What you need to know about new bar exam alternatives

    Dr. Michael Nietzel
    Dr. Michael Nietzel

    Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

    What you need to know about new bar exam alternatives

      Most jurisdictions require aspiring lawyers to take the Uniform Bar Exam.

      However, several states have committed to introducing a new test, the NextGen Bar, in 2026.

      Oregon is allowing candidates to submit a Supervised Practical Portfolio instead of taking the bar. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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      The bar exam has long been a required hurdle for becoming a licensed attorney in the United States. Almost every jurisdiction administers a bar exam to assess whether aspiring attorneys possess the minimum knowledge and competency required to practice law in that state.

      Law school graduates typically spend their first summer after law school cramming for the exam, with many signing up and paying thousands of dollars for bar review courses to help them pass it.

      But now a major shakeup is taking place involving this venerated – and typically dreaded – gateway to the field of law. New exams are being developed, and some states are introducing a licensure option that requires no bar examination at all.

      Here’s a quick summary of these developments.

      What is the Uniform Bar Exam?

      The Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) is the most common bar exam, used by most states. It is a 2-day exam administered twice a year. The UBE is coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and consists of the following 3 components:

      It is uniformly administered and graded and yields a score that can be transferred to other UBE jurisdictions, which is comprised of most of the states.

      In nearly all states, candidates also need to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), a 2-hour multiple-choice test about legal ethics. A few states may supplement the UBE with their own additional exams.

      As part of their attorney licensure process, states also require that you complete what’s called a “Character and Fitness” test, which is a background check to determine if you are morally fit to practice law. Candidates are asked questions such as whether they’ve been convicted of any crimes, been the subject of disciplinary actions, or had any financial judgments made against them.

      The NextGen Bar Exam

      The NCBE began developing a new bar exam in 2021, guided by results of a 3-year study of the bar exam and consideration of the most current testing standards.

      Set to debut in July 2026, the NextGen bar exam is designed to test a broad range of basic lawyering skills. It will be a 9-hour test given over 1 and a half days, making it 3 hours shorter than the current Uniform Bar Exam.

      The content of the NextGen bar exam will assess candidates’ skills in:

      • Foundational concepts and principles: including civil procedure, contract law, evidence, torts, business associations, constitutional law, criminal law, and real property; starting in July 2028, family law will be included.
      • Foundational lawyering skills: including legal research, legal writing, issue spotting and analysis, investigation and evaluation, client counseling and advising, negotiation and dispute resolution, and client relationship and management.

      Five states have already committed to using the NextGen bar exam. Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon, and Wyoming are the first jurisdictions to announce they intend to adopt it.

      Maryland, Missouri, and Oregon will begin using the exam in July 2026; Wyoming’s first administration is scheduled for July 2027. Connecticut has not yet finalized its first administration date. More states are expected to get on board in the future.

      States with no bar exam requirement

      Oregon, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire all provide alternatives to taking the bar.

      Starting in 2024, law graduates who want to become licensed attorneys in Oregon will be able to skip a bar exam altogether and instead pursue an alternative pathway to licensure.

      That option became possible after the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously approved the Supervised Practice Portfolio Examination. This alternative will permit graduates from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association – even those outside Oregon – to become attorneys by completing 675 hours of legal practice under the supervision of a licensed Oregon attorney and, in addition, creating a portfolio of their legal work to be evaluated by the Oregon State Board of Bar Examiners.

      The elimination of the bar exam requirement was an outgrowth of the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision, during the COVID-19 pandemic, to grant emergency diploma privilege to the law school graduating class of 2020, which was not required to take an exam.

      “The goal was to develop a licensure pathway that was as, if not more, rigorous than the current bar exam and prioritize equity in the process. Those twin pillars have always been the guideposts for this effort,” said Brian Gallini, in an Inside Higher Education article. Gallini is dean of the Willamette University College of Law in Salem and a member of the state committee that developed the pathway program.

      “What I hope it accomplishes is that it provides a pathway that is more directly tied to the skills expected of newly licensed lawyers that do a better job of protecting the public than a multiple-choice and essay-based exam do,” Gallini added. “And I hope that because of the transparency in grading and requirements, it does that in a more equitable manner.”

      Currently, only 2 other states allow attorneys to be licensed without passing a bar exam, but their procedures are different from the supervised practice plan adopted by Oregon. In Wisconsin, law school graduates can practice via diploma privilege, and New Hampshire graduates can bypass the bar by taking a specialized curriculum.

      » Also read: The easiest law schools to get into: 2023

      Bar exams are being increasingly questioned, in part because of their expense and in part because of major questions about their fairness and possible biases, a concern that’s being directed to high stakes standardized testing of all sorts.

      Consequently, more states beyond Oregon are considering replacing their standard bar exam with non-exam alternatives. For example, Minnesota is considering a curricular and experiential pathway to licensure that would be an alternative to the UBE. California has studied the issue but could not reach consensus about adding an alternative.

      Final thoughts

      The legal community holds sharply divided opinions about scrapping the bar exam in favor of alternative pathways. Proponents view such alternatives as a way to open up the legal system, preferring them over exams, which tend to favor students who can afford the extensive preparation that’s usually involved. Critics, including large numbers of the practicing bar, see them as a watering down of rigor and a weakening of public protections against incompetent practitioners.

      The pace of change is likely to be slow, but, at the same time, a shift away from reliance on the traditional bar exam as the one gateway to the legal profession is clearly underway. Students can expect more states to explore curricular and experiential alternatives to the bar exam, with a new emphasis on assessing skills rather than testing memory.

      Along with those alternatives, a shift in the law school curriculum is also likely to take place, with greater attention being paid to teaching students the skills they need to represent their clients. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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