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Pass the Bar in One State, Work in Another.
by Danielle D. Hansen, J.D.
Within the legal community, it's generally an accepted fact that some states' bar exams are more difficult than others. New York and California, for example, have the reputations of giving difficult exams, and their pass/fail ratios back this up.
The full California bar exam consists of six essays, two performance tests, and 200 multiple choice questions. The exam takes up three days for the average applicant. For those who get special accommodations, they may get double time, taking up to six days straight. The exam is known for being difficult because it covers 14 subjects. Sometimes applicants who spend months practicing past essay questions that are released to the public may have difficulty recalling the rules during the exam because they have to memorize so much information, though the exam tests issues with fact patterns similar to past questions.
In New York, the bar examiners create special short essay questions that test particularly on New York law. New York bar examiners release their questions and sample answers to the public just like California, but the grading difficulty may make the exam difficult to pass even when the bar examiners do not make what they test a secret.
In some states there is the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), a set of 200 multiple choice questions, which makes the bar exam a challenge. The MBE tests core legal subjects taught during the first and second years of law school. The MBE was created and is overseen by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The NCBE recently sent a letter to law school deans announcing that Civil Procedure will be added as a subject in February 2015 to the current list of six subjects: Constitutional Law, Contract, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts. Most law school students have found Civil Procedure to be challenging. Adding a section to the MBE in an area students wish they could forget after the first year of law school will turn the MBE into a more difficult test overall.
See the following articles for more information about the bar exam:
- Guidelines on Reciprocity or "Admission on Motion" among the States as per American Bar Association
- Taking the Bar in Multiple States
- The Different Policies of Various State Bar Associations Regarding the Transfer of MBE Scores from One Jurisdiction to Another
Because each state may admit people to the bar with different bar exams, it would appear that if you want to work in a certain state, you have to pass that state’s bar exam. So, for example, if you want to work in California, you'll either have to pass the full California Bar Exam or the two-day attorney exam. It's that simple. Well, it would appear so at first glance, but it all depends on the type of work you're pursuing.
In order to go into court and litigate actual cases, then, yes, you will more than likely need to either waive into a state or pass the bar for that state itself. However, this will not matter if you're looking to get into non-legal corporate work. In California, it may also not matter if you work as an in-house attorney doing transactional work. For people focusing on federal law, such as immigration, passing a bar exam for a specific state may not matter.
The difference between a practicing lawyer and a J.D., of course, is whether the person has passed the bar or not. Some corporate jobs require a ''legal background,'' even though your job will not require you to practice law for them. For example, a lot of banks hire people with legal knowledge to be trust officers. The legal background connotes, at the very least, an understanding of laws, contracts, and other subjects in that realm, whether the corporation wants to hire a full-fledged attorney or not. Sometimes companies do not want to hire a licensed attorney because they have to pay more. These firms do not want to pay more when someone else, such as an unlicensed attorney, law school graduate, or paralegal, is able to complete the same tasks competently. Having a J.D. will definitely fulfill the legal-background requirement on a job description, even if the person is not a practicing attorney.
People have been padding their resumes for as long as resumes have been in existence. It looks great that you have a J.D. listed under your education heading on your resume, but it looks even better if you can add ''Admitted to the ___ Bar.'' Sometimes people fail the bar exam multiple times, but when they do pass, they realize that when they pass does not really matter, as long as they eventually pass. This is because without bar admission into at least one state, your resume can work against you. A potential employer will see that you're a J.D. but that you have not passed the bar anywhere. Their first question will be why this is so.
Were you bright enough to earn your J.D. but you keep failing the bar exam in your state? Sometimes, people graduate from top law schools, and still cannot pass the bar exam. For example, UC Irvine Law School’s first class had a 90 percent passage rate. In November 2012, UC Irvine announced during the California exam's July 2012 administration, 46 out of 51 members of the law school’s inaugural class passed on the first try. This means 5 people failed or did not take the bar exam. For the 5 people, a potential employer will be asking - Did you not take the bar exam yet? If not, why not? Why would you invest so much time and money and hard work in earning your J.D. and then decide to go into a corporate or otherwise non-legal job?
For these reasons—in order that these questions don't come up—it's a good idea to have the Admitted-to-the-Bar stamp on your resume. A law school graduate should try to take the bar exam as soon as possible after graduation. The longer a person waits, the harder it will be to study because a person may get married, have kids, and get into a full-time job where he or she cannot take time off from work to study.
