New Bar Exam Shorter but Not Easier

New Bar Exam Shorter but Not Easier

With the adoption of the UBE, or Unified Bar Exam, the test in many U.S. jurisdictions is shorter but, most likely, not any easier. Even California, which didn’t adopt the UBE, reduced the test from three days to two as of July 2017. By reputation, California and New York vie for the toughest Bar Exams in the country. With 260,000+ members of the State Bar of California (almost 190,000 active as of July 2017), the exam obviously is passable, but must be taken very seriously, especially if you’re moving here from out of state.


Unified Bar Exam

In Feb. 2016, the ABA adopted a resolution endorsing the Unified Bar Exam (UBE). The Uniform Bar Examination, coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, is uniformly administered, graded, and scored by user jurisdictions, with each jurisdiction setting its own passing score. Test takers can transfer their scores to other jurisdictions that use the standard test. This allows lawyers easier mobility from one jurisdiction to another and is a pragmatic way to address the increasingly multijurisdictional nature of law practice.

More than 26 states, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia use the standard exam, and the number continues to increase. See for a current map of the jurisdictions that adopted the UBE.

The first day of the UBE consists of six 30-minute essays in the morning (the Multistate Essay Examination or MEE), followed by two 90-minute performance tests in the afternoon (the Multistate Performance Test or MPT). The MEE covers 13 subjects: Business Associations; Conflict of Laws; Constitutional Law; Contracts (including UCC Article 2); Criminal Law; Criminal Procedure; Evidence; Family Law; Federal Civil Procedure; Real Property; Torts; Trusts and Estates; and Uniform Commercial Code [selected sections]

The second full day of the UBE consists of the Multistate Bar Examination or MBE with 200 multiple choice questions, 100 each in morning and afternoon sessions. The MBE is given on the last Wednesday of February and July and the MEE and MPT are administered the Tuesday prior to that. More information regarding this test is found at

The UBE grading breakdown is 50 percent for the MBE, 30 percent for the MEE, and 20 percent for the MPT. While the MBE is scored nationally, the MEE and MPT portions of the exam are graded only against other test takers within each jurisdiction. Jurisdictions using the unified exam may require applicants to complete a jurisdiction-specific educational component and/or pass a test on jurisdiction-specific law in addition to passing the UBE.


The new CA Bar Exam Format

Effective July 2017, the California Bar Exam also was reduced from its historic three-day format to just two. The new version consists of five one-hour essays and one 90-minute performance test on the first day, and 200 multiple-choice questions, the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), on the second day. Also, as with the UBE, the MBE portion of California’s new bar exam is worth 50 percent of the exam, up from the previous version’s 35 percent. Whether this change is good news or bad news depends upon whether you’re better at an essay or multiple-choice format.

The essay questions involve the following areas: community property, civil procedure, Constitutional law, contracts, corporations, criminal law and procedure, evidence, professional responsibility, real property, remedies, torts, trusts, and wills. This part of the exam requires specific knowledge of California law which can be unique to the state. For more information, see here.

The performance test consists of a 90-minute writing project. The projects vary, but may include preparing a memo of points and authorities, a memo of law to a senior partner, an appellate brief, a closing argument, a discovery plan and interrogatories, or a client letter. Test-takers receive a packet of instructions, factual data, statutes, cases, and memoranda from a hypothetical law firm to use in preparing the requested project.

The multistate (MBE) exam given in California is the same exam given nationally, developed and graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, as described above. California doesn’t accept scores from MBE exams taken in other jurisdictions. However, attorneys who have practiced in another state for four out of the six years immediately preceding their application to the State Bar of California may take the Attorney Examination, which excludes the multistate portion of the Bar Exam. (Nor does California grant admission to practice by reciprocity; an attorney admitted elsewhere cannot "waive in" here. Everyone wishing to practice law in the state of California must take either the general or attorney bar exam.)


Scoring the Exam

California’s bar exam passage rate sunk to historic lows for the July 2016 and February 2017 tests, which caused an uproar.  The state’s bar passage cutoff score of 144 is the second highest in the nation behind Delaware. The California State Bar Association and Committee of Bar Examiners are studying whether to recommend to the California Supreme Court that the cutoff score be lowered. Twenty deans of ABA-accredited law schools in the state propose that the court apply a passing score of 135 — the median in the other nine most populous states— while the issue is studied further. That would put California’s passage rates more in line with other states across the country.

The State Bar is accepting public comment on a variety of proposals through August 26, 2017, and plans to present recommendations to the state Supreme Court in September 2017. Any change may be applied retroactively to July 2017 test takers.  In any event, California’s legal education community and the state Supreme Court are watching to see if the move to a two-day exam improves scores.

A detailed description of the exam and the grading process is found at


Professional Responsibility Exam

In addition to the two-day California Bar Exam, all applicants for admission also must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) which consists of 60 questions (50 scored questions and 10 nonscored pretest questions) regarding the ABA Rules of Professional Responsibility and ABA Code of Judicial Conduct. The two-hour multiple-choice examination is offered in three times a year in California, and may be taken after completing the first year of law school. For more information about the MPRE, see

Additional information regarding Admission to the State Bar of California can be obtained from:


Relocating to California?

Attorneys moving to California from out of state often ask whether they should take the Bar Exam before or after securing a position here. Because the exam is onerous, and it takes approximately six months to get the results and be sworn in, employers prefer an attorney who is already admitted here and can "hit the ground running". This is especially true for litigators as compared to transactional attorneys.

Attorneys relocating for an in-house position aren’t required to take the California Bar Exam unless their new employers mandate it. They may become Registered In-House Counsel by filing an application with the State Bar which includes a form for determination of moral character. They must renew the application every year and whenever they change employers. Registered in-house counsel are subject to the same continuing education requirements as other active members of the Bar. They may not, however, appear in California State Courts. More information regarding Registered In-House Counsel is found here.

If an attorney is serious about relocating to a law firm position in California, it’s wise to register and sit for the next available California Bar Exam. This shows commitment and initiative, and is viewed very favorably by prospective employers. Applications for the Bar Exam must be received by the Committee of Bar Examiners four months before the exam. In addition, applicants must complete the Moral Character Screening which takes up to six months to process.

The California Bar exam is extremely difficult and preparation should be taken seriously. It’s virtually impossible to work full time while studying for the exam, and earn a passing grade. Therefore, make plans regarding the bar exam as soon as you contemplate a move to California. Register, start to study, and . . . GOOD LUCK!

Valerie Fontaine
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