses consistent with their visa requirements and rules for eligibility to sit for the New York bar examination. Happily, the answer to both questions is “yes” – with a few caveats.

Visa Rules 

Traditional F-1 rules require that non-immigrant students take nearly all of their classes in-person; such a student typically could enroll in only one online or distance course each semester. The U.S. government made temporary changes to F-1 visa requirements during COVID-19 to help facilitate non-immigrant study in the U.S. These rules, which remain in effect, require that a student on an F-1 visa take at least one course in person. This means that international LL.M. students in the U.S. retain some flexibility for the fall semester (at least) with respect to taking online classes—as long as they have at least one course that meets in the traditional in-person format.

New York Bar Examination

The New York State Court of Appeals, the body charged with making rules related to bar eligibility and admission in New York, announced that no portion of a course can have any distance component and satisfy the LL.M. coursework requirements to sit for the bar.

The Court waived this requirement for all semesters affected by COVID-19 (starting with the spring 2020 semester). That waiver remains in effect for the fall 2021 semester, although the Court of Appeals has indicated that it expects law schools to make efforts to comply with the Court’s distance education limitations.     

Nevertheless, law schools are grateful for the extension of visa and bar eligibility exemptions for the upcoming semester.

“The relaxation of rules regarding student visas and bar eligibility gave law schools and students much-needed flexibility as we all adjust to a post-pandemic world,” said Andrew S. Horsfall, assistant dean of International Programs at Syracuse University College of Law.

International LL.M. students can take a breath, at least for the coming semester, knowing that law schools can be more flexible with respect to the educational program they offer.

 

Toni is the assistant dean for International and Non-J.D. Programs at Fordham Law School. She is the author of “Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona,” “The U.S. Legal System: The Basics” and “American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide.”