Overview of a Bar Exam

Posted on: October 28, 2005

Overview of the Bar Exam

is a good chance that the bar exam will be the least enjoyable
experience of your entire legal career. Passing the state bar exam is
required in order to be admitted as a lawyer in that state. Each state
has its own variation of the examination, but most share certain

The first component, the Multistate Bar Exam, is the same in every
state. It consists of 200 multiple-choice questions prepared by the
National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) covering a range of legal
topics, including contracts, constitutional law, criminal law and
procedure, evidence, property and torts. You will have six hours to
answer these questions, in two periods of three hours each. This gives
you a little less than two minutes per question. The MBE questions are
not short. A question might be several sentences long and each answer
will probably also be a sentence or two. In other words, you’ll
probably need the whole six hours to complete the exam. The District of
Columbia and all states except Louisiana and Washington require lawyers
to have passed the MBE.

Virtually every state bar exam includes a second, and sometimes even
a third, day of essays. Some exams tailor questions to their state’s
laws (for example, California, New York, Maryland, North Carolina),
while other states use the Multistate Essay Exam as their essay
section. The Multistate Essay Exam consists of six essay questions
spread over the course of three hours. Other states have their own
format. Some topics might be familiar to you from your law school
classes (like contracts, real property and torts), but others will only
ring a bell if you took the course as an elective (such as wills,
family law, conflict of laws or corporations). There will be as many as
20 different areas of law that you need to study.

Another component common to most bar exams is known as the
Multistate Performance Test. This section is designed to test your
lawyering abilities and responses to ethical dilemmas and clients. Not
all states use this in their bar exams, and some only use part of it
(New York, for example, has only one Multistate Performance question,
while other states include more). This section is generally only
allotted an hour or two.

Finally, before you graduate from law school, you will probably be
required to take an ethics test, known as the Multistate Professional
Responsibility Test. The MPRE is a little over two hours long and
consists of 50 multiple-choice questions designed to measure your
knowledge of ethical standards of the legal profession. The exam is
offered by the NCBE three times a year, in March, August and November.
If you are not required by your state to take the MPRE, you might be
subject to a separate ethics section when you take your bar exam.

All in all, the bar exam is like a two- to three-day legal marathon.
You will prepare for it for months and study as you have never studied
before. It will often seem that you can’t possibly learn as much as
you’re expected to. Don’t despair; as a general rule, more people pass
than fail any bar exam and, if you do fail the first time around, you
can take it again.

If you already have a job lined up, then your firm may pay for a bar
review course such as BAR/BRI or PMBR. Public service and government
agencies usually will not pay for this course. Whether it’s paid for or
not, however, it’s highly recommended that you enroll in some kind of
course to prepare for your bar exam. There are just too many subjects
to cover, many of which you will never have seen before in your law
school career, and attending a course regularly will help you develop
an organized approach to studying. These courses outline all the
requirements for your state’s bar exam and review all the legal
subjects that may be covered on the exam. You will probably start
studying for the bar soon after graduation and take the exam in the
summer. Many states offer the exam in late July. Most bar exams are
offered at least twice and possibly four times a year, so you can take
more time to prepare, if your firm allows it.

Most law firms allow you to take the bar exam again if you failed it
the first time. Government agencies such as prosecutors’ offices
usually won’t give you a second chance. Even so, it’s quite common for
some attorneys to take the bar twice or even three times. Your scores
are not cumulative or dependent on each other, and you will only need
to pass once.


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