The 2021 Guide to Studying for the Bar Exam

For many people, the path to becoming a lawyer can be a long and arduous journey. From a rigorous admissions process, to late nights studying in law school, prospective lawyers have one final hurdle to become a licensed attorney: passing the bar exam.

What is the Bar Exam?

While the initial obstacle most aspiring attorneys face is how to get into law school (whether a traditional school or an online Juris Doctor (J.D.) program), once students graduate and get a J.D., their final challenge comes when it’s time to pass the bar exam. 

Because law is a public profession, all candidates with a J.D. degree must be held to the highest standards of competence and character—the bar exam was created to ensure that. The bar is a two-part exam administered by each state’s board of bar examiners. This rigorous exam evaluates candidates’ knowledge of the law, and ensures they have the skills, aptitude and moral fiber necessary to practice law in the U.S.

Is the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) the Same as the Bar Exam?

When it comes to the UBE vs bar exam, preferences vary from state to state. The UBE is a way to uniformly administer, grade, and score across states, so that an attorney admitted in one state can receive their results in a portable score and apply for admission to another UBE jurisdiction. While additional state-specific requirements are usually required in order to be admitted to a UBE state, the UBE simplifies the process of transferring from one state to another. The content of the UBE and a state-specific exam are usually similar, but state bar exams also include material specific to that state’s laws. 

While the majority of states have adopted the UBE, the following states and U.S. territories have not as of August 2020: 

  • California
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Guam 
  • Puerto Rico

This list is subject to change, it is most helpful to check the requirement components for the state you intend to get licensed in state prior to taking the bar. 

What About the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)?

Every state except Wisconsin and Puerto Rico requires candidates to take the MPRE in addition to the bar exam. There is a key difference between the MPRE vs the bar exam. While the bar tests students’ knowledge of the law itself, the MPRE tests candidates’ understanding of professional standards of conduct. It evaluates whether students can discern whether an attorney is subject to discipline or has engaged in improper conduct. The MPRE is not a test of an individual’s ethical values, but rather the ethical values a lawyer must uphold on the job.  The required MPRE score varies by each state, and is subject to change, make sure to research these requirements prior to submitting your results. 

Bar Exam Components

What exactly is on the bar exam? It depends on the state, but the most common format consists of a two-part exam taken over two days. The first is the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), composed of 200 multiple choice questions covering Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts. The second day typically consists of essay questions on a broader range of subjects. In many states, the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) and Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) are used for this portion. 

How to Study for the Bar Exam

The bar exam covers a vast range of information and requires dedicated preparation. There are a variety of ways to prepare for the bar exam. Below are a few ways to consider:

– Enrolling in a bar exam prep course.
– Using practice books and taking bar exam practice tests.

Prep courses usually follow a scheduled curriculum, with practice questions and essays frequently submitted for grading and feedback. Some courses even offer money-back guarantees if you don’t pass the exam—all you’ll need to do is complete a certain percentage of the prep courses you enrolled in. Alternatively, using study books and taking practice exams may be a less expensive way to prepare, but this prep method may also require more self-discipline. Practice tests provide insight into how the test is organized, how much to spend on each section, and how to better pace yourself during the real thing. Whatever method you choose, be sure to devote enough time and undivided attention to your studies.

5 Tips to Help with Passing the Bar Exam

The bar exam tests a huge range of material, with only a limited amount of time to take it. Being well-prepared can allow you to perform your best.  Here are our 5 tips that might help you to learn how to pass the bar exam. 

1. Make a Schedule and Stick To It.

The bar exam covers an expansive range of topics, and without a plan, it can get very overwhelming. You can plan backwards from the test date to ensure you cover the necessary topics each week. The National Jurist, a national legal education publication, recommends that you begin studying at least nine weeks before your scheduled test date

If you are taking a bar prep course, it likely provides a detailed schedule to follow. Review it thoroughly to ensure you give yourself enough time to learn the concepts you’re less familiar with. With or without a prep course though, you will likely need to devote several hours a day to studying. Once you’ve decided on a schedule, stick to it to ensure you don’t fall behind. 

2. Prioritize your Bar Prep.

Bar preparation demands a lot of energy and attention, so brace yourself, and be willing to sacrifice some elements of your usual life. Try not to schedule big family events or other personal obligations that require a hefty time commitment in the months before the bar exam. This might mean seeing friends less or sitting out of fun plans or trips. But the short-term sacrifice could be worth it—not devoting enough attention now could mean spending even more time and money later to retake it if you don’t pass.

3. Strategize.

While you do need to put in the hours to effectively study for the bar, there are ways to work smarter, not harder. One way to do that? Know your strengths and be choosy about how much time you devote to each subject, based on the likelihood that it will be on the exam. Certain bar topics show up more frequently than others, so knowing which ones, and dedicating more time to those, is one way to study more effectively.

However, the sheer amount of information on the bar exam still requires that you have a quick, general recall of the testable topics—and frankly, the only way to do that is through memorization. As rudimentary as it may sound, making flashcards and drilling them repeatedly is a simple way to do so. But get creative, too: mnemonic devices and acronyms are all effective memorization tools.

4. Take Practice Exams.

It’s not a bad idea to regularly take practice exams (both multiple-choice and essay), to familiarize yourself with the test structure and question types. The more comfortable you are with how the test is organized, the more likely it is you’ll be able to spend your energy on remembering the material, rather than navigating the test. Mimic the exam conditions as closely as you can, especially when it comes to the time limitations. Let yourself feel the pressure of the clock to condition yourself to work more quickly. The more you practice you give yourself, the more confident you’ll feel on test day. 

5. Practice Self-Care.

Studying for the bar can be a draining process, both physically and mentally. Schedule in time to eat, exercise, and relax. Whether it’s meditation, going on a daily run, or prepping nutritious meals for the week, find the things that bring you peace and keep you healthy—and stay as consistent with those things as you do your studying. It’s easy to lose yourself in bar preparation, but you’ll likely do your best work when you make self-care a priority.

FAQ About the Bar Exam

Can You Become a Lawyer without Passing the Bar?

You must pass the bar in order to become a lawyer. Most people attend a traditional law school or obtain an online law degree before taking the bar. However, a few states like CaliforniaVermontVirginia, and Washington allow you to qualify for the bar exam by enrolling in an apprenticeship under a practicing attorney or judge. In Maine and New York, students who have attended only one or two years of law school are eligible to take the bar, subject to other requirements.

How Long is the Bar Exam?

Each state’s exam may vary. However, some general components remain consistent, with most exams given over two days, with similar running times. The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) on the first day is three hours long, with six essay questions. States that don’t use the UBE may give their own essay portion—the amount of questions will vary by state. The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) on the second day is six hours long, with 200 multiple-choice questions. The Multistate Performance Test (MPT) has two questions, each with a duration of 90 minutes.

How Many Times Can You Take the Bar Exam?

Some states have no restriction on how many times you can take the bar. Others limit candidates to 3-5 times, after which you may be banned from retaking it. Make sure to check each state’s requirements prior to sitting for it. 

Can You Practice Law in Every State?

Not unless you pass the bar in every state. While you may provide legal advice, you cannot represent clients in another state’s court unless you have passed the bar there.

Last Updated August 2020