A bar examination is a test intended to determine whether a candidate is qualified to practice law in a given jurisdiction.
Bar exams are administered by agencies of individual states. The bar examination in most U.S. states and territories is at least two days long. A few states, including California, have three-day exams and usually consists of essay questions and multiple choice questions.
Bar Exam Essay Questions:
Essentially all jurisdictions administer several such questions that test knowledge of general legal principles, and may also test knowledge of the state’s own law (usually subjects such as wills, trusts and community property, which always vary from one state to another).
Some jurisdictions choose to use the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), drafted by the NCBE since 1988, for this purpose. Others may draft their own questions with this goal in mind, while some states both draft their own questions and use the MEE.
Some jurisdictions administer complicated questions that specifically test knowledge of that state’s law.
Each state controls where it administers its bar exam. Because the MBE is a standardized test, it must be administered on the same day across the country. That day occurs twice a year as the last Wednesday in July and the last Wednesday in February. Two states, Delaware and North Dakota, may administer their bar exams only once, in July, if they do not have enough applicants to merit a second sitting. North Dakota requires ten applicants in order to administer the February exam. Most bar exams are administered on consecutive days. Louisiana is the exception, with the Louisiana Bar Exam being a three-day examination on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Also, Louisiana’s examination is the longest in the country in terms of examination time, with seven hours on Monday and Wednesday and seven and one half hours on Friday for a total of 21.5 hours of testing. Montana’s bar examination also occurs over a three-day period, with a total of 18 hours of testing. The bar exams in Alabama, California, Delaware, Nevada, South Carolina, and Texas are also three days long.
The MEE and MPT, as uniform though not standardized tests, also must be administered on the same day across the country – specifically the day before the MBE.
Most law schools teach students common law and how to analyze hypothetical fact patterns like a lawyer, but do not specifically prepare law students for any particular bar exam. Only a minority of law schools offer bar preparation courses.
To refresh their memory on “black-letter rules” tested on the bar, most students engage in a regimen of study (called “bar review”) between graduating from law school and sitting for the bar. For bar review, most students in the United States attend a private bar review course which is provided by a third-party company and not their law school.
The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) is a standardized, multiple-choice examination created and sold to participating state bar examiners.
It is administered on a single day of the bar examination in 49 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Republic of Palau. The only state that does not administer the MBE is Louisiana, which follows a civil law system very different from the law in other states. The MBE is also not administered in Puerto Rico, which, like Louisiana, has a civil law system. The MBE is given twice a year: on the last Wednesday of July in all jurisdictions that require that examination, and on the last Wednesday of February in the same jurisdictions, except for Delaware and North Dakota.
The 200 MBE questions test six subjects based upon principles of common law and Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (covering sales of goods) that apply throughout the United States. The questions are not broken down into sections and the six topics are distributed more or less evenly throughout the course of the exam. Exam-takers generally receive three hours during the morning session to complete the first 100 questions, and another three hours during the afternoon session to complete the second 100 questions.
In January 2009, NCBE indicated that it was considering adding a seventh topic, civil procedure, to the examination. Civil Procedure will make its first showing on the MBE in February 2015.
The average raw score from the summer exam historically has been about 128, or about 67% correct (only 190 of the 200 questions are scored with the remaining 10 questions being evaluated for future use), while the average scaled score was about 140. In summer 2007, the average scaled score was 143.7 with a standard deviation of 15.9. Over 50,000 applicants took the test; less than half that number took it in the winter.
Taking the MBE in one jurisdiction may allow an applicant to use his or her MBE score to waive into another jurisdiction or to use the MBE score with another state’s bar examination.
The Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) is a collection of essay questions largely concerning the common law administered as a part of the bar examination in 26 jurisdictions of the United States: Alabama, Alaska (eff. July 2014), Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Palau, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
The MEE can cover any of the following areas:
Business associations – Agency and partnership, corporations, limited liability companies
Conflict of laws
Criminal law and procedure
Federal civil procedure
Trusts and estates – decedents’ estates; trusts and future interests
Uniform Commercial Code – Article 3, Negotiable Instruments; Article 4 [Bank Deposits and Collections]; Article 9, Secured Transactions
MEE questions are actually drafted by the NCBE Drafting Committee, with the assistance of outside academics and practitioners who are experts in the fields being tested. After initial drafting, the questions are pretested, analyzed by outside experts and a separate NCBE committee, reviewed by boards of bar examiners in the jurisdictions that use the test, and then revised by the Drafting Committee in accordance with the results of this process. Each MEE question is accompanied by a grading guide, and the NCBE sponsors a grading workshop on the weekend following the bar exam whose results are provided to bar examiners.
The examination is always administered on a single day of the bar examination, specifically the day before the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). Through February 2007, the MEE consisted of seven questions, with most jurisdictions selecting six of the seven questions to administer. Unlike the MBE, which is graded and scored by the NCBE, the MEE is graded exclusively by the jurisdiction that administers the bar examination. Each jurisdiction has the choice of grading MEE questions according to general U.S. common law or the jurisdiction’s own law.
The MEE is generally partnered with the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), a written performance test developed by the NCBE and used in 33 U.S. jurisdictions.
In almost all jurisdictions, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), an ethics exam, is also administered by the NCBE, which creates it and grades it. The MPRE is offered three times a year, in March, August and November.
California and Pennsylvania draft and administer their own performance tests. California performance tests are three hours in length (as California has traditionally viewed the 90-minute MPT as too short to meaningfully test anything) and are far more difficult than the MPT.
As noted above, essay questions are the most variable component of the bar exam. States emphasize different areas of law in their essay questions depending upon their respective histories and public policy priorities. For example, unlike California and Texas, Louisiana did not convert to common law when it was acquired by the United States, so its essay questions require knowledge of the state’s unique civil law system. Several Western states, like California, espouse a strong public policy in favor of gender equality, which means they require all bar exam applicants to demonstrate knowledge of community property law. Pennsylvania, with a history of federal tax evasion (e.g., the Whiskey Rebellion), tests federal income tax law, while New Jersey, with a history of discriminatory zoning (resulting in the controversial Mount Laurel doctrine), tests zoning and planning law. Washington, South Dakota, and New Mexico each test Indian law, because of their relatively large populations of Native Americans and large numbers of Indian reservations. Most states test knowledge of the law of negotiable instruments and secured transactions (Articles 3 and 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code), but Alaska, California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania do not; they have recognized that the vast majority of criminal, personal injury, and family lawyers will never draft a promissory note or litigate the validity of a security interest.
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