The bar exam represents the culmination of years of legal education in the United States and the final obstacle a person needs to overcome to become a licensed attorney.
The exam is considered very difficult, as you’ll need to demonstrate knowledge of a wide range of legal subjects. This includes showing a deep understanding of different areas of law (such as criminal and corporate law), as well as a grip on federal procedure and evidence rules.
You’ll need to set aside a significant amount of time in order to prepare for the bar exam properly. Furthermore, there are both universal and state-specific bar exam regulations, so if your question is “What is the bar exam like?” the answer is different in each jurisdiction. To help you out in your preparation, we’ll cover all the essential pieces of information you should be aware of before tackling the bar exam.
Bar Exam in the United States
All US states except Wisconsin consider passing the bar exam a mandatory requirement for admission to the bar. Nearly all US jurisdictions have adopted some aspects of the bar exam model proposed by the NCBE (National Conference of Bar Examiners). However, the questions found within, as well as the exact combination of test subjects found in the bar exam differs from state to state.
Currently, 41 jurisdictions have adopted the universal bar exam mode created by the NCBE, called the UBE or the Uniform Bar Exam. As the name implies, the UBE’s purpose is to provide a universal model for bar exams in America, in order to create an even and formalized playing field for all prospective lawyers in the country.
The bar exam in UBE states will be completely identical, although other circumstances, such as passing scores, might vary between states. Whatever the shape or form a particular state’s bar exam comes in, in nearly all cases, the exams are administered by agencies working for state supreme courts.
Passing the bar exam is actually one of several prerequisites to practice law. The other requirements for applicants are:
- Obtaining a JD degree
- Passing a professional responsibility examination
- Character and fitness certification
- Submitting a bar application
Of course, the exact requirements might differ slightly from state to state, but these are the most common ones.
Uniform Bar Exam
The Uniform Bar Exam is a standardized bar exam created and proposed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. UBE came into being in 2011, with Missouri and North Dakota being the first states to administer UBE. The American Bar Association (ABA) has also lent its support to UBE as the universal bar exam in the United States.
As we’ve mentioned, there are 41 jurisdictions that have incorporated UBE. You can always check the list of jurisdictions on NCBE’s website, but here’s what they are at the time of writing:
|1. Alabama||2. Alaska||3. Arizona||4. Arkansas||5. Colorado||6. Connecticut||7. District of Columbia|
|8. Idaho||9. Illinois||10. Indiana||11. Iowa||12. Kansas||13. Kentucky||14. Maine|
|15. Maryland||16. Massachusetts||17. Michigan||18. Minnesota||19. Missouri||20. Montana||21. Nebraska|
|22. New Hampshire||23. New Jersey||24. New Mexico||25. New York||26. North Carolina||27. North Dakota||28. Ohio|
|29. Oklahoma||30. Oregon||31. Pennsylvania||32. Rhode Island||33. South Carolina||34. Tennessee||35. Texas|
|36. Utah||37. Vermont||38. Washington||39. West Virginia||40. Wyoming||41. Virgin Islands|
While the number of states adopting UBE has been steadily increasing over the last few years, some states refuse to adopt the model. The two largest legal markets, California and Florida, have refused to adopt the UBE, while New York has hinted at abandoning UBE in the future.
The bar exam tests a prospective lawyer’s knowledge and skills, encompassing all areas of the law one should know in order to practice law effectively. Since the UBE is administered and scored the same way in all states that have incorporated it, UBE scores are portable between jurisdictions. This means that you can use your bar exam test scores to apply to the bar in all UBE jurisdictions, without the need to take the test for each state.
The Uniform Bar Exam is comprised of three separate tests which applicants have to pass:
- Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) - 50%
- Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) - 30%
- Multistate Performance Test (MPT) - 20%
Even among jurisdictions that have not accepted UBE in its entirety, only two of them administer bar exams without at least one component proposed by the NCBE. When it comes to UBE states, each state is allowed to require additional tests or essays from candidates, in addition to the main exam.
These tests usually contain questions concerning state-specific laws that naturally can’t be a core part of a standardized test like UBE. In addition, each state can determine its passing score for the bar exam, which effectively makes bar exams in some states easier.
