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What is the Bar Exam? The Ultimate Guide to the Bar Exam

What is the Bar Exam? Get an Ultimate Guide to the Bar

What is the Bar Exam? 

The bar exam is like no other test you’ve taken. Although most exams will test your knowledge of a limited topic, the bar exam covers a wide swath of legal subjects—business associations, conflict of laws, contracts, constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, civil procedure, evidence, family law, property, torts, trusts and estates, and secured transactions (and some states even throw in a few other legal subjects for good measure!) And unlike some of the nicer law professors you may have had, there are no hints or tips on the bar exam. There are no gimme bar exam questions. There are no funny, throwaway options on the multiple-choice section—the bar examiners aren’t trying to impress you with their wittiness.

But don’t worry—Quimbee’s team members have passed a combined 18 bar examinations, and we’re here to share our collective wisdom (and suffering) with you.

Before we get into the ugly details of the bar exam, let’s explain what it is more generally.

To become a licensed attorney in the United States, you must generally accomplish three things: 
  1. graduate from an accredited law school,
  2. be approved by a state’s board of bar examiners (generally known as a “character and fitness” test), and
  3. pass a bar examination, typically including the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). 
There are some nuances to these requirements. A small number of states allow individuals to take the bar exam upon graduation from a law school approved by a state body but not accredited by the American Bar Association. An even smaller number of states permit an applicant who has not attended law school at all to take the bar exam after studying under a judge; a practice known as “reading the law.”)

The bar examination is a test intended to determine whether a candidate is qualified to practice law in a given state. In the United States, bar exams are administered by state government bodies. Each state bar exam is generally two days long (though some states have a three-day bar exam). 

Details regarding registration for the bar exam (such as the cost to register and application requirements) vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. You’ll need to register for the bar exam through your state’s board of law examiners. Each board has its own website, complete with all of the information you’ll need to complete your attorney application. For more details on this, please see Quimbee’s jurisdiction-specific bar exam pages.

Components of the Bar Exam (UBE)

The exact components of the bar exam vary by state, though over 30 jurisdictions have now adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). Even in jurisdictions that have not adopted the UBE, most bar exams consistent of three components: 
  1. the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), 
  2. a long-form essay section,
  3. a performance or “practical” section.
Although there are approximately 20 jurisdictions that don’t use the full UBE for their bar exam, nearly every jurisdiction utilizes some component of the UBE. For example, the MBE is included as part of the bar exam in 53 of the 55 United States jurisdictions (Louisiana and Puerto Rico are currently the only jurisdictions that don’t use the MBE, as both of those jurisdictions follow a civil-law system that differs dramatically from the law of other jurisdictions.)

Uniform Bar Examination (UBE)

The Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) is a standardized bar exam that consists of three sections:
  1. the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE),
  2. the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and 
  3. the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
The UBE is a uniformly administered bar examination that results in a portable score. This means that applicants who take the UBE may transfer their scores to seek admission in other UBE jurisdictions. States provide expiry dates for scores—typically three to five years—thus, an applicant’s score is no longer portable past its expiration date.

UBE scoring is based on a 400-point scale. Each UBE jurisdiction sets its own minimum-passing score. Minimum-passing scores range from 260-80, though most UBE jurisdictions set their minimum between 260-70.

In states that have not adopted the UBE, applicants seeking to be admitted into states other than the state in which they initially took the bar exam typically must retake that new state’s bar exam. 

However, many states have reciprocity agreements with other states. These bar reciprocity agreements allow attorneys to gain admittance to a new state’s bar without having to retake the bar exam in that new state. The requirements to gain admittance based on reciprocity vary by state. Typically, the attorney seeking admittance must have practiced law for a particular number of years. This process of admittance based on reciprocity is colloquially known as “waiving in.”

Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)

The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is a six-hour, 200-question multiple-choice examination developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and administered by participating jurisdictions on the last Wednesday in February and the last Wednesday in July of each year. Under the UBE, the MBE counts for 50 percent of an examinee’s total score.

The MBE is administered in 49 out of 50 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Republic of Palau). Louisiana and Puerto Rico are the only U.S. jurisdictions that do not administer the MBE. (To read more about Louisiana and Puerto Rico’s bar exams, see our jurisdiction-specific pages.)

According to the NCBE, the purpose of the MBE is to assess the extent to which an examinee can apply fundamental legal principles and legal reasoning to analyze given fact patterns.

