Taking the Bar Exam: Everything You Need to Know

Law school graduates taking the bar exam

Ah, taking the bar exam. With this test, states determine whether freshly minted law school graduates are qualified to practice law. Yet studying 18 substantive areas of law in the span of two months is pretty, well, brutal. But one way of taking some of the stress out of the bar exam is by making sure you know what all of your options are. So here it is: everything you need to know about taking the bar exam!

Table of Contents

Taking the Bar Exam: Requirements

Unlike some other standardized tests, there are requirements for the bar exam. These vary by state, but the bar exam requirements generally include the following:

  • Legal education: But this doesn’t necessarily mean law school–in all states, at least. In California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, you can take the exam after spending time in a legal apprenticeship. Meanwhile, in 10 other states (including Arizona, Texas, and Wisconsin), you can take the test before graduating law school, with some restrictions regarding graduation dates.
  • Residency: But only in some states (currently Arkansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island). Other places allow you to take the exam without being a legal resident. However, you will need to take the bar in the jurisdiction where you plan to practice.
  • Morality: Some states require that candidates take character/fitness tests before signing up for the bar. Check here to see if your state is requires character/fitness tests!

Before you take the bar exam, most states will also require you to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This is a 60-question, 2-hour computer-based exam. Wisconsin and Puerto Rico don’t require it. Other states (think: Massachusetts) need you to get a passing grade before you can apply for the bar exam, while others (e.g., Kansas) only require that you have a passing grade before you sit for the exam. In other words? Check your state requirements.

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Can I take the bar exam without going to law school?

In some states, yes, taking the bar exam without going to law school is possible. Specifically, if you live in California, Virginia, Vermont, or Washington, you can complete this process by working in a practicing lawyer’s office. Specific requirements vary, though. In California, for instance, the process looks like this:

  1. Apprentice in a practicing attorney’s office for at least 18 hours/week for at least four years
  2. Pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination
  3. Receive a “positive moral character determination”
  4. Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination
  5. Then, and only then, will you be allowed to take the California Bar!

See below for more info on what this process looks like, how long it takes, and what the costs are for each of these four states.

So the answer to “Can I take the bar exam without going to law school?” is “sometimes.” With that said, should you try to take the bar without attending law school? Here are some things to think about.

Pros and Cons of Skipping Law School

Pros

  • You’ll save major money on law school
  • You can work a second job during your apprenticeship in some cases. For example, California only requires the apprenticeship to take up 18 hours a week.
  • You’ll come to the bar exam–and your legal practice–with the added bonus of having seen laws in practice, instead of just inside the classroom.

Cons

  • It can be incredibly difficult to find a lawyer to supervise your apprenticeship.
  • The apprenticeship requirements are as long, if not longer, than law school itself, so you won’t save any time.
  • Supervising lawyers usually focus on one particular area of the law, while law school covers a far wider breadth of topics.
  • Last but not least, pass rates for apprentices are far lower than for law-school attendees. Between 1996 and 2014, 1,142 apprentices took the bar exam, but only 305 passed. This works out to 26.7%, while those who attended ABA-approved law schools had a pass rate of 71.1% for the same time period (source).

States That Don’t Require Law School

Still game for taking the bar without law school? Keep reading! As you’ve seen, there are four states in the U.S. that allow you to take the bar exam without attending at least some law school. Those states are California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. If you plan to practice exclusively in one or more of those states, then you just might be able to skip law school altogether.

However, skipping law school doesn’t mean you can just sign up for the next bar exam and go for it. Instead, you’ll have to take the exam as a law reader, which typically entails completing an apprenticeship, paying fees, and meeting a series of other requirements before taking the bar.

A great resource for reading up on state-by-state law apprenticeships is LikeLincoln. Just keep in mind that the linked article covers more than just the four states with law reader programs.

Here’s what you need to start the process, state-by-state.

Click to see California’s requirements
  • Pay $158 and submit a designated form stating your intent to study in a law office or judge’s chamber within 30 days of the date on which you begin your studies.
  • Complete at least four years of study in a registered law school, law office, or judge’s chambers (or any combination of the three).
  • Pay $105 and submit a report on your progress every six months for the duration of your studies.
  • Pass or establish exemption from the First-Year Law Students’ Examination (the fees for this exam are $594 for registration and $146 for a required laptop fee).

