Legal Services Overview
Business establishments in the legal services industry provide expert advice in all aspects of the law, including contract, corporate, criminal, family and estate, tax, and tort law. Transnational firms typically offer international business services in securities, immigration, mergers and acquisitions, tax, intellectual property, and labor law, among others. In addition to specialized legal advice, law firms generally provide legal services such as litigation, document production, and legal filings.
In the United States, the legal services industry is regulated at the state level. Bar associations in 51 U.S. jurisdictions administer bar examinations, which determine lawyers’ professional qualifications and make rules concerning recognition of practitioners from outside the state or territory. As this sector’s jurisdiction falls to the states, the federal government has a limited role in regulating legal services.
ITA’s Office of Supply Chain, Professional, and Business Services (OSCPBS) plays a facilitating role in trade in legal services, by explaining the nuances of this sector to foreign trade partners and ensuring the states’ regulatory roles are respected in free trade agreements. Law firms and lawyers face a host of long-standing regulatory barriers when seeking to practice outside of the United States. Trading partners in turn often seek greater access to the U.S. legal market, which is limited by the sector’s regulatory structure.
The barriers facing the U.S. legal services industry in expanding abroad are primarily regulatory. Foreign countries have associations similar to U.S. bar associations, which regulate the profession, and often restrict the access of foreign lawyers. Common barriers for lawyers seeking to practice overseas include:
- Nationality and residency requirements.
- Restrictions on movement of professional personnel under a country’s immigration laws.
- Limitations on the types of law they can practice (Ex. home country law, foreign country law, international law).
- Lack of recognition of past experience in obtaining a foreign credential.
Law firms can also encounter barriers, such as:
- Mandated affiliation with local firms.
- Foreign ownership limits.
- Rules on the use of international and foreign firm names.
- Prohibitions on incorporation.
- Minimum requirements for local hiring.
Differences in legal systems (ex. common law, civil law, etc.) also create hurdles for legal professions to overcome, as practicing overseas may require learning and demonstrating expertise in a new legal system. This also can impede trade in some specific legal services, such as legal service of process.
Overall Trade in Legal Services
For the purposes of this report, “services trade” refers to services provided cross-border between supplier and consumer (ex. remotely, virtually, or via mail), as well as services provided when a consumer or supplier travels overseas. Services supplied via affiliates, or commercial presence overseas, are not included in this data.
The United States has had a growing surplus for trade in legal services over the past decade. Exports of U.S. legal services reached $14.2 billion in 2020, along with approximately $5 billion in imports, leaving a trade surplus of $9.3 billion for the sector.
This dashboard is interactive – click or hover on the graph to view additional data points and details.
Legal Services Trade by Country
A majority of U.S. trade in legal services is with European countries. The United Kingdom is our lead trading partner in this sector. The United States exported $2.9 billion in legal services to the UK in 2020 and imported $1.6 billion in legal services, resulting in a trade balance with the UK of approximately $1.3 billion.
Other leading export destinations for U.S. legal services include Germany (with U.S. exports of $1.2 billion), Canada ($1.1 billion), and Japan ($1 billion). These three countries are also key source countries for U.S. legal services imports, though the United States maintains a trade surplus with each.
This dashboard is interactive – scroll to see additional countries, click on different years, and hover on the map and bar charts to gain further insights.
Legal Services Trade by Region
From a regional perspective, roughly half of U.S. exports in legal services are directed towards Europe, while 54.5% of U.S. imports are sourced from Europe in 2020. The Asia Pacific region is the second largest regional partner, with 28% of U.S. exports and 29.3% of U.S. imports in 2020. The United States maintains a trade surplus with each region in the legal sector.
This dashboard is interactive – click on different years or hover on the column and pie charts for additional information.
Are you a lawyer or law firm seeking to provide services overseas? Are you facing a problematic barrier in another country?
ITA’s Professional and Business Services team is ready to provide expertise and guidance on legal services trade. ITA also has a network of trade promotion and policy professionals located in more than 100 U.S. Commercial Service offices nationwide and in more than 75 international markets, to assist with additional exporting needs and questions.
Primary ITA Contact on Legal Services:
Accounting, Legal, and Consulting Services
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