What Is the Bar Exam?

So — what is the Bar Exam?

I’m not gonna blow any smoke up your skirt here. The Bar Exam is a monster of an exam! I have spent most of my life in school–as I am an education nerd to the core–but I have never encountered an examination the likes of the Bar Exam.

I don’t believe in fear, but a reverent appreciation for the intensity of this exam is wise. It will serve you well to take it more seriously than any goal you’ve ever set for yourself.

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The Bar Exam is Goliath. You are David. 

Do whatever you must to prepare to throw that rock with precision, and you can lay Goliath flat on his keister to never intimidate you again! And know that when it is done, and you get that passing grade, there is no feeling in the world as euphoric.

(Except maybe your first “win” at trial. That’s pretty close!)

So… What Is the Bar Exam?

Reduced to its simplest description, the Bar Exam is used to determine whether or not you are competent to begin practicing as an attorney in a given jurisdiction.

But so much more can be said about this unique exam. So let’s dive in.

First off, it is important to understand that you can only sit for the Bar Exam if you have graduated from an accredited law school.
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Gone are the days (in most states) of apprenticeships and internships that taught people all they needed to know to become an attorney. Now, graduation from law school is the very important first step.

Conversely, it is interesting to note that not everyone who graduates from law school actually becomes a lawyer. There is a critical difference between graduating from law school and being licensed to practice law.

Being licensed involves taking and passing the Bar Exam, as well as applying to the jurisdiction’s Board of Bar Examiners to obtain your license. There is a board in each jurisdiction that oversees attorney licensure.

These boards may go by different names in different jurisdictions, but they all do essentially the same thing: they collect an enormous amount of information from applicants, process the information, and make a determination as to whether or not an applicant is “fit” to practice law in their jurisdiction. The state boards look at things such as arrests, criminal histories, flaws in integrity, and many other traits to make their determination.

So in order to practice law in any given jurisdiction in the United States you must do three things:

  • Graduate from an accredited law school
  • Apply to, and get approved by your jurisdiction’s Board of Bar Examiners (its name may vary)
  • Take and pass the Bar Exam

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If you go through the first two steps and do not pass the Bar Exam, then you will not be licensed to practice law. There are students who take the exam multiple times, only to repeatedly fail. Such people may continue to take the exam until they pass, or they may eventually tire of the process and pursue a career in a related field where their Juris Doctorate degree will make them an ideal candidate.

OK, now that we’ve looked at the Bar Exam’s role in licensing attorneys, let’s turn to look at the exam itself.

Component Parts of the Bar Exam

The Bar Exam is slightly different depending on where you take it in the country. But let’s start by looking at what is the same in nearly every jurisdiction in the U.S.


The MBE is the Multistate Bar Exam. It is developed by the NCBE (National Conference of Bar Examiners) and is given throughout the U.S. with the only exceptions being Louisiana and Puerto Rico (both of which operate under a civil law system that differs significantly from the rest of the country).

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The MBE is given on the exact same day in every jurisdiction across the country. It consists of 200 multiple choice questions. You will take the first 100 questions in the morning, and the second 100 in the afternoon. Each testing session is three hours long. So if you do the math, you essentially have 1.8 minutes to answer each question to complete all questions on time.

Interestingly, only 175 out of the 200 questions are actually graded. The other 25 are “pretest” questions, meaning that they are questions that are being tested for future exams. You will have no way of knowing which are the pretest questions and which are the real questions, so obviously you need to answer them all to the best of your ability.

Of those 175 scored questions, there are 25 from each survey class you took in law school. The topics are:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Torts
  • Real Property
  • Contracts
  • Constitutional Law
  • Evidence

These questions are disbursed in no special order throughout the exam.

The Second Day of Testing for Non-UBE States

What happens on the second day for non-UBE jurisdictions varies from state to state. The first day is the same for most of the country, but the second day is up to the state or jurisdiction within which you are taking the exam.

