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In order to obtain a license to practice law, law school graduates must apply for bar admission through the board of bar examiners in the state(s) in which they wish to practice. Licensing involves a demonstration of worthiness in two areas—competence and character and fitness. To meet the competency requirement, an applicant must hold an acceptable educational credential (most often a J.D., though also on occasion an LL.M.) and pass the state’s bar exam. To meet the character and fitness requirement, the state-specific board of bar examiners must be satisfied that the applicant’s background meets certain standards of conduct.
Because each state determines what criteria it will use to determine an attorney’s eligibility for law practice, it is critical that you determine the individual requirements for your state prior to embarking on the bar admission process. Links to each state’s bar admissions office is available online through the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) website. Simply click on a state from the drop-down list found under the Directory heading.
Bar Exam Formats
The bar exam is offered two times per year, generally on the last Tuesday and Wednesday in July and February. The exams in many states contain a state-specific portion and a multistate portion, although an increasing number of states, including, notably, New York, are adopting the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE).
The standardized multistate options, the first three of which also comprise the UBE, include:
- The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)—a six-hour, 200 multiple-choice question exam covering constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property and torts.
- The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE)—a three-hour, six-question essay exam, which may include questions about business associations, conflict of laws, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, family law, federal civil procedure, real property, torts, trusts and estates, and the Uniform Commercial Code.
- The Multistate Performance Test (MPT)—two 90-minute skills questions covering legal analysis, factual analysis, problem solving, identification and resolution of ethical dilemmas, organization and management of lawyering tasks, and written communication.
- The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)—a 60-question, two-hour multiple-choice exam administered three times per year. (Discussed more fully below.)
The most common non-UBE jurisdiction bar exam format is a two-day exam, with one day devoted to the MBE and another day of substantive essay questions tailored for practice in that jurisdiction. For specific details regarding the type of exam administered in your state, consult the NCBE’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, which is available in CDO and on NCBE’s website under the Publications tab. Chart 8 of the Comprehensive Guide lists the exams that are required in each state.
Which Bar Exam(s) to Take
If you secure permanent employment before bar applications are due, this question is usually easy to answer—take the bar exam in the state in which you have accepted employment.
One exception to this is for students who will be working in DC. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals Committee on Admissions allows you to take the bar in another jurisdiction and be admitted to the DC bar if you receive a scaled score of 133 or higher on the MBE, a scaled score of 75 or higher on the MPRE, and are admitted in the jurisdiction in which you took the bar.
Another exception arises out of the decision made by New York and several other states to adopt the UBE. In the case of New York, this will become effective with the July 2016 administration of the New York State bar examination. As of this time an applicant to the New York Bar who achieves a score of 266 or higher on the UBE, whether taken in New York or in another jurisdiction, may qualify for admission to the New York Bar subject to some additional requirements, including the completion of an online course on New York-specific law and the passage of an examination on this material.
Accordingly, even if you plan to apply for admission to the New York Bar, you may wish to take the UBE in another state that administers the UBE for an assortment of reasons, including what is most financially or geographically optimal for you at that juncture. You can visit the New York State Board of Law Examiners website for a complete description of the UBE and the New York-specific testing process. Other state bars that accept and administer the UBE have similar rules; you can check on those that pertain to the state bars in which you are interested on the NCBE’s website, along with a full listing of those states that have currently adopted and administer the UBE.
A third possible exception is for students working for the federal government. For some agencies, being an active member in good standing of a bar of any U.S. jurisdiction will suffice. Other offices, including many U.S. Attorneys Offices, require their attorneys to be admitted to the bars of the states where the offices are located. Be sure to check with your employer about its requirements before registering for a bar exam.
You also may find it relevant to determine the Admission by Waiver (also known as Admission on Motion or Reciprocity) rules for some of the states whose bars you are considering taking in order to determine what impact, if any, your passing one state’s bar exam will have on your attempt to relocate to another state. As mentioned above, DC has the most lenient Admission by Waiver rules. The rules in some other states are stricter. The Florida Board of Bar Examiners, for example, requires all attorneys to pass the Florida bar exam prior to admission. California allows attorneys who have been admitted in active status in good standing for four years immediately preceding the first day of the California bar exam to take a shorter “Attorneys Examination” instead of the bar exam. In addition to the previously mentioned rules regarding applicants who have taken the UBE, New York allows for Admission on Motion for applicants who have practiced for five of the preceding seven years and who are admitted to practice in one of 37 listed reciprocal jurisdictions. Consult each state’s bar admission requirements to learn how they handle these issues.
You may decide to sit for two bar exams, either because you are unsure about where you will work or because you anticipate relocating in the near future. You can accomplish this by sitting in one state for the state and multistate portions of the exam and sitting in another state for just its state portion. This is only possible if the two state exams are on different days, if your multistate score will be accepted by both states, and if you can make it from one state to the other in one evening.
