Every summer, law school graduates across the country spend two months after graduation cramming their brains full of legal intricacies in anticipation of the dreaded bar exam.
As a law school applicant, you won’t need to worry about the bar exam yet. Almost every state requires aspiring lawyers to go to law school before taking the bar exam, with a few exceptions that permit structured apprenticeship programs instead, like California, Virginia and Washington.
Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand the test in advance. Bar eligibility requirements might affect your application, particularly regarding character and fitness questions.
The Basics of the Bar Exam
U.S. states and territories, as well as the District of Columbia, set their own rules of admission for the bar exam. Further information about these rules can be found through the National Conference of Bar Examiners or specific state bars.
Most states offer the bar exam twice a year, in February and July. These dates allow law students who graduate in either fall or spring to have a couple of months to prepare for the test. Several states moved the test online in 2020.
Bar exams generally take place over two days, including both state-specific tests as well as the Multistate Bar Exam, which is also known as the MBE and is common to every state except Louisiana. Bar exams typically include essays and multiple-choice questions.
Unless you plan to practice in Wisconsin of Puerto Rico, you will also need to complete the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, a multiple-choice test about legal ethics offered several times a year. This test is uniform across states, but states vary in the passing grade they accept. Connecticut and New Jersey accept certain coursework in lieu of a passing score.
Choosing a State
Most people choose to sit for the bar exam where they plan to build a legal career, even if they do not have a job lined up already. They may also consider the difficulty of the bar exam, since states differ in their state-specific content as well as the passing score that they accept for the MBE.
In some cases, it is possible to take two different state bar exams in a row, spread over three days instead of two.
When lawyers want to practice in a new state, they may have to retake all or part of the bar exam for the new state. However, some states have reciprocity rules that allow eligible lawyers to avoid retaking the test.
How Does the Bar Exam Influence Law School Choice?
Most law schools try to help their students prepare for the bar exam. Some focus intently on ensuring their students pass, because a school’s bar passage rate can affect its ranking and reputation. Law school applicants concerned about the bar exam should consider schools with a high bar passage rate.
However, law school graduates typically dedicate months after graduation to prepare intensively for the bar exam in the state of their choice, regardless of where they graduated. This rigorous preparation, using a state-specific bar prep course or self-study materials, matters much more than which law school you attend.
This may seem counterintuitive. Many applicants reasonably assume that they should attend law school where they plan to take the bar exam, but this is not necessarily true.
[Read: Why Law School Location Matters.]
Because law school teaches you how to think and write like a lawyer, law school courses focus on legal gray areas and arguments with no right answer. Law school classes, exams and papers require you to parse legal issues and make arguments from a set of facts.
In contrast, the bar exam is generally concerned with “black letter law,” which means the specifics of the law in the state. Bar exam questions do have right and wrong answers.
Law school classes are not adequate preparation for the bar exam, although they provide a foundation for the rules and concepts that test-takers must master.
Character and Fitness
All applicants to the bar are required to complete a character and fitness questionnaire. They may also need to be briefly interviewed about their answers to these questions.
This component of the bar exam varies between states but typically covers lack of candor, criminal record, untreated mental illness and substance abuse, and financial irresponsibility. This is why law school applications often ask detailed questions about applicants’ disciplinary and criminal records.
If you are concerned that incidents in your past may raise red flags in these areas, you should disclose them fully and accurately. It is better to confront these issues while applying to law school rather than years later when you are applying for bar admission.
When you make such disclosures, write an explanatory addendum to provide context. Highlight active steps you have taken to rehabilitate yourself and distance yourself from prior misconduct.
If you are concerned any of these issues may be serious enough to make you ineligible for admission to the bar, consult a lawyer who specializes in disciplinary matters in the state where you plan to take the bar exam.
While law school applications generally do not ask about issues of mental illness and substance abuse, these issues are self-reported when applying for the bar. If you have experienced such issues, it is most important to show that you have sought treatment as applicable and found ways to actively manage those issues so that they will not interfere with your professional responsibilities.
If bar examiners have reason to suspect past financial or ethical irresponsibility, they may look at evidence like your credit reports, income tax returns and legal records. Once again, it is most important to be able to show you have addressed any such issues and that they will not recur.
Bar examiners may also research you online, including social media. Before taking the bar exam, be sure to review your online presence and remove anything that might reflect poorly on your professionalism or integrity. Err on the side of discretion.
Finally, note that bar examiners nationwide are contemplating significant changes incoming years, such as the integration of scenario-based questions that test professional skills rather than legal knowledge. While those changes would take years to implement, future applicants may have to prepare for a new generation of tests.
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Update 08/22/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.