The MBE is divided into morning and afternoon testing sessions of three hours each, with 100 questions in each session. There are no scheduled breaks during either the morning or afternoon session, though test takers typically may be excused from the exam room during the test. Be sure to check on this with your jurisdiction, as the rules regarding leaving the exam room may vary by jurisdiction.

Of the 200 MBE questions, 175 questions are scored. The remaining unscored 25 questions are used by the NCBE to test potential future MBE questions. The scored questions are distributed evenly, with 25 questions from each of the seven MBE subject areas: civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, and torts. 

The NCBE offers an MBE subject matter outline for each tested subject that further details the contents of the exam.

Each question on the MBE is followed by four possible answers. As mentioned earlier, the MBE is unlike most other multiple-choice exams you’ve taken. Each answer choice is potentially a trap—the MBE will test your ability to know a rule, the exceptions to that rule, and the exceptions to the exception. You should not expect to be able to immediately rule out answer choices. 

Your MBE score is based on the number of questions you answer correctly, and points are not subtracted for incorrect answers. So, it’s in your interest to answer every question on the MBE, even if you’re guessing.

Many bar examinees consider the MBE to be the “easy” portion of the bar exam; after spending a day writing essays, filling in circles seems like a breeze. This is a mistake. The MBE will test your endurance almost as much as it tests your legal knowledge. Working through 200 MBE questions is no joke—by question 150, you’ll likely find yourself looking at the clock, dreaming of freedom. That’s why it’s important that during your bar exam prep, you take full-length practice MBEs. Just like an athlete, you need to build up your endurance and prepare yourself physically and mentally for the task you’ll be performing.

With Quimbee Bar Review, you’ll be able to do exactly that. Quimbee’s bar-prep course offers several full-length MBE practice exams and thousands of MBE practice questions—many licensed directly from the NCBE. You’ll learn everything you need with our industry-leading video lessons, outlines, and more.

Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)

The 30+ jurisdictions administering the UBE use the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE). The MEE is also utilized by several non-UBE jurisdictions. The MEE consists of six 30-minute questions. It's administered on the Tuesday before the last Wednesday in February and July of each year. The MEE counts for 30 percent of an examinee’s UBE score.

According to the NCBE, the purpose of the MEE is to “test the examinee’s ability to: 
  1. identify legal issues raised by a hypothetical factual situation; 
  2. separate material which is relevant from that which is not; 
  3. present a reasoned analysis of the relevant issues in a clear, concise, and well-organized composition; and 
  4. demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental legal principles relevant to the probable solution of the issues raised by the factual situation.” 
MEE subjects that may be tested include business associations, civil procedure, conflict of laws, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, family law, real property, torts, trusts and estates, and Article 9 (secured transactions) of the Uniform Commercial Code. The NCBE offers an in-depth outline of the topics covered on the MEE.

As with all things bar exam, Quimbee has you covered for the MEE. With Quimbee Bar Review, you’ll get licensed MEE questions and model answers from past bar exams. We’ll give you dozens of practice essays, several of which will be graded by real, live lawyers. And you’ll get personalized feedback, so you’ll know exactly what you need to improve on to crush the MEE. As with our MBE study materials, our MEE-focused content is the best in the business.

A Note on Essays in non-MEE Jurisdictions

While every state bar exam requires test takers to answer essay questions, these questions are the most variable component of the bar exam. Non-UBE states differ in the subjects they test on their essays. For example, Pennsylvania tests federal income tax law, while South Dakota tests Indian law.

Multistate Performance Test (MPT)

The Multistate Performance Test (MPT) is the third component of the UBE. The MPT is used even in jurisdictions that haven’t adopted the UBE—45 jurisdictions administered the MPT in 2017.

The MPT consists of two 90-minute items. It’s typically paired with the MEE and is administered on the same day as the MEE. The MPT counts for 20 percent of your UBE score.

According to the NCBE, the MPT is designed “to test an examinee’s ability to use fundamental lawyering skills in a realistic situation and complete a task that a beginning lawyer should be able to accomplish.”

The materials for each MPT include a file and a library. The file consists of the facts of a fictitious case and will also include legal documents related to the case. The library will contain statutes, cases, and other forms of rules. The file and library will include both relevant and irrelevant information; it’s up to you to figure out what you’ll need to complete your task. Your task will be outlined in a memorandum contained in the file.

Unlike other components of the UBE, the MPT is not a test of substantive knowledge. Thus, there is no material you’ll need to memorize for the MPT. It’s all about practice. 