Bar Exam Components
Now, let’s get into the particular components of a lawyer bar exam and see what each contains. Of course, as a bar applicant, you should refer to your state’s dedicated bar exam website to see what exactly it will entail. This applies to UBE-compliant jurisdictions as well, as they can include additional tests in addition to the standard UBE bar exam components we’ll describe now.
Multistate Bar Examination
Multistate Bar Examination or MBE is a test comprised of 200 multi-choice questions. The test is split into two 100-question 3-hour sessions - one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The MBE is usually administered two times per year: The last Wednesday of February and the last Wednesday of July.
Bar examiners following the UBE model weigh the multistate bar exam at 50%, meaning it accounts for 50% of the total points you can earn on the state-specific bar exam. Bar exam questions in the MBE section cover seven core areas of law: Constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, real property, contracts, federal rules of evidence and procedure, and torts.
Out of 200 questions, 175 are scored, while 25 are trial questions that are tested out for potential implementation in subsequent bar exams. The main point of the MBE segment is to review the examinees’ knowledge of these core legal principles and how they apply in practical situations.
Multistate Essay Examination
The MEE is administered each year on Tuesday before the last Wednesday in February and the Tuesday before the last Wednesday in July, which is one day before applicants take the MBE.
The MEE is made up of six 30-minute questions answered in essay form. These questions are used to assess the examinee’s ability to analyze legal issues in real-life scenarios and communicate them in writing. The MEE carries 30% of the total points you can earn on the UBE.
The topics covered in these essays include those covered by MBE questions, with a few additions:
- Constitutional law
- Business Associations – Agency and Partnership, Corporations, Limited Liability Companies
- Conflict of Laws
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Family Law
- Federal Civil Procedure
- Real Property
- Trusts and Estates – Decedents' Estates; Trusts and Future Interests
- Uniform Commercial Code – Article 9, Secured Transactions
NCBE drafts nine questions for the MME, and the jurisdictions choose either six or seven out of those to administer. However, unlike the MBE, the questions are not graded by the NCBE. Instead, the jurisdictions are in charge of grading, with a choice of grading questions according to general US common law or the jurisdiction's own law.
Multistate Performance Test
The last segment of the UBE and many non-fully UBE-compliant bar exams is the Multistate Performance Test. The MPT represents the practical portion of the bar exam. Applicants must perform one of the standard lawyer tasks in a realistic situation. These include things like memos, briefs, and other tasks a beginner lawyer should be able to perform.
As such, the MPT’s purpose is not to test knowledge (as previous UBE components do), but to assess the examinee’s lawyering skills. Therefore, the examinee has access to both a case file and documents that contain all the law-related information they might need to complete the task. The point here is not to showcase your memorization potential, but your ability to apply relevant regulations in a practical situation.
The Multistate Performance Test consists of two 90-minute exams. The fictional situations you have to tackle in this portion of the law bar exam usually take place in the made-up state of Franklin. The MPT portion carries 20% of the total points you earn on the bar exam.
The California bar exam looks somewhat different, as the state administers its own performance test. The Californian performance test is notoriously hard, and is used to consist of three-hour segments. In 2017, the performance test for the bar exam in California was switched over to the 90-minute model, but it still differs from the UBE variant.
Preparing for the Bar Exam
As you can see, the bar exam is complex and covers a wide range of subjects. Examinees often compare the bar exam with the LSAT based on difficulty. However, the two aren’t really that comparable because they assess different kinds of skills and knowledge.
Only a few law schools offer preparation courses for the bar - graduates usually have to do it themselves. The arduous process of preparing for the bar is often referred to as the “bar review.” During that time, students go over so-called “black-letter rules” in law, which encompass well-established legal rules that are no longer a matter of dispute.
While law schools rarely have bar preparation courses, organizations outside the university offer them. It’s usually wise to enroll in one to improve your chances of passing the tests ahead. If one of your friends is preparing for the bar exam, don’t be surprised if you don’t get to see them a lot during that period.
Thankfully, many examinees end up passing the bar exam. If you’re wondering, “What is the pass rate for the bar exam?” the answer is state-dependent, but the latest available data tells us that first-time law exam takers in 2018 had a 74.82% pass rate, meaning that only a quarter of examinees fail on the first try.
Therefore, make sure you carefully check your state’s particular bar exam tests, study hard, and you’ll pass the bar exam in no time.