Let’s pause for a second before diving into this particular topic. I’m pretty sure all of us have done the “easiest bar exams” or “hardest bar exams” searches. After all, we want to be reassured that our test is in the former category (unless you’re in one or two particularly notorious states). I’m a firm believer in the whole “knowledge is power” thing – it’s all what you choose to do with it – but if your state is on this list, I don’t want you to panic or feel despondent. The vast majority of these states are on this list by very slim margins. Also, I’ll be adding caveats to some of these states, as the data is either outdated or big changes for the better are coming this very year.
I’m also noting where this data comes from. Robert Anderson, professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, created a list four years ago that compiles data from nearly half a decade of bar administrations. You can find it on his blog, Witnesseth. He used bar exam passage rates, average LSAT scores, and a “bonus percentage” relative to the California Bar. The data is somewhat dated, so I will be adding caveats as we go. Still, it remains one of the best attempts at a formal list of the hardest bar exams.
Alright, without further ado let’s dive in.
We all probably saw this one coming. The California bar exam has a nationwide reputation as the most difficult bar exam in the country. One of the larger factors increasing the difficulty of the California test is that it tests state-specific law in addition to utilizing portions of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), requiring a test-taker to be able to apply the right rules at the right time and memorize California distinctions. Additionally, California allows non-ABA accredited law school students to sit for the exam, which tends to drive the bar passage rate down.
It’s worth briefly noting that one factor playing into the California bar exams difficulty – the 3-day length of the exam – is changing this year. Starting in July 2017 the California bar exam will be a 2-day test, with the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) weighted more heavily than in the past. This could make it a less difficult exam going forward.
Louisiana also has a reputation for having a difficult test, mainly for how unique both their state legal system and test are. The Louisiana bar exam is the only jurisdiction that utilizes none of the National Conference of Bar Examiner’s tools – it has no MBE, MEE, or MPT sections. Instead, Louisana tests a blend of state-specific essays, short-answer questions, and multiple choice questions. It is also one of the longest in the country, exceeding 21 hours. These factors rank Louisiana among the hardest bar exams in the country.
Prior to July 2013, the Washington bar exam was an essay-only format focusing exclusively on Washington law, which made it more difficult than other more predictable exams. Washington began administering the UBE in July 2013, and over the last few years law schools in Washington have effectively shifted teaching priority to these tested subjects, which means the test is much more predictable than it once was.
Historically, Oregon has included state-specific essays in its bar exam, making it a more difficult test and lowering the overall pass rate. Starting this very year, in July 2017, the Oregon bar exam will instead begin administering the UBE. While it may take some time for Oregon law schools to begin shifting priority to mastering the UBE, it will make exam expectations more predictable from now on.
Unlike the previous two states Nevada has not adopted the UBE in recent years; it remains a more difficult exam. The unofficial pass rate provided by the State Bar of Nevada for the February 2017 examination is 49%, making it among the lowest in the country. Part of the reason for Nevada’s exam difficulty is that, although it does use the MBE and MPT, it includes a state-specific essay section.
Likewise, Virginia also remains a state-specific bar exam, although it does include the MBE. The Virginia bar exam is notable for testing a substantial number of different topics on its essay portion. 24 individual topics can appear on the Virginia bar exam essays, which is about 5 topics more than many other essay sections. That’s a substantial amount of extra studying to make certain you understand all the testable material.
Arkansas also ranks high on the list of difficulty, likely due to its relatively low pass rate. Although Arkansas uses the MBE, MEE, and MPT in its bar exam, it computes scoring in a somewhat different manner than some jurisdictions. This ultimately results in the need for a slightly higher score than elsewhere.
8. West Virginia
West Virginia is another state that previously utilized the MBE, MEE, and MPT in its state bar exam, but was not formally a UBE jurisdiction. That will change July 2017, when West Virginia formally becomes a UBE jurisdiction.
While the Maryland bar exam does use the MBE and MPT, it has a state-specific essay portion that is weighed twice as much as the MBE. This amount of weight assigned to state essay questions makes Maryland quite a tough bar exam.
Similar to Oregon, Vermont used to have a state-specific writing portion in its bar exam. However, Vermont adopted the UBE on July 2016. As such, like other states that have recently removed state-specific portions, it will take a few administrations to see a noticeably positive impact.
* * * * * * * * *
I hope this list of the top 10 hardest bar exams is helpful! I recommend perusing our other articles for many helpful tips, tricks, explanations, and insights into the examination.
Even if you’re in one of these named jurisdictions, you’ve got this.
Sign up for early access to Magoosh UBE Prep!