Some states administer their own test, developed by that state’s Board of Bar Examiners. States that do this use the second day to test your knowledge of laws what is the bar exam, MEE, MPT - magooshparticular to that state. So each state has the option of giving a state-specific essay exam in the morning, or they can opt to use the MEE if they wish.

In the afternoon, states can either give another state specific multiple choice exam, or opt to give the MPT (Multistate Performance Test). The MPT is very different in that it does not test substantive law knowledge. Instead, this test is designed to test skills that a beginning lawyer should possess. The MPT is composed of two 90 minute tasks. A jurisdiction can use either one or both of these tasks and give them the weight they choose as far as scoring.

The UBE – What Is It?

As you can see, Bar Exams vary from state to state. However, there is a growing trend where states are adopting the use of the UBE, or Uniform Bar Exam. This exam is developed by the NCBE (National Conference of Bar Examiners), the same folks who develop the MBE if you recall.

There are presently 28 jurisdictions that use the UBE. Hopefully that number will increase in future years because the advantages are enormous and can be summed up in one word: RECIPROCITY.

That word may not mean much to you now, but if you take a Bar Exam in a non-UBE state, and then move to a different state at some point in your career—that word will have much more meaning.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I was determined to only take the Bar Exam ONCE. I took it in Florida, a non-UBE state. So, if I move to another state I’d have to jump through multiple hoops to get my license to practice in the new state. These hoops also vary widely, but can include having to take the entire Bar Exam over again. That is worst case scenario, but just the fact that it exists makes living in Florida the rest of my life an even more attractive option than it already is!

But if you are in a UBE state, you will have reciprocity in all jurisdictions that use the UBE. There may be some minor hoops you still must navigate, but having to take the entire Bar Exam over won’t be one of them.

Like I said—very advantageous.

Components of the UBE

The UBE is similar to the individual state Bar Exams. The MBE is given the first day, just like in all states in the union. It is the second day of testing that differs. The UBE uses the MEE (Multistate Essay Exam) in the morning, and the MPT (Multistate Performance Test) in the afternoon.


The MEE is much like the state-specific essay exams that are given on the second day of testing, only it is not state-specific. It consists of six, thirty-minute questions that test your knowledge of substantive law, as well as your ability to communicate effectively in writing.

The subjects covered are as follows:

  • Business Associations
  • Civil Procedure
  • Conflict of Laws
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contract Law
  • Article 2 (sales) of the Uniform Commercial Code
  • Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure
  • Evidence
  • Family Law
  • Real Property
  • Torts
  • Trusts and Estates
  • Article 9 (secured transactions) of the Uniform Commercial Code

Any essay question on the exam can cover one or more of these areas of law. You are tested on your ability to look at a fact pattern, identify legal issues, and address them by applying the proper law.

While this may seem intimidating, it is a part of the exam from which you can pick up many points by writing out all you know on a given topic. Unlike the MBE, where only one answer is correct, in the essay portion you can show what you know by writing it out. This comes in especially handy for making up points if you are not good at multiple choice tests.


In the afternoon, the UBE administers the MPT (Multistate Performance Test).

As stated earlier, this part of the exam is designed to test lawyering skills as opposed to substantive knowledge. The UBE presents you with two tasks that must be completed in 90 minutes each.

You are given an assignment, as if from a supervising attorney, and you must use the materials given to you by this supervisor to accurately complete the task at hand.

The MPT tests your ability to:

  • Look at complex factual information and sort the relevant facts from the irrelevant.
  • Find the applicable laws that pertain to the relevant facts from the materials given.
  • Apply the relevant law to the relevant facts in order to best address the client’s issues.
  • Solve any ethical dilemmas that are presented.
  • Effectively communicate in writing.
  • Complete a beginning lawyering task within a time constraint.

What is the Bar Exam? Well, those are the basics. If you are taking the Bar and want more information on the specific sections, please check out our other posts and feel free to comment below with your questions!

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