And Quimbee has your back yet again. Quimbee Bar Review includes multiple practice MPTs, modeled to match the NCBE’s official test.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is often the forgotten little sibling of the bar exam. Although most states administer the MPRE independently of the bar exam, the MPRE is required for admission to the bars of all but three U.S. jurisdictions (Wisconsin, Maryland, and Puerto Rico). Plus, the Connecticut and New Jersey bars accept the completion of a law-school course on professional responsibility in lieu of the MPRE. 

For jurisdictions that require the MPRE, applicants must obtain a passing MPRE score before they can be admitted to the bar. In some states, such as Massachusetts, applicants must pass the MPRE before they can even sit for the bar exam. The MPRE is scored on a scale that ranges from 50-100. Each jurisdiction sets its own minimum passing score. Passing scores range from 75-86, with most jurisdictions setting their minimum at either 80 or 85.

The MPRE tests your knowledge of the ethics rules regarding the practice of law. According to the NCBE, the purpose of the MPRE is to “measure examinees' knowledge and understanding of established standards related to the professional conduct of lawyers.” The exam consists of 60 multiple-choice questions: 50 scored questions and 10 unscored questions. As with the MBE, each question on the MPRE is followed by four possible answers. You’ll have two hours to complete the exam.

The MPRE’s questions are largely based on the American Bar Association (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct, but also cover relevant court decisions as well as procedural and evidentiary rules.

The MPRE is offered three time per year, typically in March, August, and November. Be sure to register early—the regular registration fee is $95, while the late fee is $190.

Although the MPRE might seem like a walk in the park compared to other aspects of the bar exam, you don’t want a failed MPRE standing between you and a law license. Yet again, Quimbee is here to help. Quimbee offers a comprehensive MPRE prep course that will give you everything you need to succeed on MPRE. 

The MPRE is developed by NCBE and administered by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). You might be surprised to see LSAC back in your life—you probably thought you were done with them when you started law school. We hope you’re still on speaking terms with LSAC, though, because you’ll have to register for the MPRE through its website. And if you have any issues regarding the MPRE, you can contact LSAC at the following:

Law School Admission Council
MPRE Service
Phone: (215) 504‐3886
Fax: (215) 968‐1277
[email protected]

Studying for the Bar Exam

So, just how hard is the bar exam? We’ll be blunt: the bar exam is likely to be the most difficult test of your life. This is why most examinees, upon graduating law school, dedicate their summer to studying full-time for the bar exam. Although such dedication isn’t always necessary to passing the bar, it certainly helps, as you will not want to retake the test. And even if you do decide to retake the bar, it won’t be administered for another six months. 

In order to pass the bar exam, you’ll want to approach it like a full-time job. The typical recommendation is that you spend a total of roughly 400 hours studying for the bar exam. If you are studying for the recommended minimum of nine weeks, that means 40-50 hours per week. Of course, if you have other obligations such as a job or family, you may not be able to dedicate this much time to studying. If you’ll be studying part-time, you’ll likely want to start studying four to five months before the exam. 

Regardless of how much time you’ll dedicate to studying for the bar exam, there are a few study tips that apply to everyone. Have set study hours, go somewhere quiet, and stick to your schedule. Plan your meals and workouts for the same time every day.

With that being said, don’t be afraid to let off a little steam, too. We’re not afraid to be cliché—this is a marathon, not a sprint. Be sure to schedule some time off. Far too many people make the mistake of spending every waking hour studying and end up burning out well before taking the bar exam. This is the wrong approach to take. The bar exam requires all your energy, so you need to be able to walk into the exam room well-rested and ready to take on the task at hand. If you’ve burned yourself out from studying, you’ll be looking to just get it over with (a common phrase among people who fail the bar exam). This mindset will keep you from being able to perform at your best. 

To paraphrase the great philosopher Mr. Miyagi, it’s all about balance. If you made it through law school successfully, you probably already know what kind of study schedule works best for you. Don’t mess with a winning formula.

When Do I Get My Bar-Exam Results?

We wish we had an easy answer to this question. Unfortunately, (1) the date you can expect to receive your bar exam results varies dramatically by jurisdiction, and (2) jurisdictions don’t seem too keen on providing specifics regarding when they’ll release exam results. You may find websites out there that have compiled results dates, but they're all unofficial. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may have to wait anywhere from one to three months to know whether you passed the bar. We encourage you to check out Quimbee’s page for your jurisdiction, where we’ll link you to your state bar examiner’s official website. There, you’ll be able to find official details as to when you’ll receive your bar exam results.

