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Bar exams rank somewhere near root canals on the list of things you wish you never had to go through. Ask any lawyer to relive the experience, and you’ll probably get a response like that of one second-year associate at a D.C. firm: “It’s the only thing you’ll ever have to do that’s actually worse than everything you’ve heard about it.” A tad dramatic? Richard Conviser, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and veteran professor at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent Law School, doesn’t think so. That’s why, over 30 years ago, he founded the Bar Review Institute (which became the ubiquitous BAR/BRI when it merged with Bay Area Review in 1974) to provide lawyers-to-be with a knowledgeable guide through this Scylla-and-Charybdis of tests. As Conviser points out, the pool of bar-takers is already highly qualified: They have graduated from college, scored well on the LSAT, been accepted to law school, and completed three years of intense academic study (including the notoriously hellacious first year). So it only makes sense that the bar exam should outdo all of the above challenges and serve as a final separator of the attorneys from the also-rans. WHY DO I HAVE TO TAKE IT? Since the quality of education and specific curricula can vary significantly from school to school, the bar exam determines a standard level of competency among law school graduates. In conjunction with a demonstration of sufficient character and fitness (your bar application includes a questionnaire used to determine that you are “worthy of the trust and confidence clients may reasonably place in their lawyers”), a passing score on the bar exam allows you to become a lawyer in the state of your choice. Massachusetts administered the first written bar exam in 1855. Until that point, the exams had been administered orally. Bar exams continued to become increasingly formal and regulated, and in 1931, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (or NCBE) was established to help “develop, maintain, and apply reasonable and uniform standards of education and character for eligibility for admission to the practice of law.” WHAT IS IT? Unlike the LSAT, which measures your logical and analytical skills, this test is strictly knowledge-based. Another difference between the bar and the LSAT: This exam is one you can actually fail. It’s essentially a 25- to 30-subject final exam on all the classes you’ve taken in law school — including stuff you haven’t seen since your first year — as well as some subjects that you may have never covered in a classroom. As you might imagine, studying for this exam is not optional: It’s just as much a rite of passage as taking the exam itself. Each state designs and administers its own exam for admission to its bar, drawing on a combination of four NCBE-sponsored standardized tests: the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). In addition, individual jurisdictions can develop their own “local” exams that address their specific laws and exceptions. These tests are usually in an essay format, but some states, like Florida, also use multiple-choice questions. WHO CAN TAKE IT? You must qualify to sit for the bar exam, which usually means graduating from an American Bar Association�approved law school. Some jurisdictions also allow other means of qualification, such as one year of law school study and apprenticeship at a law firm for a certain period. (Fun fact: Abraham Lincoln — one of the most respected lawyers in U.S. history — never attended law school and even went on to become a bar examiner.) WHEN DO I TAKE IT? All jurisdictions using the standardized one-day MBE (only Louisiana, Washington state, and Puerto Rico do not) are required to administer the test on the last Wednesdays of both July and February each year. The remainder of a state’s bar-admissions testing takes place either on the Tuesday immediately prior, the Thursday immediately following, or both. While most students take the bar exam in July, students who want to take it in a second state, who graduate in the fall, or who didn’t pass their first time around can take it in February. WHICH STATE SHOULD I CHOOSE? For dyed-in-the-wool Texans whose roots run deeper than the family oil well, this one’s a no-brainer. If, on the other hand, you grew up in Connecticut, attended school in both Pennsylvania and Virginia, are moving to D.C. after law school, but hope you’ll end up in New York City someday, your decision might not be so cut-and-dried. This was the case for one J.D. from the University of Virginia. He ultimately decided to take the bar exam in two states — New York and Connecticut — and then take advantage of the District of Columbia’s waive-in policy (explained below) so that he could practice at a firm there. Some states are particularly accommodating to lawyers who need to practice in multiple states simultaneously or switch from state to neighboring state, and they have set up their exam schedules accordingly so candidates can test in just one three-day session rather than several separate ones. For example, the New York bar recognizes that it will often share lawyers with surrounding states, and has made it easy for candidates to take its exam concurrently with New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, or Connecticut. In other states, like California — long reputed to have one of the most difficult examinations in the country because of its length as well as its low passing rate (55.3 percent for the July 2000 exam) — you won’t have the option to take more than one state test per administration. California’s exam runs three days, so if you want to be licensed to practice elsewhere at the same time, you may have to hit the books twice. There are places though, like D.C., that have very liberal reciprocity rules; some will allow a lawyer who has passed the bar in another jurisdiction to “waive in” to their own — in other words, to apply for eligibility to practice in their state without having to take another bar. Different states have different levels of reciprocity. The District of Columbia requires only that candidates be bar-certified elsewhere and