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What is the Bar Exam?

By R. Kayne
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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The bar exam is an extensive government-issued test that every law student in the US must pass before going on to practice law. The tests vary by state, geared towards the issuing state’s laws, and typically last two to three days. Before someone can practice law in a particular location, he or she must pass that state’s bar exam.

Though exams differ, in general, the exam consists of a series of essay questions regarding state law and general legal principles. This portion of the bar may last one to two days. A separate day is reserved for taking the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) in participating states. This 200-question test covers common law. Since this portion is standardized, the MBE is issued on the same day throughout the United States.

The parts that make up each test differ among states and US territories. Louisiana and Puerto Rico do not use the MBE, for example, as they are civil jurisdictions not beholden to common law. Performance tests, which ask a law student to write a legal memorandum or other similar tasks, might also be part of the exam. California boasts one of the most difficult bar exams in the nation, and includes the California Performance Test (CPT). Each student has three hours to digest a fictional case and then write a memorandum, issue an opinion, or deliver some other finding. Outside California, the equivalent is the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) &mdashl which is generally considered to be a less taxing, 90-minute version of the CPT.

In addition to the bar, although issued separately, some states, like California, require an ethics test called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The MPRE is administered and graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and is administered three times a year.

To prepare for the exam, most students take classes from private companies. Many focus on specific aspects of the tests, such as the MBE. Some test preparation companies go into greater depth, offering courses on torts, real property and criminal law, among other subjects.

Students can find out what a specific state's requirements are for the bar exam by visiting that state's bar association's website. Once the exam is passed, the lawyer becomes a member of the bar association.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon134253 — On Dec 14, 2010

the only requirement to take the Bar is 90 units of college credits. yep, real deal.

By anon134004 — On Dec 13, 2010

Of the top bar exam preparatory tools, what would you recommend as the most reliable? BarBri is really good but it's too expensive for me. I have a bunch of friends who have recently bought Tony Breeden's attack sheets and have passed the bar, raving about how much the outlines helped them, but is relatively new, no? So would it be a smart investment (granted its not that expensive either)? Otherwise, I am also currently looking into Kaplan and "beatthebar" but since there are so many out there I really need some confirmation on which bar exam prep would be the best one for me! Merci - Alice C.

By GiraffeEars — On Dec 13, 2010

@ Babalaas & aplenty- You should both be able to pursue your dreams of becoming lawyers. Only a four states and the Marianna Islands do not allow convicted felons to take the bar exam.

-Babalaas- From the sounds of it, your legal troubles center on a misdemeanor. If you can meet the requirements, then there should be no reason that you would be barred from taking the bar exam.

-Aplenty- Your disability is protected by the federal government so it cannot be held against you and your ability to take the Cal bar exam. Honestly, your disability may be a benefit in certain fields, especially disability law. You will have a commonality with the clients you represent, which will help you be more successful. I wish you both the best of luck.

By aplenty — On Dec 13, 2010

I would like to add to Babalaas query. I have autism, which is considered a disability. I do fine socially, and very few people would ever guess that I am afflicted by this disorder. I am a stellar student, and do very well controlling my disorder. I would like to know if there is anything preventing me from pursuing my dream of becoming a disability lawyer. Would my disability pose as a barrier to taking the law bar exam in California?

By Babalaas — On Dec 12, 2010

What are the bar exam requirements? What types of things can prevent me from taking the bar and becoming a lawyer? Specifically will a criminal record prevent me from taking the bar? I know that character plays a large role in the requirements to take the bar, but I was hoping someone could help me with specifics.

During my first year in college, I was arrested on an alcohol related offense. This was a few years ago, and I have completed all of the requirements associated with that foolish mistake (i.e. community service, fines, diversion, etc.). I have met all of the academic requirements, and I am a regular participant in community activities, often volunteering my time. I would hate to go to law school and end up not being able to take the bar. Can someone help me find more info on this?

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