How to Become a Lawyer: College to the Job Market (Part II)
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State Bar Exam & Licensure
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The state bar exam is a test unique to all other tests. There is no way to truly convey what it is like until you take it under test conditions. In this section, we’ll give you a brief overview of the bar exam application process, preparing for the test, format of the test, a glimpse of what you are in for on test day, and what to expect after you take the test.

Bar Exam Application

No matter how well you do in law school you can never be a practicing attorney unless you pass a state bar exam. This is the last "hoop" an aspiring lawyer must overcome before he or she can officially practice law. The bar exam is given by each of the 50 states twice a year, in late February and late July. However, before you can even take a bar exam you will have to go through a lengthy application process.

In order to register for the bar exam, you will have to fill out a very detailed application, obtain a criminal background check, and be interviewed by a lawyer in "good standing" with your state’s Bar. "Good standing" means that the lawyer who interviews you is a licensed attorney and has maintained the ethical codes of your state’s Bar. When we refer to the "Bar," we mean all the licensed attorneys in your state. Think of each group of lawyers in each state as a separate organization known as the Bar. Once you have complicated all the paperwork and paid the state’s registration fee, you can now begin to prepare for the exam.

Preparing for the Bar Exam

Most law students graduate from law school sometime in early May. The July bar exam usually begins on the last Tuesday in July. This gives a law student around 2 ½ months to prepare for the bar exam. This is no easy task, especially when most law students find out that what they learned in law school will not properly prepare them for the state bar exam!

As previously mentioned, the bar exam is a test unique to all other tests. It is very time-intensive, and some of the material may be completely new to a law student. Because most states require you to know many different areas of the law, most students choose to pay for a bar preparation class. In fact, it is generally rare for a law student to attempt to pass the bar exam without any type of bar preparation class. The best classes for bar preparation cost around $3,000 or more. This might seem like a hefty sum, but when your entire legal career depends on one test, most students elect to pay the fee.

A good bar preparation course will focus on the exact legal areas you will be responsible for on your state’s bar exam. Such a course will also teach you how to properly answer essay questions, select the "best" answer to multiple-choice questions, and give you guidance in time management. In the end, it all comes down to you. However, the more questions and practice essays you do, the more prepared you will be. Most students elect not to work or to work part-time while preparing for the bar exam. Then, at a minimum, a few weeks prior to the test should be completely devoted to bar exam preparation.

As you can see, this can be a stressful time in the life of an aspiring lawyer. A law student’s entire legal education comes down to 2-3 days! But don’t be too discouraged -- many lawyers have successfully passed multiple bar exams. Think of the bar exam as a rite of passage; it is designed to prove that you really want to be a lawyer.

Format of the Bar Exam

Each state administers its own bar exam, which may differ slightly or significantly from state to state. The length of the exam is 2-3 days and is closed book (e.g. no notes or any study materials are allowed in the test center). The bar exam is also very time-intensive. This means that students do not have a lot of time to answer questions. The purpose of this is to require students to answer questions quickly and soundly.

Days 1 and 3 are generally state-specific written essay questions. In other words, these are the portions of the bar exam particular to each state. Depending on the state, students can be held responsible for 15 or more areas of the law! The main way states test on days 1 and 3 is through written essays. An essay is generally a few pages long with a set of facts and some legal questions based off of those facts for the test-taker to answer (known as the “call” of the question). You have no idea what questions will be asked ahead of time, but you must be prepared for any question thrown your way. Many states also set a ½ hour time limit to complete each essay.

The bar exam on day 2 has the same format and questions in all states, excluding Washington and Louisiana. All of Day 2 is comprised of the Multistate Bar Exam ("MBE") section. The MBE consists of two three-hour segments of 100 multiple-choice questions for a total of 200 multiple-choice questions. This gives each test taker exactly 1.8 minutes on average to answer each question. The MBE tests 6 areas of the law: (1) torts, (2) criminal law and procedure, (3) evidence, (4) property, (5) constitutional law, and (6) contracts. If you pass the MBE in one state, you will likely not have to take the MBE in another state based on reciprocity.

As you can see, it is very critical to properly prepare for the bar exam. The more preparation you put into your studies, the more confidence you will gain, and the more likely you will be successful in passing the test on your first attempt.

Tip when studying: After you have studied to the point of exasperation, make sure to take breaks along the way to let your mind relax. Just like athletes must work out and train to get stronger, they must also rest to allow their bodies to properly develop. This concept is also true in studying for the bar exam.

Next, we’ll go over what happens when you actually take the Bar Exam.