Approximate fees (pre-bar exam): $1,718
Approximate time commitment (pre-bar exam): 4 years

For more details on these requirements, visit The State Bar of California’s website.

 

Click to see Vermont’s requirements
  • Pay $200 and submit a designated form stating your intent to study in a law office within 30 days of the date on which you begin your studies.
  • Complete at least three years of study in a law office, under the supervision of an attorney who has been licensed and practicing in Vermont for at least three years.
  • Submit reports on your progress every six months for the duration of your studies.

Approximate fees (pre-bar exam): $200
Approximate time commitment (pre-bar exam): 4 years

For more details on these requirements, read section 6(g)(1) and section 9 of the Rules for Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court.

 

Click to see Virginia’s requirements
  • Pay $500 and submit an application to the law reader program, a statement by the Supervising Attorney, and a recent LSAT score (if requested) by the stated deadlines.
  • Appear in front of the Board of Bar Examiners for an interview, if requested.
  • Complete a 3-year curriculum under a Supervising Attorney who has practiced full time in Virginia for at least 10 of the preceding 12 years (among other requirements).
  • Pass written examinations at the end of each course in the curriculum, and pass annual oral examinations in front of the Board of Bar Examiners.

Approximate cost (pre-bar exam): $500
Approximate time commitment (pre-bar exam): 3 years

For more details on these requirements, visit the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners’ website.

 

Click to see Washington’s requirements
  • Obtain regular, paid employment with a lawyer or judge in Washington who has at least 10 years of active experience and will serve as your tutor.
  • Pay $100 and submit an application to the Law Clerk Program by the appropriate deadline.
  • Complete a 4-year course of study within six years of beginning the program.
  • Take monthly exams and submit three book reports.
  • Pay a $1500 fee each calendar year.

Approximate cost (pre-bar exam): $6,100
Approximate time commitment (pre-bar exam): 4 years

More details on these requirements can be found on the Washington State Bar Association’s website.

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Taking the Bar Exam: Test Format

Whether or not you’ve attended law school, what can you expect from the bar exam? Ah, tricky question, future attorney! Because there are different tests you may need to complete as part of the bar, depending on the state where you’re taking the test and plan to practice. Here’s the breakdown.

Test FormatOffered InLengthAreas to Study
The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) 49 states6 hours
  • Civil procedure

  • Contracts

  • Torts

  • Constitutional law

  • Criminal law and procedure

  • Evidence

  • Real property

Multistate Performance Test (MPT)44 states3 hours (2 x 90 minute tests)
  • Factual analysis

  • Legal analysis and reasoning

  • Problem solving

  • Identification and resolution of ethical dilemmas

  • Written communication

  • Organization and management of a legal task

Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)41 states3 hours
  • Business associations

  • Civil procedure

  • Conflict of laws

  • Constitutional law

  • Contracts

  • Criminal law and procedure

  • Evidence

  • Family law

  • Real property

  • Secured transactions

  • Torts

  • Trusts and estates

Multiple-Choice and Essay Questions (state specific)Varies by stateVaries by stateAsk your state bar
Uniform Bar Exam (UBE)34 states, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands2 daysMBE, MPT and MEE materials

Note that the majority of these tests, including the Uniform Bar Examination, are offered by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). You can find more information about the tests in your state on their website.

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Takeaways for Taking the Bar Exam

The bar exam is already a complex test–the fact that it varies by state doesn’t make it any simpler to figure out! Make sure you’re fully grounded in the test’s basics by checking out the differences between the LSAT and the bar, as well as the correlation between LSAT scores and bar passage. If you’ve decided that law school is the path for you, take a look at the key facts around ABA (American Bar Association) accreditation. And if you’re outside the U.S., here’s what you should know about taking the bar internationally.

Finally, if you’re beginning to study for the bar exam, know that there are a number of bar prep options out there! If you’re on the law school to bar exam pathway, you can also check if your school offers bar prep resources. No matter what your situation is, though–good luck on test day! 🙂

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