International students come to the U.S. for law school
Right now more than a million international students are studying in the United States. Many of them are in law school, hoping to earn JD degrees they can use to practice law in their home countries or perhaps start a rewarding legal career in the U.S.
But what is being an international student at a U.S. law school really like?
Get a sneak preview of the life of an international student by following these three inspiring law school stories.
Tabytha Souza ’21, Brazil
Tabytha Souza’s long journey to law school has taken her around the world, from Australia to Brazil to Florida to Boston. And even though she has only lived in Massachusetts since starting law school in August, she says it already feels like home.
“There’s such a sense of community,” she says. “People ask about me, and they even know my dog’s name. I’ve have felt like I was home from day one.”
But getting to such a positive point hasn’t been without challenges. Born in Australia, Souza grew up in Brazil and then came to the United States as part of a high school study abroad program. That move was difficult from the beginning. Family members disapproved of her plans, saying she should pursue a more “traditional” lifestyle. But Souza asserted herself, and she eventually went to court where, thanks to help from an attorney who was a family friend, a judge approved her plans for leaving the country to pursue her studies.
If that wasn’t hard enough, her American host family turned out to be abusive, and she eventually ran away before finding a better situation with a different family and finishing high school. Later she enrolled at the University of Tampa and then the University of Florida, where she majored in philosophy and law interests.
Now that she has moved on to New England Law | Boston, Souza notes that she was accepted at larger law schools, but this one was the best choice for her.
“Here I’m not just a number,” she says. “All the professors like to engage with you, and you can talk to them whenever.” At the same time, she has been surprised at how easy it has been to make friends with her classmates. “I’m really a shy person,” she says. “But people here understand my personality.” The sense of community has grown even stronger since Souza learned she is pregnant. She says her professors have reached out to offer assistance, and students in her class have planned a gender reveal party.
As with any law student, Souza’s studies keep her busy. She knows that while law school is the right choice for her, that may not be true for everyone, especially international students uprooting themselves and traveling thousands of miles from home. “If this is not your passion, don’t do it,” she says. “Pursuing a legal career for money or recognition is not enough. But if you love it, don’t give up.”
While she has not yet settled on a legal specialty, Souza is interested in human rights and immigration law. She has attended alumni networking events through the law school that provided the opportunity to meet attorneys in those areas, and talking with experienced lawyers has proven insightful. But she also realizes there is still plenty of time to choose a focus area.
Related: Everything You Need to Know About Becoming an Immigration Lawyer
Quick to point out that many others have helped her in reaching her law school goals, Souza says she hopes to do the same in her future career.
“I don't want to limit myself on what I want to do with my law degree,” she says. “I think that I would be happy anywhere and doing anything that involves helping someone that doesn't have the power to help themselves.”
Latoya Allen ’20, Jamaica
For Latoya Allen, the path to law school has not been a direct one. Before coming to New England Law | Boston, the Jamaica native spent seventeen years in banking.
Her educational and career journey began at the University of the West Indies, where she earned a bachelor’s degree with honors, followed later by an MBA from the same institution. She assumed such roles as business banking executive, bulk currency supervisor, credit adjustor, and business development officer. But despite her professional success, Allen had even bigger plans.
“Studying law has always been a goal of mine from as early as I can remember,” she says. About two years ago, she decided to make what she calls “a bold step in faith” to fulfill that goal. First, she earned a Bachelor of Laws degree, with honors, through the University of London’s distance education program. Next came enrolling at New England Law, where she is now a second-year law student.
Allen says she enjoys living and studying in the United States, even though it took some time to adjust. She found U.S. culture more structured than in the Caribbean, with people generally more reserved and less likely to engage in small talk with a stranger. She recalls striking up a conversation with a Bostonian who paused, looked at her quizzically, and said, "You’re not from here, are you?"
But despite the frosty reception Allen might’ve found outside, her time inside the halls of New England Law has been much warmer. She says getting to know her classmates was relatively easy, even though at 40 years old, she's older than most of her peers (not to mention the fact that she’s unique in being an international student). In fact, the first friend she made in law school hailed from Maine, a fact she considers amusing given the chilly northern state’s many differences from tropical Jamaica.
Allen says her work in banking provided solid preparation for the transition to law school too. “I was always interested in compliance, and with the emphasis on regulations, there are similarities in banking and law.” Of course, even though her past experience is useful, Allen doesn’t minimize the current challenges of law school.