that they have a sponsoring lawyer based in Washington to vouch for their competence and professionalism; many states require that candidates have been bar-certified elsewhere for three or more years before applying. Some states refuse to let anyone waive in at all. Florida is one: In order to practice law in the Sunshine State, you must pass its bar exam. Period. (Perhaps this is intended to discourage snow-weary northern lawyers from trying to retire early to Palm Beach!) As you choose the bar that’s best for you, consider three main issues: where you’d like to practice immediately after graduation, whether you might transfer within your firm to offices in other states, and where you’d ultimately like to settle down. Pamela Dayanim, a 3L at Georgetown University with a job waiting for her at Baker & McKenzie in Washington, D.C., plans to take the New York bar exam. It’s one of the most respected in the country, so it’s not too difficult to waive in to other states. (Check with your state’s bar-admissions office to see which reciprocity rules apply to you.) Also, as the Big Apple is the hub of most corporate transactions, it’s a good one to take if you’re interested, as she is, in corporate law. Once you determine the state or states in which you’d like to practice, you’ll have to learn the nuances of their specific bar exams. Because each state is allowed to determine the makeup of its test, exams vary in their level of difficulty. While the MBE is standard throughout most of the country, the material tested on the rest of the days is left up to each state’s discretion. New York’s bar exam, while only two days long, is considered one of the hardest in the country. Not only does New York have many exceptions to the general law, but its six state-specific essay questions also cover combinations of 27 different areas of law — often asking candidates to draw upon several areas of knowledge to answer each question. States with three-day exams, like California and Texas, require more work as well as more endurance from candidates. Virginia’s bar exam is deemed even more difficult because it not only tests candidates on 28 different subjects but also requires in-depth knowledge of minority law that often contradicts the rules you need to study for the multistate exam. Consequently, Virginia has one of the lowest pass rates in the country. Even worse, you can’t sport those lucky sweats that got you through the LSAT: The conservative state requires that its aspiring lawyers take the bar in attire “suitable for a lawyer appearing in a court of record” (yes, that means a suit). Interestingly, it also mandates wearing soft-soled shoes to minimize noise in the testing rooms. The result: a room full of stressed-out fashion victims wearing suits and sneaks. WHERE IS IT ADMINISTERED? Exams are usually administered on university campuses, in convention centers, or in hotel conference rooms. Some test-takers get luckier than others. One New York bar veteran fondly remembers taking the test at a museum in Albany with a phenomenal view of the Adirondacks. (He does note, however, that this was “the only ‘pretty’ part of the experience.”) Some of his compatriots, on the other hand, were down in Manhattan at a more notorious testing location — the immense Jacob Javits Center. Survivors tell harrowing tales of the pretest lockdown: Garage-like doors descend slowly and lock with a loud thud as you begin the exam. Another veteran suffered through the deafening noise of an equipment sound check for a concert that was being held outside his testing site on the second day of the exam. He recounts, “I could barely hear myself think. The woman next to me started crying. One guy just threw his hands up and walked out.” The moral of the story? Be prepared for anything. HOW DO I REGISTER FOR THE BAR EXAM? Registration deadlines for both the February and July exams are usually from 90 to 120 days before the testing date. Some states, like California, offer online registration. Regular-deadline registration fees vary but start at about $100 and may run as high as $1,000 (in those states with more labor-intensive testing, such as hand-graded MPTs). Late registration can tack on a significant amount to the already steep prices, so save a few hundred dollars and don’t put this one off. HOW IS THE EXAM STRUCTURED? With a few exceptions (like the aforementioned California and Texas), most states’ bar exams consist of two days of testing: the Wednesday MBE and a Tuesday or Thursday state-specific exam. THE MBE The MBE covers the areas of legal knowledge that all lawyers should have mastered and is often considered the most significant component of the exam. Its 200 multiple choice questions are broken up into two three-hour sections — one administered in the morning, one in the afternoon. Questions are conceived by committees of lawyers and law professors and then reviewed and edited by several legal experts and psychometricians. They cover six different subject areas, most of which were addressed in your first year of law school: constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property, and torts. The majority of the questions test your knowledge of general legal principles, but some will provide statutes or exceptions for you to consider when formulating your answer. Since no points are taken off for wrong answers, answer every question. You’ll most likely have plenty of time to finish: Statistics show that the three-hour timeframe for each set of 100 questions is sufficient for 99 percent of all test-takers. The MBE is the only portion of the bar exam whose scoring is centralized and consistent across the country. Your raw score is the number of questions you answered correctly out of a possible 200. In addition to your raw score, however, the NCBE will also report a scaled score that adjusts for variations in the difficulty of your particular exam. States differ on how heavily they weight MBE performance in the overall score. In most states it makes up about half the total, but South Carolina, for example, only counts it for one-seventh. Though passing requirements vary from state to state, they generally hover around the 130 to 140 scaled-score range. Nationwide, around 