If you have not accepted a job and are uncertain about where you will settle, you can either apply to sit for the bar in the state in which you hope to obtain employment or wait to secure a position before taking the exam. If you find yourself in this situation, or if you otherwise have questions about what bar exam(s) it makes sense for you to take, feel free to talk over the options with a counselor in CDO.
When to Take the Bar
Most students take the July bar exam during the summer after graduation. However, students who haven’t obtained a job by graduation or who are working in a temporary position, such as a judicial clerkship or fellowship, may decide to defer taking the exam until later. Keep in mind that while many legal positions do not have bar passage as a prerequisite for hiring, a few do. To the extent possible, learn the hiring requirements of your desired employer(s). Feel free to speak with a CDO counselor regarding any questions about these issues.
Judicial Clerks and the Bar
Students who will be clerking for a judge after graduation have some unique considerations relating to the bar exam in terms of both timing and expense reimbursement. Some judges prefer that their clerks not study or sit for the bar during their clerkships; in those situations, clerks schedule their bar exams around the start or end dates of their clerkships. Some judges prefer clerks to take the bar exam prior to the commencement of their clerkships. Other judges have no preference. Because clerks with bar admission and one year of legal experience can earn an additional $11,000 during their clerkships, clerks who pass the bar prior to their clerkships may be entitled to a jump in salary late in their clerkship year. Consult CDO’s Judicial Clerkships in the U.S. guide for detailed clerkship salary information.
If you will be working for a law firm upon the completion of your clerkship, the firm will likely reimburse you for bar expenses and may provide you with a stipend for the summer you spend studying for the bar. Some judges do not allow clerks to receive any financial remuneration from an employer until the end of the clerkship year, other judges allow clerks to accept certain types of reimbursement. The best approach with regard to all of these issues is to speak with your judge about his/her bar exam preferences.
Consult your state’s bar admissions office for accurate application information. Links to those offices are available on the NCBE website through the drop down list found under Directory. Some applications can be downloaded from the web; for other states, you must call or write to request an application.
Some application deadlines are quite early (e.g., Illinois—February 15 for the July exam); some give a range (e.g., New York—between 120 and 90 days prior to the date of the exam); and others are later (e.g., Virginia—May 10 for July exam). Many states offer both a regular filing deadline and a late filing deadline (for an additional fee).
Get to work on your application early—most of them are very involved and will take more time than you might think to complete. For example, you may be asked to list every place that you have lived in the past 10 years, every job you have held, and information about your financial and credit history. It can take a lot of time to track down all of this information.
The Registrar’s Office is responsible for certifying to your state that you are eligible to sit for the bar. Some states require that you have your degree in hand; some want to know that you have completed all requirements necessary to graduate; others want to know that you are within a certain number of credits from meeting your graduation requirements. Early in your third year, visit Judith Calvert in the Registrar’s Office to tell her which bar(s) you plan to take and to sign a release allowing her to provide your state with all bar-related information it may require, including transcripts. Depending on the state, the Registrar may have additional responsibilities regarding your bar application. For example, New York requires applicants to conduct an in-person verification of a handwriting sample. Other states require that the application form itself be notarized. The Registrar’s Office can assist you with these tasks, but don’t wait until the last minute.
Bar application costs vary—in New York the application fee is $250; in California it is over $600, plus more for character and fitness investigations. Some states provide a discount to students who register early. Many employers (typically law firms) will reimburse these expenses. Inquire with your employer as to what costs it will cover.
Special Requirements for the New York Bar
The New York State Board of Law Examiners recently changed some of the curricular requirements for eligibility to sit for the New York State Bar Examination, including the professional responsibility course requirement. Please note that while courses which satisfy the New York Board of Law Examiners’ professional responsibility requirement will also satisfy the Yale Law School professional responsibility requirement, not all classes which satisfy the Yale Law School professional responsibility requirement will also satisfy the New York Board of Law Examiners’ requirement.
For the 2015-2016 academic year, there are five courses offered at YLS that meet the special New York Professional Responsibility requirement. Three such courses are offered in fall 2015: Ethics Bureau at Yale: Pro Bono Professional Responsibility Advice and Advocacy (30166); In-House Lawyering: Ethics and Professional Responsibility (20123); and Legal Profession: Traversing the Ethical Minefield (20522). Two such courses are offered in spring 2016: Ethics Bureau at Yale: Pro Bono Professional Responsibility Advice and Advocacy (30166); and Military Justice (21678).
