Guide to the law bar exam

Guide to the law bar exam

    Anyone interested in a law career is undoubtedly aware of the bar exam. This is what many students are working towards during law school—and its importance cannot be overstated. The purpose of the exam is to ensure an individual understands the law in their jurisdiction of choice. Passing it is a requirement to practice law in the U.S.

    ‘Passing the bar’ refers to earning the right to pass into the space reserved for those working at the court.

    The name of this exam has nothing to do with stressed law students blowing off steam at the campus bar. In fact, the term ‘bar’ comes from the 14th century, when due to the rowdiness of the courts, a physical bar separated the public viewing areas from those involved in the trial. ‘Passing the bar’ refers to earning the right to pass into the space reserved for those working at the court.

    Now you know the origins of the name, read on to find about more about the content of the bar exam, and the steps involved in passing it.

    How do I qualify to take the bar exam?

    Typically, the first step before being eligible to take the bar exam is to complete law school. In some states it is possible to sit the exam without having earned a juris doctor degree. For example, in California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington, you can ‘read the law’ instead of attending law school. This involves apprenticing with a judge or practicing attorney for an extended internship. This is a rare path to take, but can place you in good company. Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson all became lawyers by reading the law.

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    The importance of the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

    Passing the MPRE is a requirement to practice law in the U.S. Some jurisdictions do not allow you to take the bar exam before you have passed it. Instead of testing a student’s personal ethical principles, this exam evaluates their knowledge of the standards for the professional conduct of lawyers.

    The exam takes 2 hours and consists of 60 multiple choice questions. Typical questions in the MPRE relate to hypothetical scenarios: for example, students need to decide whether a judge or lawyer behaved correctly or, if not,  whether they should be subjected to disciplinary procedures. The score needed in the MPRE depends on the jurisdiction, so check the specific requirements when registering.

    Students commonly take the MPRE in March, August, and November. The regular registration fee is $125, and the late registration fee (less than 8 weeks before the test) is $220. Most students choose to take the MPRE directly after their professional responsibility class at law school, when the relevant subjects are still fresh in their minds. Some law schools run MPRE preparation courses, which can be worth taking advantage of.

    Uniform bar exam (UBE) vs state bar exam

    Students can choose to take either the UBE or the state bar exam.

    The UBE has been officially adopted by 38 jurisdictions. The advantage of this exam is that as a practicing lawyer, if you plan to move to another state—and that state has adopted the UBE— the qualification is transferrable. There can also be additional requirements to work in a new jurisdiction and different states can require different pass marks.

    The UBE has to be transferred to a specific state within 2-5 years of passing, so it makes sense to ensure you meet the requirements of the state you wish to work in.

    For would-be lawyers who want to live and work in a specific state, the option of the state exam for that particular jurisdiction may be preferable. Passing the state exam means not being subjected to further requirements to practice in that state. The UBE has to be transferred to a specific state within 2-5 years of passing, so it makes sense to ensure you meet the requirements of the state you wish to work in.

    The decision about whether to take the UBE or state bar exam depends on your current situation and future plans. The UBE can often seem like the more flexible choice, but before you commit, it is important to check its portability to ensure it is the right choice for you.

    What is in the UBE exam?

    The UBE exam is 2 days long and involves 12 hours of testing. It generally consists of 3 parts:

    Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) – 50%

    Candidates are given 6 hours to complete 200 multiple choice questions. This section tests students’ knowledge of the following subjects: civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts and sales, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, and torts.

    Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) – 30%

    The MEE consists of 6 questions, with candidates having 30 minutes to complete each question. Typically, the questions involve a hypothetical factual situation, and candidates are asked to analyze this in relation to legal issues. The main difference between this part of the exam and the MBE is that the candidate needs to show they are capable of communicating effectively in writing.

    Multistate Performance Test (MPT) – 20%

    The MPT is made up of 2 parts, each part taking 90 minutes to complete. Candidates are required to show they are capable of employing basic lawyering skills. It aims to test a student’s ability in a highly practical way by simulating situations that a new lawyer may face at work. For example, candidates may be asked to write a memorandum or legal brief.

    What is in the state bar exam?

    The state bar exam is held over 2-3 days. The content varies according to the jurisdiction, although commonly incorporates the multistate bar exam and the multistate performance test. The third section often contains essay questions or a mixture of essays and multiple choice questions. This part can significantly differ because it is based on the laws of the particular jurisdiction.

    This part can significantly differ because it is based on the laws of the particular jurisdiction.

    If you are taking the state exam, check the specific requirements as large variations exist between jurisdictions: e.g., some give more weight to the various exam sections than other jurisdictions.

    There may also be some variations in the difficulty of the exam between states. California based attorney, Evan W. Walker, has taken the bar in more than one state, and is well placed to make such comparisons.