60 to 80 percent of applicants pass the MBE. LOCAL TESTS The local portion of each exam generally comprises a series of essay questions on the laws and their exceptions in the specific state. These essay questions give prospective lawyers the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to reason, analyze, and communicate their conclusions given a set of circumstances within the constraints of state law. In most states, this requires another six-hour day of testing. Some states also use the NCBE-sponsored MEE and MPT as part of their local testing. THE MEE Only 14 jurisdictions, including Hawaii, Missouri, and D.C., use the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) as part of their state-specific essay-question section. Though it’s a standardized test, the MEE is scored and evaluated by the state in which it is administered rather than by a central scoring agency. The three-hour exam is made up of six essay questions covering agency and partnership, commercial paper, conflict of laws, corporations, decedents’ estates, family law, federal civil procedure, sales, secured transactions, and trusts and future interests. It is administered on the Tuesday before the last Wednesday of February and July. THE MPT Twenty-four states, from Alaska to West Virginia, also include one or more of the three 90-minute items in the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) in their state-specific day of testing. And more and more are joining their ranks. New York, Pennsylvania, and Idaho began administering the MPT in July 2001. The exam is administered on the Tuesday before and/or the Thursday after the last Wednesday in February and July. The MPT asks candidates to use their general legal knowledge to perform practical tasks — like writing a memo or a brief — under realistic circumstances. Each MPT includes a “file” (containing a memorandum from a supervising attorney and documents that may or may not be relevant to the case) and a “library” (containing relevant and/or irrelevant cases and statutes). While it does test some legal knowledge, it is primarily a test of the skills that you will use as a lawyer. Like the MEE, the MPT is scored locally. THE MPRE Students usually take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) in November of their third year of law school. It’s also administered in March and August. You study for it separately (although most students confess that they don’t spend too much time or energy preparing for it). Essentially, this 50-question, two-hour, multiple-choice exam tests commonsense rules of professional responsibility, and it’s considerably more difficult to fail than the more intensive and comprehensive bar exam. Most states have a first-time pass rate of about 90 percent. Maryland, Washington, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico are the only states that do not require the MPRE. The score that you receive on the MPRE will be a scaled version — between 50 and 150 — of your maximum raw score and is rated according to the test’s relative difficulty. Passing scores are determined by the supreme courts in each jurisdiction, so they fluctuate (generally from 75 to 85) from state to state. While the MPRE is not part of the two- or three-day bar exam itself, a passing score is still necessary to be eligible to practice law in most jurisdictions. Regular registration deadlines are usually about five weeks before the exam date, and the registration fee is $48 (the cost doubles if you register late). PREPARATION Preparing for the bar exam is absolutely essential. Law firms recognize this, and most give their incoming first-year associates the summer off after graduation (sometimes salaried) to study for the late-July administration. Many firms will even pick up the tab for expensive prep courses or offer a stipend for registration and preparation expenses. One of the biggest reasons to take a prep course is that your schooling alone will most likely not have provided you with all the information you’ll need. Robert Feinberg, president and CEO of the bar-review course PMBR (Professional Multistate Bar Review), asserts that “law schools don’t prepare students for the bar exam” — bar-review courses prepare students for the bar exam. Dayanim had no interest in tax law, so she chose not to waste a full three credits studying it. Instead, she’ll get the essential information on tax law in New York — the state in which she’s taking her exam — in condensed form from her BAR/BRI prep course. Conviser offers perhaps the most persuasive argument of all for not going into the bar exam less than fully prepared: “Bar exam failure has very public ramifications.” If you don’t pass the exam, your friends, colleagues, and — in many cases — anyone who visits your state bar’s Web site will know about it. (If your last name is Kennedy, your under-par performance could make headlines for weeks.) And of course, you won’t be a lawyer until you do pass. Firms are generally accommodating to first-year associates who learn in November that they have failed the bar. Especially if you’ve wowed them in your first three months on the job, they will usually let you stick around and retake the exam in February. Of course, your business card will only say “law clerk” until you pass. If the second time is also a no-go, many firms won’t give you the chance to see if the third’s a charm before they say sayonara. Most states, however, will let you take the exam as many times as necessary. In 1997, 42-year-old Herbert Moreira-Brown passed the New York State Bar after more than a dozen attempts. As he told the New York Law Journal, “If you pass it once, it doesn’t matter how many times you failed.” PREP-COURSE PRIMER If you don’t adhere to Moreira-Brown’s philosophy, however, sign up for a prep course — or two, or three. The biggest and most reputable name in bar review is BAR/BRI, the only nationwide course offering preparation for all 50 states’ bar exams. PMBR is also a familiar name for most 3Ls; it’s well-known for its condensed three- and six-day MBE-only prep courses. Both have been around for over a quarter-century, both are extremely comprehensive and offer various services to students from their