Separately, the New York State Court of Appeals recently adopted a new rule (§520.16) requiring applicants for admission to the New York State bar to perform 50 hours of pro bono services. Pro bono work may begin after commencing your legal education (and except under certain circumstances on or after May 1, 2012), and must be completed before submitting an Application for Admission. (Thus you may elect to determine if you have passed the New York bar examination before you engage in qualifying pro bono work, but the 50-hour requirement must be completed before applying for admission.) The qualifying work must be performed under the supervision of a faculty member or Law School instructor; an attorney admitted to practice and in good standing in the jurisdiction in which the work is performed; or, in the case of an internship with a court, by a judge or attorney employed by the court system. Law School clinic work will qualify. Qualifying pro bono work may also be completed within or outside the United States. Every applicant for admission to the New York bar will be required to file an Affidavit of Compliance describing the nature and dates of pro bono service and the number of hours completed. Review the Rule and the FAQs for more information.
Please note that since Yale Law School is not the administrator of this 50-hour New York pro bono requirement, neither it nor its employees can officially verify or confirm that any particular activity will count toward the requirement’s fulfilment. Instead, you should direct any such inquiries to the New York State bar administrators, at ProBonoRule@nycourts.gov or (855) 227 5482.
Admission to the New York bar also requires that applicants have accrued 64 units of classroom hours. You can review the Law School Registrar’s discussion of what sorts of courses go toward this classroom hour count.
Some states require, and others encourage, law students to register with the state during law school. For example, California requires that applicants complete an Application for Registration before any other forms are submitted. A list of states that have a law student registration process is available in Chart 1 of the NCBE Comprehensive Guide.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)
Most states require a passing score on the MPRE exam in order to be admitted to practice. The 60-question, two-hour, multiple-choice exam tests your knowledge and understanding of the ethical standards of the legal profession. The test is offered nationwide three times per year—in March, August, and November. Some states (e.g., Massachusetts) require that you take the MPRE prior to the bar exam, while other states (e.g., New York) don’t care whether you take the exam before or after the bar exam, though in New York the MPRE must be taken within three years before or after a student has passed the New York bar exam. Most students take the MPRE in March of their third year. The deadline for registering for that test is typically late January or early February. Unlike the bar exam, you can take the MPRE in any state and have your score submitted to another state. For more information about the MPRE, including subject areas covered, deadlines, statistics, and fees, consult theNCBE website.
Bar Review Courses
Most students studying for the bar choose not to go it alone and instead sign up for a bar review course with one of the numerous bar review outfits. One of the more popular companies is BARBRI, but there are many others, including more competitively priced options like Themis. Many courses prepare students for both the multistate and state portions of the bar exam and for the MPRE. Others focus only on one portion of the test. For a list of some of the many bar review options, visit FindLaw’s website.
These courses are not cheap. Fortunately, many employers (typically law firms) will reimburse these expenses. Inquire with your employer as to what costs it will cover. As mentioned above, judicial clerks should be aware that some judges will not allow clerks to be reimbursed for bar expenses incurred prior to the start of the clerkship. Check with your judge about his/her policies. For students who will not be reimbursed by an employer, bar loans are available if taken out prior to graduation. Speak with Jill Stone in the Financial Aid Office for additional information.
Character and Fitness
In addition to passing the bar exam, your character and fitness must be established as a prerequisite to licensure. To assess these qualities, you will be required to provide detailed information about your background. If the bar examiners believe that the information you provide reflects poorly on your character or fitness, they will require additional investigation.
Examples of topics your state may cover include:
- educational history, including any disciplinary actions against you
- employment history, including any charges of misconduct or discharges
- criminal history
- financial history, including any neglect of financial responsibilities
- litigation history
- driving history
- mental health
- substance abuse
Consult Chart 2 in the NCBE Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2015 for guidance on the character and fitness determinations of each state. New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust authors a very helpful brochure about the New York character and fitness requirement, Are You Fit to Be a Lawyer?. To learn more about California’s moral character requirements, visit the State Bar of Californiawebsite.
In reviewing your information and determining its significance, various factors are likely to be considered, including your age at the time the conduct occurred, when the conduct occurred, the seriousness of the conduct, your candor in providing the information, and your conduct since the incident(s) took place. As to mental health and substance abuse matters, the fact of treatment for these problems is not usually enough for denial of admission. Typically examiners want to see that an applicant is taking personal responsibility and addressing the problem(s).
Do not omit information for fear that the information will prohibit you from admission. Failure to disclose information is likely to cause you more difficulty in admission than the incident itself. Answer all questions completely and honestly. Direct any questions about the character and fitness requirements to the board of bar examiners of your state.
Bar Admission Offices
Bar Review Courses
Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements
New York Board of Law Examiners
New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust brochure about Character and Fitness Requirement
Preparing to take the Bar Exam on your personal laptop
State Bar of California
DC Court of Appeals Committee on Admissions
Updated September 2015