What if you've taken the Bar Exam and failed it in a difficult state like California? There are still ways around this issue. The first way, of course, is to study harder and prepare yourself better for the next Bar Exam. You obviously know that you're not the first nor last person to fail the Exam, so there is no shame in having to take it more than one time in order to pass. Unfortunate experiences happen to everyone, and sometimes failing a bar exam is one of those situations. However, failing the bar exam is an obstacle that can be overcome. The bar exam is a passable exam, and not as impossible as some people make it appear. One great positive about the bar exam in many jurisdictions in the United States is that it can be retaken as many times as necessary to pass. This is unlike some other professional exams where a person is limited to a certain amount of attempts. Another positive is that the bar exam is given 2 times a year in most jurisdictions in the United States. This is unlike an Olympic athlete who has to wait 4 years for another shot at the gold.
Besides studying harder after failing a bar exam, there is another way to avoid retaking the bar exam that has gained some popularity among J.D.s. Let's say you resigned yourself to the fact that you cannot or will not pass your state's bar exam. (We encourage you not to take this attitude, but if you already have it, then we figure that you know yourself better than anyone and maybe you're being realistic.) You can still have Admitted to the Bar on your resume. The key is to take another state's bar exam—a state with a much easier exam and a much higher pass rate.
You can do the studies on your own of states with high-pass bar exams. Compare it to your own state's exam. You'll have to study for that particular state's exam and arrange for your own travel and accommodations at your own cost, of course. All the research must be done on your own as well. So with all this extra work and expense, what are the benefits?
Remember our point earlier about padding your resume? That's where it can pay off. If you're in New York applying for a job and you have Admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar on your resume, for example, that looks infinitely better than just having J.D. in your education section. At an interview, you'll doubtless be asked about this situation, and this too can work to your advantage.
You obviously don't want to say, ''I took the PA Bar Exam because the NY exam was far too difficult'' or ''I took the PA Exam just for the sake of having a Bar Admission on my resume,'' even though that may be exactly what you did. Instead, you can come up with creative reasons. Perhaps you can say that you once aspired to practice law in Philadelphia but later opted against it. Or you can say that you found that PA law interested you in the past because you thought about living there.
In any event, this may not work if you're applying for a NY job that requires a NY license. But for a corporate-type job where bar admission is not required, your resume will look more complete with a Bar Admission on it, as opposed to just a J.D. Competition is fierce for employment, especially for legal jobs. Many of your competitors will have Bar Admissions on their resumes, so you cannot afford to be without one.
If you're licensed in one state and do wish to move and practice law in another, then that's where the complicated reciprocity rules come into play. There are about 19 states that allow lawyers from other states to come in and practice without having to pass their bar exams. But this provision usually only applies if the first state also has the same arrangement. It's definitely a tit-for-tat situation.
Only about 12 states waive these reciprocity agreements altogether and allow out-of-state attorneys to come in and practice law without regard to mutual agreements with other states. The remaining states require that out-of-state lawyers pass their bar exam. Most of these remaining states, however, give out-of-state lawyers an option of taking a slightly shorter attorney's exam, which is basically the exam minus the multistate. Of course, deciding whether you want to take the full test or the attorney's exam is an entirely different issue.
So, as you can see, crossing state boundaries to practice law can be a complicated issue depending on what state you're in and where you want to move to. You'll need to do plenty of research and verification to find out about your specific situation.
So don't just rest with your J.D. Do what it takes to pass the bar in your state. Or another state. Emphasize these preparation tips to overcome failing the bar exam:
- Conduct a personal assessment
- Understand the law
- Memorize the law
- Read carefully
When people fail a bar exam, they usually receive a tally of their scores on each question and receive a copy of their actual answers. For instance, in California, the bar examiners return the graded essays and performance tests to the applicants who fail along with a scorecard showing their multiple choice raw and scaled scores. Find out the reasons for failing, and take action to redress these problems by speaking with a professor, former bar exam grader, or bar exam tutor who knows the law and how the bar exam works.
Try to pass a bar exam in any state. Get it on your resume. It's that important. From there, you'll be able to look into practicing in whatever state you choose. Or whatever jurisdiction, like the District of Columbia. But DC is a whole other situation which we'll save for a rainy day.
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