In order to practice law in the United States — also called being "admitted to the bar" — you must obtain a law license from an individual territory or state. To receive a law license from one of these jurisdictions (with some exceptions), you must first pass the bar exam. Each jurisdiction administers the test to ensure minimal competence from the lawyers who practice there.
In the vast majority of states, examinees take the bar exam over two full days. If you graduate from a law school in Wisconsin, you will not need to take the Wisconsin bar exam due to "diploma privilege."
The bar exam includes a multiple choice exam, essay portion, and, in some jurisdictions, skills training.
The highest court in the state, e.g. the Supreme Court of Utah, determines the rules for who will be admitted to the bar. (In several jurisdictions the state legislature also has some authority to determine the rules.) Many states require students to graduate from law school prior to sitting for the bar exam, although some states and the District of Columbia permit students to sit for the exam prior to graduation. The states that do not require a student to graduate from law school prior to sitting for the bar exam generally require a student to have completed most of their legal education prior to taking the bar exam. A very small minority of states (California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington) do not require that a student attend law school at all. These states instead have other methods (i.e. four-year legal apprenticeships) in which a person can become eligible to sit for the bar exam.
Approximately half of the jurisdictions (29 states and the District of Columbia) allow graduates from foreign law schools to apply for admission to practice law in the state. Each state has specific requirements, but most of the states require that a graduate from a foreign law school take the bar exam or be admitted to practice in another U.S. jurisdiction.
The bar exam is administered twice a year, at the end of February and at the end of July. The multistate bar exam (the "MBE") is administered on the last Wednesday of every February and July. An essay portion is administered either the day before the MBE or the day after the MBE is administered, depending on the jurisdiction.
The MBE consists of 200 multiple-choice questions. Examinees have three hours to complete the first set of 100 questions and three hours to complete the second set of 100 questions. The MBE tests seven subjects: Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure, Contracts and Sales, Constitutional Law, Real Property, Evidence, Torts, and Civil Procedure. The majority of subjects tested on the MBE are taught during the first year of law school. Every jurisdiction but Louisiana uses the MBE.
The MBE is written by the National Conference of Bar Examiners and tests majority law rather than any specific state's laws. Thus, instead of asking examinees to know a specific state's laws, examinees must know the law that a majority of states follow. This is unusual in one regard because examinees are required to memorize the law that no particular jurisdiction follows. Further, some states administer a jurisdiction-specific exam in conjunction with the MBE, which tests the law of the particular state. (See more about the essay portion of the bar exam, below.) This can present an additional burden for examinees, as the law of a particular state may not comport with the majority rule. In such situations, examinees could reach two different conclusions on the same set of facts depending on whether they apply the majority law of the MBE or the jurisdiction-specific law.
The jurisdictions that do not contain a component of the bar exam that tests state-specific law include: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
A majority of states test state-specific law on the essay portion of the bar exam. However, 20 states administer the "multistate essay exam" which tests majority law rather than a specific state's law. States vary in both the number of essay questions they administer as well as the time allotted to each essay question. For example, some states have five essays administered over five hours, whereas others have 15 essays administered over five hours.
The majority of jurisdictions (38 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau) also administer a multistate performance test ("MPT") that aims to test additional lawyer skills. Examinees receive the facts of a case, along with laws or regulations, and are expected to complete a lawyerly task.
Bar exam difficulty varies by state due to grading methodologies and differing minimum passing scores. Statistics on specific bar exam passage rates can be found here.
By Ashley Heidemann, founder of JD Advising, LLC., a law school and bar exam preparation company.