“The most surprising thing for me has been the depth of information that you’re expected to absorb and reapply from day one,” she says. “It’s not a walk in the park. You need to give a 100 percent effort.”
Along with her class work, Allen found a summer 2018 internship at a Florida law firm quite helpful in preparing for her law career. There she conducted legal research, researched and prepared trial motions and briefs, conducted site visits, and prepared defense analyses for review by practicing attorneys.
Looking back on her law school successes, Allen singles out several professors and staff members, including Registrar David Berti. “Mr. Berti has worked with me through whatever regulatory or process work required, and each time that I have called on him, his gentle way of making me feel that my issue is the most important thing on his desk is heartwarming.”
She also cites the help of Lisa Freudenheim, director of the school’s Academic Excellence Program. “She is a mentor, a motivator, and one who has a genuine interest in the well-being of her students,” she says. Other law school faculty who have had a major impact include adjunct professor Justice Elaine Buckley, Director of Legal Research and Writing Gary Bishop, Instructor of Legal Writing Sidra Vitale, Visiting Assistant Professor Natasha Varyani, and Professor Monica Teixeira de Sousa. “They are all brilliant professors but, more importantly, genuinely good people.”
After completing her law degree in the U.S., Allen would like to land a position as in-house legal counsel. She’s hoping her previous experience in banking will help her get her foot in the door faster. “The usual trajectory is that you work in government or with a firm to gain invaluable experience, then transition,” she says. “I’m hoping that with my career and academic background I will be able to go straight there.”
Elisa Rhodes ’21, Canada
For first-year student Elisa Rhodes, attending law school in the U.S. was the logical next step in pursuing her career goals.
As an undergrad at Ottawa’s Carleton University, Rhodes wasn’t quite decided about which path to take, although she had always found the legal world interesting. But after exploring some related courses, her goal became clear.
“Being able to take law courses in my undergraduate degree confirmed my passion for the legal field,” she says. So she completed a bachelor’s degree in legal studies with a concentration in business law. She also followed through on her interest in international travel and exploring new cultures by signing up for a study abroad option, enjoying a year of coursework at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. She then gained some real-world experience as a bank customer sales representative.
Armed with those experiences, Rhodes felt prepared to attend law school as an international student, especially given the similarities between the U.S. and her native Canada. Once she relocated, she quickly felt at home in scenic New England.
“I love Boston,” she says. “It’s comparable in size to Ottawa, and the weather is much better than southern Canada.”
Moving to the U.S. for law school also meant making new friends, but that went smoothly too. Rhodes credits New England Law for that. Through a Facebook page set up by the school, she was able to connect with new students well before arriving on campus. "It was really simple," she recalls. Once classes had begun, she enjoyed meeting and engaging with a diverse group of students. "You get a variety of age groups and backgrounds," she says. "It's nice to have different perspectives."
Of course, attending law school as an international student also comes with some challenges. One has been the reality of dealing with the obstacles that non-U.S. citizens can face looking for jobs. "That part can be stressful since the employer needs to sponsor you after graduation," she says.
At the same time, Rhodes has been pleasantly surprised with her law school hands-on learning experiences, which have included positions during the academic year (different from the traditional summer time frame). This year she has interned with a local law firm, serving as a project assistant. Another plus was finding out she could receive pay for working as an intern. She also credits David Berti, the school's Registrar, for helping with this and other job-related issues. "I didn't know I could get paid for an internship until he pointed it out," she recalls.
Rhodes acknowledges that it takes extra effort to balance the duties of an intern with her law school classwork, but her employers understand her priorities. "They want your focus to be on your studies," she says.
As for the student experience, Rhodes likes the focus of law school compared to the more broad-based undergraduate studies—even though it takes some adjustment.
“Being a first-year student, it’s difficult to adapt to the particular thinking and application methods that you are required to use in law school,” she says. “[But] I enjoy being in a program that is directly related to the career path I hope to end up in.”
Rhodes looks forward to completing her law degree in 2021. After her time at New England Law, she hopes to work in a large organization. One option is serving as an in-house counsel for a corporation. Another is working in a law firm focusing on corporate law. Whatever path she chooses after law school in the U.S., this international student is well on her way.
Learn more about applying to law school as an international student.