Get to Know the Bar Exam

info about taking the bar

The bar examination is the main licensing exam for the legal profession. It's a right of passage that all attorneys have gone through, whose purpose is to determine a candidate's qualifications to practice law. Each U.S. state and territory governs the licensing requirements to practice law within its own borders. Successful passage of a state's bar exam, and meeting any other licensing requirements it has, results in the authorization to practice law in that specific state.

In order to obtain that authorization, you must complete an admissions process governed by the state board of bar examiners. While the admissions process varies significantly from state to state, the following criteria for eligibility must usually be satisfied:

  • Passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE);
  • Passing the state's bar exam;
  • Completing the state’s Character and Fitness process; and
  • Completing any additional state-specific requirements

Students seeking information about eligibility, filing deadlines, filing fees and other state requirements may consult the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements published by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. You can also look at our state-by-state breakdown of requirements. However, you should also check your desired state’s bar examiner website periodically as filing deadlines, filing fees, and other requirements can certainly change throughout the year.       

Every jurisdiction in the U.S. requires passage of a bar exam to practice law, and the exam's format can vary significantly across different jurisdictions. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have all adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), meaning that they all offer the same exact exam and allow scores to be easily transferred between jurisdictions. The UBE is administered over two days, and includes the following three components:

  • The Multistate Performance Test (MPT) consists of two essay questions. Each is a 90-minute "closed universe" question that requires legal and factual analysis, problem solving, and organization. This part of the test does not require any memorization; you are given all the facts and laws that you need, and are asked to synthesize the material to answer the question.
  • The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) consists of six 30-minute essay questions. Examinees must compose their answers based on their knowledge of the following subjects: Business Associations, Family Law, Secured Transactions, Wills and Estates, plus all of the MBE subjects listed below.
  • The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) is a six-hour, 200-questions multiple-choice exam covering the following subjects: Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Federal Civil Procedure, Real Property, and Torts.

For states that have not adopted the UBE (most notably Virginia for our students), they generally have state-specific essay questions on the first day of the bar exam. These state-specific questions vary in number, length, and subject matter, so be sure to gather information about your state's exam! Generally, every state administers the multiple-choice MBE on the second day of the bar exam.

When considering where to take the bar exam after law school, there are several factors to consider. Where do you plan to live for the next two to three years? Where are your personal, social, and professional networks? Where is the major hub for your legal field of interest? If you want maximum flexibility when choosing your place to practice, are you interested in a UBE jurisdiction?

States that are part of the UBE network allow applicants to transfer their scores between states easily, but the process can be long, costly, and sometimes complicated. "Waiving in" to another state is not a simple process, so your decision about where to take the bar exam should be carefully considered to serve your short-term interests.

Additionally, filing deadlines, exam subjects, and exam fees can differ significantly between jurisdictions. You should begin researching the jurisdictions you're interested in over the summer between your 2L and 3L years of law school.

For most jurisdictions, the bar exam is administered twice per year, on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. Upcoming dates include:

  • Tuesday, February 21st, 2023 & Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023
  • Tuesday, July 25, 2023 & Wednesday, July 26, 2023
  • Tuesday, February 27th, 2024 & Wednesday, February 28th, 2024
  • Tuesday, July 30th, 2024 & Wednesday, July 31st, 2024

While you may not be able to take courses in every single subject tested on the bar exam, there are a large number of classes which will help you lay a solid foundation for bar exam preparation and success inmost jurisdictions. 

Subjects tested on the MBE

Almost all subjects tested on the Multistate Bar Exam (the multiple-choice portion of the exam) are courses that are required by WCL. Subjects tested on the MBE include:

  • Constitutional Law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal Law and Procedure
  • Evidence*
  • Federal Civil Procedure
  • Property
  • Torts

*Evidence, while not a required course, is tested on the MBE and thus is strongly recommended prior to graduation.

Subjects tested on the MEE

All 39 jurisdictions administering the Uniform Bar Exam use the Multistate Essay Exam on the first day of the bar exam. Subjects tested on the MEE include all of the subjects on the MBE, noted above, as well as:

  • Business Associations (Partnerships, Corporations, etc.)
  • Conflict of Laws
  • Family Law
  • Secured Transactions
  • Wills, Trusts, & Estates

Additional Coursework

In addition to the lists above, some jurisdictions may test additional subject matter. Students should research which courses may be appropriate for their particular bar exam. For example, the Virginia Bar Exam also tests Creditors' Rights and Taxation.

WCL also offers a bar preparation course called Advanced Legal Analysis (ALA). We recommend that all students enroll in this course during their final semester prior to graduation.

Just as every state and territory determines the content of its bar exam, each jurisdiction also has its own unique application process. Generally speaking, applications for the bar exam have two parts: an application to physically sit and take the bar exam and a longer background check that is usually referred to as "Character and Fitness."

Applicants usually submit both parts through an online portal set up by the state bar examiners. Some states also require that applicants submit a paper copy of the application. The first part of the application is usually fairly short, while Character & Fitness requires gathering and disclosing more information.

In addition to the demonstrating knowledge of many legal subjects, applicants are also required to demonstrate that they are a person of good moral character who will exhibit the proper conduct and behavior to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a practicing attorney.

The character and fitness investigative process requires disclosures that vary from state to state. You should be prepared to list specifics of your addresses since you were 18, employers for at least the past five years including contact info, certified DMV records, credit history, any school disciplinary actions or arrests, and other personal information. Gathering this information can be very time consuming, so you should start to assemble and organize it well before your application is due. If you are concerned about having to disclose information, you can contact the Office of Student Affairs.

Students can begin laying the foundation for bar success during their time in law school. Above is a list of classes that you can take while you're in law school. 

Additionally, most students will invest in a commercial bar exam preparation course. These can be expensive, but are strongly recommended as they provide all of the necessary resources and support to refresh material that students may not have engaged since 1L year. Commercial prep courses are designed to last for 8-10 weeks, so we recommend that students do not work during their bar study time following graduation.