A written test that an individual must pass before becoming licensed to practice law as an attorney.
Bar examinations are regulated by states, and their specific requirements vary from state to state. Generally, they cover numerous legal topics and consist of multiple-choice questions or essay questions, or a combination. Most states administer a standardized multiple-choice test known as the Multistate Bar Examination as at least part of the bar examination requirement.
Each state has an interest in protecting its citizens by ensuring the quality and competency of lawyers who receive licenses to practice there. In addition to requiring bar candidates to pass a difficult and comprehensive test of substantive legal knowledge, most jurisdictions also require proof of graduation from an accredited law school and successful completion of a character background review. With few exceptions, only people who satisfy these strict requirements and are licensed by a state bar may practice law in that state. Critics of this system of attorney licensure argue that its true purpose is to reduce competition between lawyers by regulating the number of lawyers admitted to the bar.
Historically, lawyers have played an active role in determining who, and how many, would join their ranks as members of the bar. This tradition predates the U.S. Constitution by more than six centuries, when English courts governed who would be allowed to practice law. Courts have long relied on the rationale that the integrity and competency of practicing attorneys directly affect the quality of justice dispensed.
The U.S. legal system has adopted this rationale. Before 1828, states allowed practicing attorneys to determine the competency of prospective attorneys. Strict rules developed by lawyers at that time typically required an individual to obtain a college degree and work several years as an attorney's apprentice before being admitted to the PRACTICE OF LAW. Because attorneys controlled who would get apprenticeships, the general public perceived the system as catering to the elite.
A decline of elitist attitudes surrounding the election of President ANDREW JACKSON in 1828 prompted a change in the attorney licensing system. State legislatures divested the authority granted attorneys and reclaimed control of bar admission standards, which became far less stringent and far less exclusive. Apprenticeships remained the most common form of legal study, but by 1860, only nine states required any form of LEGAL EDUCATION for ADMISSION TO THE BAR. Written bar examinations, when required, were cursory.
By the late 1800s, a surge in formal law schools spurred a decline in legal apprenticeship programs. A new wave of interest in improving standards of legal education and bar admission prompted the founding of the AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION in 1878 and the American Association of Law Schools in 1900. These groups encouraged tougher bar admission standards, including the requirement that all bar candidates complete a written examination used to assess their fitness to practice law. Today, every state offers a bar examination.
Administrative bodies established in each state generally govern the standards and particularities of the bar examination. In keeping with the tradition of attorney self-regulation, these boards usually are made up, at least in part, of licensed attorneys. The boards determine what legal topics will be covered; what types of questions will be asked; what grading methods will be applied; and the locations, dates, and times of examinations. Nearly every state requires, as one component of the examination, the Multistate Bar Examination.
The Multistate Bar Examination contains two hundred multiple-choice questions covering six legal topics: contracts, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW, CRIMINAL LAW and procedure, evidence, real property, and TORTS. Examinees have six hours to complete the exam, or 1.8 minutes for each question. This computer-graded test is offered twice a year, usually in July and February. Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Washington, and Puerto Rico are the only United States jurisdictions that have not adopted the Multistate Bar Examination.
Most states also require bar candidates to complete a test of their knowledge of state laws. Examinees usually take this portion of the exam on the day before or after the Multistate Bar Examination. This state-specific examination often contains essay questions or multiple-choice questions, or a combination. It may cover a different range of legal topics than does the Multistate Bar Examination, although some topics are duplicated by the two tests.
More than half the states require, in addition, a passing score on the standardized multiple-choice test of legal and professional ethics called the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination. Bar applicants normally take this two-hour test several weeks before or after they take the bar examination. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination tests the applicants' knowledge of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Topics include attorney-client confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and attorney advertising.
In a few states, an attorney may be licensed to practice law without taking the state's bar examination. Wisconsin permits graduates of accredited Wisconsin law schools to become licensed attorneys without taking any bar examination. Other states offer reciprocity, by accepting Multistate Bar Examination scores attained in other jurisdictions or by waiving the bar examination requirement for experienced attorneys licensed in other jurisdictions.
Jurisdictions also differ in their approach to legal education requirements. Most states require bar applicants to graduate from law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Some states, such as California and Georgia, will admit bar candidates who received law degrees from unaccredited law schools under certain circumstances. California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming do not require law degrees at all, but alternatively require several years of legal study—also known as reading law—with a licensed attorney. Whatever the legal education requirements, all members of the bar must pass the bar examination.