Chapter 1: What IS the bar exam?

When non-lawyers and even law students speak of the Bar Exam, it’s usually something that seems shrouded in mystery. But we are here to shed some light on that mystery. In its simplest form, the Bar Exam is the standardized test that allows you to be admitted to practice law in your state after you graduate law school.1Or sometimes before! Some states, like New York, have programs where you can take the Bar Exam earlier then get practical experience at an externship in your last semester of law school. In New York law schools, this is called the Pro Bono Scholars Program. But it is much more than that. The Bar Exam will test your patience, time management skills, active memorization skills, and ability to deal with a lot of information you are uncomfortable with and are never truly certain about.2 Does it sound fun yet?!  This test will be unlike any you have taken before, including in law school. But as long as you have a plan of action and you put in the work, you will be fine. 

Initially, it’s important to remember that passing the Bar Exam does not necessarily mean that you’re automatically admitted to practice law in your state. The Bar Exam may just be one of several things you have to do in order to become an attorney in your state. Many states require that you take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) before you are admitted. Most, if not all, states have some form of a Character & Fitness application. 3 No this is not how fast you can run or how much you can bench press. This is an extremely through background check that may require a lot of work and information collection on your end. So it’s good to know what your state requires for this in order to prepare ahead for all the documents you need. Your state may even require a state-specific exam before admission. For example, New York requires that each applicant pass the New York Law Exam, an open note multiple-choice test taken remotely on your computer after watching a 17-hour substantive review called the New York Law Course. Each state and jurisdiction within that state may have slightly different requirements to become an attorney, so it’s important that you go to your jurisdiction’s Board of Bar Examiners’ website to review those requirements.4New York’s Board of Law Examiner website can be found at https://www.nybarexam.org/.

Most states now use the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) which is a 2-day exam that tests you on approximately 13 possible areas of law in the form of essay questions and multiple-choice questions.5 A great place to start is to visit the website for the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The NCBE lists which states have adopted their exam, the UBE, and what other requirements each state may have. They also have a subject matter outline that shows the areas of law that you may see on the UBE. Take a look here: https://ncbex.org/exams/ube/. It also includes a “practical” portion of the exam that tests your ability to handle a real-life scenario such as an objective legal memo explaining the law in an area to a managing partner or a client. 6 I will get into the specifics of this in another post. Some states do not use the UBE, but have their own state-specific exam that may or may not use portions of the UBE. 7 For example, Florida and California use the multiple-choice questions from the UBE but have state specific essays that focus on state law. To pass the Bar Exam, you will have to reach the minimum score within that state. No matter what state in which you sit for the Bar Exam, they generally follow the same structure of a mix of essay-based questions and multiple-choice questions that test your ability to learn and understand the law and apply that law to different factual scenarios. Every Bar Exam also has a strict time limit so it will not only test your ability to know a seemingly endless amount of law, but also do all of these tasks in a very short amount of time. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s the one we have right now. So we will spend a lot of the next posts dedicated to demystifying the Bar Exam to get you more comfortable with what you will be doing the summer after you graduate law school.

Meet the Author
Stephen Iannacone is Director of Academic Success at Cardozo School of Law and a Bar Exam Coach at Vinco. Prior to joining Cardozo School of Law, Stephen was a trial attorney at the law firm of Spiegel & Barbato, LLP. He specialized in civil litigation in all New York venues and argued several appeals in the First Department. He was also an adjunct professor at Pace Law School where he taught classes to third-year students preparing for the Bar Exam as well as classes to second-year students focusing on legal writing and analysis. Read more about Stephen >