    “Some bars are more difficult than others,” he said. “For example, the LA bar is difficult unless you studied civil law. The CT bar was less difficult. I found the CA bar to be very difficult, despite having practiced law for 7 years and having passed two other bars. There’s no magic bullet to passing such exams. You need to find the strength and discipline to do the work. Then the results follow.”

    When and where can I take the bar exam?

    Typically the UBE takes place at the end of February and at the end of July. To register you need to create an account with the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). Be sure to check NCBE’s list of  requirements for the jurisdiction where you plan to take the bar. The cost of the exam varies depending on the state, and can amount to anywhere from $100 to $1,400.

    Another requisite is to complete the character and fitness process. This is fundamentally a background check to make sure you are fit to practice law. Some states demand this step is completed before you take the bar exam, others allow you to complete it after.

    Candidates are usually asked to disclose information about themselves, such as criminal violations, academic details, previous addresses, mental health issues, and employment history. It is important to be as honest as possible throughout this process, even if there are things you are not so proud of. This demonstrates that you have accepted responsibility for any previous actions. If the bar admissions board have concerns about your character, they may request a face-to-face interview.

    How hard is the bar exam?

    Ask any law student who has prepped for it: the bar exam has a reputation for being tough. Yet, do the statistics back up anecdotal claims that it is among the toughest exams? In 2020, 60,784 candidates took the bar exam, with an overall pass rate of 61%. Of these, 39,968 were taking the bar exam for the first time, 76% of whom passed. Note, there have been other years where the pass rate was significantly lower.

    In 2020, 60,784 candidates took the bar exam, with an overall pass rate of 61%.

    John Spangenberger, an associate at Lando & Anastasi, who passed the Massachusetts bar in October of 2020, adds: “No individual section or question on the bar exam is terribly difficult—it’s certainly not any harder than the questions one would grapple with on law-school finals—but the volume of information on the exam makes it very challenging. Test fatigue is also a significant factor, as the test lasts 12 hours over 2 days. I personally found the bar exam about as hard as people say it is.”

    How to prepare for the bar exam

    Most law schools offer a bar exam workshop for final year students. Students take this workshop to learn about the different sections of the exam, and complete assignments based on past exam questions.

    For graduates, there are also numerous bar review courses available to prepare candidates for the exam. Although some schools cover the partial or full costs of such courses, most students pay for themselves. Prices vary from course to course, but they usually cost between $1000 and $5000.

    Some commercial review companies have been accused of unfair practice, pushing their courses onto graduates through various marketing techniques. Even so, the fact that law schools recognize the importance of such prep courses shows the impact they can have on a student’s result.

    Spangenberger agrees that there are plenty of excellent bar preparation resources available. “In addition to providing video lectures on every relevant topic, the courses keep you on track by establishing a start-to-finish schedule detailing how to allocate your time. They also provide plenty of practice questions with helpful peer-comparison metrics.”

    In addition to in-school and graduate prep courses, there are also practice tests available online. Focus on more than passive learning by answering sample questions based on what you are learning, rather than restricting yourself to reading and regurgitating law books. Some sections of the exam stipulate that candidates adopt what they have learned into practice with hypothetical scenarios.

    What happens if I fail the bar?

    Although some states limit the number of times a candidate can retake the exam to between 2-5 times, most states allow unlimited attempts with a reduced fee for repeat candidates.

    How long will I have to wait for my results?

    Typically the test results take 6 -14 weeks, but it can be much longer. While this can be excruciating, the waiting time is in no way correlated to whether you have passed or not.

    What are the next steps?

    Before being sworn in, you may need to pay the bar dues to get your license, the costs of which vary by state. The swearing in ceremony serves to formally admit the graduate to the bar. The process can differ between jurisdictions, although commonly involves another lawyer recommending your admittance to the bar. If you don’t know anyone who can do this, the state will provide someone. You can get sworn in at either a mass ceremony along with others who have passed the bar, or at a private ceremony. Much like graduation, this is a time for celebration, so invite family and friends to enjoy the day with you.


    Passing the bar is a journey that every practicing lawyer in the U.S. has to take. The requirements can sound intimidating, but become clearer after you decide on the state you plan to practice in. On top of carefully researching the conditions for your jurisdiction, it is strongly recommended that you create a study plan as early as possible.

    As Spangenberger notes, “Studying for the bar exam is a marathon, not a sprint. Even though it only takes a day or two to watch the lecture videos for each subject, it’s very easy to get fatigued because there are so many subjects to get through—and even when you finish those, you have weeks of review and practice questions ahead of you. More than anything, you need to be able to stick to a reasonable, regimented study schedule leading up to the exam. The popular bar-preparation resources provide an excellent schedule, but the hard part is sticking with it for 2 to 3 straight months.”

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