For many examinees, the weeks—and likely months—after taking the bar exam are the most stressful. During that time, you may already have started your new career. Our best advice at this point is to ignore the bar exam altogether. Once you’ve left the examination room, you’ve done all you can do. There’s nothing to gain from worrying about your results, so just get on with the rest of your life. Get settled in to your new job, and focus on performing as best as you possibly can.

When you do get your bar exam results, if the news is good, take the time to celebrate. A passing bar exam is the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. You deserve to enjoy it. BUT, you’re not officially a lawyer yet. As we said earlier, you’ll still need to be approved by your state bar. 

Once that’s done, congratulations! You’ll be able to call yourself an attorney. In addition to being able to earn a living through the practice of law, you’ll also be hounded on regular basis by family and friends looking for free advice on how to deal with trespassing neighbors, slanderous coworkers, and unscrupulous salespeople. Enjoy!

Failing the Bar Exam

Of course, failing the bar exam is a reality for a significant percentage of examinees (see our discussion of the statistics below). This isn’t the end of the world—countless numbers of examinees failed the bar exam and went on to achieve the highest levels of success.

You may be asking yourself, "What do I do if I fail the bar exam?" If you failed, don’t panic. The first thing you should do is let your employer (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) know what happened. Discuss with your employer what the proper next step is. Again, don’t panic. 

You’ll also need to decide whether you want to retake the bar exam. If you’re working at a law firm or in any role for which a law license is required, you’ll obviously have to retake the test. But if you’re working in a non-attorney position, you may decide that it’s not worth going through the pain of studying for the bar exam again. That’s a decision that only you can make.

If you do decide to retake the bar exam, you’ll have to figure out what went wrong. Did you not spend enough time studying? Did you spend too much time on the wrong material? Did you panic on test day? Did you not follow a good bar prep course? All of these factors, and certainly others, could have played a role in your bar exam performance.

Quimbee asked users who failed the bar exam to list the factors that contributed to their failing. Here’s what they said:

Table showing which factors contributed most to Quimbee Bar Review users not passing the Bar exam
Table showing which factors contributed most to Quimbee Bar Review users not passing the Bar exam

(Note that this survey was conducted before the launch of Quimbee Bar Review, which was designed with these issues in mind.)

You’ll also need to figure out how you’ll be able to dedicate the time necessary to pass the bar on your second try. Although you likely were able to plan your study schedule well in advance for your first bar exam, this second exam is unexpected. You’ve probably started working and definitely weren’t planning on having to build study time into your already-busy day. But others have made it work before you, and you likely don’t have any other choice but to bear down and find a way to get it done.

If you’re going to be retaking the bar exam, consider signing up for Quimbee Bar Review. Quimbee offers a fully comprehensive bar review course, and you’ll get a personalized study schedule, which automatically updates to ensure you're studying the most important bar exam topics for which you have the least proficiency. And you’ll get plenty of MBE practice questions, MEE practice essays, and practice MPTs, so you can enter the exam room confident in your ability to pass the bar.

Bar-Exam Statistics

The NCBE maintains detailed statistics on the bar exam, as does each jurisdiction’s board of bar examiners. Here are just a few of the most significant numbers:

Table of statistics showing Persons Taking and passing the 2017 Bar Exam
Table of statistics showing Persons Taking and passing the 2017 Bar Exam

Table of statistics showing Persons Taking and Passing the 2017 Bar Exam by source of Legal Education.
Table of statistics showing Persons Taking and Passing the 2017 Bar Exam by source of Legal Education.

Table of statistics showing First-Time Exam Taker and Repeaters in 2017
Table of statistics showing First-Time Exam Taker and Repeaters in 2017

Table showing 2017 MPRE National Summary Statistics (Based on Scaled Scores)
Table showing 2017 MPRE National Summary Statistics (Based on Scaled Scores)

So, Now What?

If the bar exam seems tough and complex, that’s because it is. The entire purpose of the bar exam—and not only the exam, but the entire attorney application process—is to weed out the people who aren’t meant to become lawyers. If you’ve read through this article, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re willing to put in the time and effort necessary to pass the bar exam. Now, you just need to execute. So, study hard, stay focused, and know that Quimbee is here to help you every step of the way

With over 7,800 interactive bar flashcards, 3,800 multiple-choice bar questions, 300+ on-demand video lectures, multiple bar exam practice tests, and a personalized bar exam study schedule, Quimbee Bar Review is the new gold standard in online bar prep. For the most important exam of your life, why settle for anything less?

Make your first attempt at the bar exam your last with Quimbee

  • 96% bar exam pass rate*
  • 100% money-back guarantee
  • 1,450 real questions from past bar exams
* First-time takers who have completed at least 75% of the course.

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