first semester in law school, and both carry hefty price tags — from several hundred to a couple thousand dollars each, depending on the bar (or bars) you’re preparing for. There are also “boutique” prep courses — like Fleming’s Fundamentals of Law in California — and a few less-expensive at-home study programs. These courses, however, are only appropriate for students in a handful of states and are not as well-established as either BAR/BRI or PMBR. Dayanim is planning to take PMBR’s six-day course in addition to her BAR/BRI preparation. She won’t be alone. Many aspiring lawyers double up on prep courses. They want to know that they went into the exam having done absolutely everything to ensure a passing score the first time around. As a BAR/BRI T-shirt quips: “Do it right. Do it once. Never, ever do it again.” You can take BAR/BRI without taking PMBR, but you can’t take PMBR alone as it only preps you for the MBE and not the state-specific or essay portions of the exam. PMBR bills itself as a supplement to a BAR/BRI-type course, and endorses taking both. Robert Feinberg founded PMBR on the premise that a good score on the MBE can make up for a weaker score on the state-specific section. For example, Florida requires a combined score of 262 on both its MBE and local tests, so every point over 131 that you earn on the MBE earns you points toward your local score. In fact, there seems to be an unwritten theory among bar-exam experts that, in most states, if you can ace the MBE, you’ll pass the whole thing. Many students take PMBR’s short course during the two-week gap between the end of their BAR/BRI course and the exam date. Some former test-takers caution against this tactic, however, asserting that there’s not enough time left to absorb all the information PMBR throws at you, and it’s better to take advantage of it earlier in your study period. One Virginia examinee didn’t bother with PMBR at all, however. She knew that it would only help her with about 40 percent of her score (Virginia counts your results on its own state-specific test for 60 percent of the total) and that much of the information would in fact be contradictory to what she would need to know for her local exam. Both BAR/BRI and PMBR have earned their stripes by hiring only currently practicing lawyers and law professors and by providing students with the most up-to-date practice questions and review materials. BAR/BRI consistently researches and analyzes each state’s exams in order to help students focus their study on the areas they’re most likely to see on the test. For example, BAR/BRI can usually predict which combinations of New York’s 27 possible essay subjects are likely to show up on the administration for which you’re preparing. And if you plan to take a bar exam in more than one state, most prep courses — including BAR/BRI — will cut you a deal on the cost of double-prepping, whether you do it at the same time or in tandem. BAR/BRI’s lecture-style classes are led by experts in each subject. Course material is customized to each state’s exam, and lessons are separated by subject, addressing both the rules and their exceptions for each specific state. This format allows you to study for both the MBE and the local test simultaneously. Unless you’re taking a class in the most popular city in the state for which you’re studying, you’ll watch all of your classes on videotape. While this may seem impersonal, it’s actually of little consequence whether you attend live or recorded lectures: The material itself is well-outlined in BAR/BRI’s prepared guides, and even in live classes, students aren’t allowed to interrupt the professor with questions. Many professors do give out their direct office numbers, however, to students who view either live or recorded classes. If all else fails, you can always call BAR/BRI’s question-and-answer hotline. BAR/BRI does provide live lecturers in multiple locations in all states for its one-day MPRE prep class. There are no MPRE courses on tape. Taking a bar-review course, like the one BAR/BRI offers, can be more intense than any of the classes you endured in law school. For the July exam, for example, BAR/BRI’s classes begin shortly after graduation in May and run for six weeks. Each week, you can expect four or five days of lectures — about four hours each day — and three to four hours of condensing your notes. In addition, you’ll have about two hours’ worth of reviewing and practice questions to do on each weekday, with another eight to 10 hours of work waiting for you on the weekends. BAR/BRI advises its students to take one day off from studying each week for the first month of the course, and for good reason: Students who study non-stop for six weeks are more likely to burn out early, leaving them drained and test-weary long before the actual exam date. Some boutique courses, like Fleming’s, offer personalized tutoring as part of their course. (Fleming’s tutoring package runs about $5,500). Others, like BAR/BRI, provide individual attention in the form of a hotline. Hiring a tutor is not a complete substitute for taking a course and is not often necessary because the nuances of each state’s exam are pretty cut-and-dried, but some test-takers feel more secure with personalized attention. You can often find local bar-exam experts through your university’s newspaper or bulletin boards. Expect to pay upwards of $50 to $100 an hour for their services. SIGN UP EARLY! You can register for these prep courses as early as your first semester in law school or as late as your last, but there are two advantages to registering early: Both BAR/BRI and PMBR will freeze the cost of their courses as soon as you put down your deposit, so thinking ahead can save you several hundred dollars; early birds also benefit from supplementary prep materials — study outlines for your MPRE, for example — and subject guides for core law school classes to help you make the most of your law school experience. So now that you know the ins and outs of this legal test of all tests, all you need to do is take the darn thing. Then, just sit back, relax (yeah, right), and wait four months to find out if you passed.

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