The Different Types of Bar Exams

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The national bar exams

Almost every jurisdiction has a bar exam, which must be passed as part of its admission criteria. Wisconsin is a notable exception. Wisconsin provides a "diploma privilege." Graduates of the University of Wisconsin and Marquette University law schools need not take and pass the Wisconsin bar exam. All other graduates are faced with the same requirement imposed by the other jurisdictions, that they take and pass the bar exam if they seek admission to the general practice of law.

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Before the advent of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), bar exams tested only the local laws, rules and practices of a given jurisdiction. Knowledge of federal or majority law was therefore unnecessary. The MBE changed all of that.
The thinking, which gave rise to the MBE, was that a single standardized exam which tested federal or majority principles, would, in the best case, obviate the need for all or parts of the local exams. Thus, by taking one exam, students would facilitate admission to the differing jurisdictions. In addition, such an exam could ensure a national minimal standard of competency.

This impetus to nationalize the bar exam began and continues through the efforts of the National Conference of Bar Examiners or NCBE, the organization which administers the MBE and other "national" exams.

NCBE services

The NCBE was established in 1931 as a Section 501(c)(3), not for profit corporation with a stated mission to work with other institutions to develop, maintain, and apply reasonable and uniform standards of education and character for eligibility for admission to the practice of law.

As an affiliated organization of the American Bar Association (ABA), the National Conference of Bar Examiners administers the following exams and programs, in addition to the MBE: The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE); The Multistate Essay Examination (MEE); The Character Report Service (which verifies certain character information); Preregistration of Law Students; the Cross Reference System (which compiles admission application dates); Score Transfer; and Score Combining. You can obtain more information about these services and the National Conference, itself, by writing to the NCBE, 333 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1025, Chicago, Illinois 60601-4090, (312) 641-0963.

Notwithstanding the move towards a national bar exam as initiated with the MBE, most jurisdictions still test local law on their own separate bar exam. Now, however, most have added the MBE as a part of that exam. For example, before the MBE, New York's bar exam consisted of twelve (12) essays, 50 multiple choice and 50 short answer questions. When New York adopted the MBE, it eliminated six (6) essays and the 50 short answer questions. Below is a brief synopsis of each of the national exams.

The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The MBE is given the last Wednesday in February and July each year. It is a multiple-choice, electronically graded exam. Its 200 questions test six areas of law, Constitutional, Contracts, Criminal, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts. These 200 questions (40 Contracts, 40 Torts, 30 in each of the other areas) are constructed by six committees consisting of law professors, bar examiners and practitioners from across the country. It is considered a "national" exam because it does not test the specifics of local law; instead, it relies on fundamental or majority principles of law and the Federal Rules of Evidence. In some jurisdictions, the MBE score is a substantial part of your final exam score. Its importance, therefore, should not be minimized.

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Scores are calculated on the number of correct questions, so students are advised to answer all questions. The number answered correctly will constitute the "raw score," which is then converted to a "scale score." Scaling allows the grader to account for the degree of difficulty a particular item represented, when compared to the score students received on that item in prior years. (Hint: obviously, questions must be repeated on subsequent exams) The scale score is then placed on a "common scale" so that it can be added to the scores received on other portions of the entire exam. It is then "weighted." For example, the MBE's "weight" (or worth) on the New York exam is 40% (the multiple-choice is 15%, and the New York essays are 45%, all equalling 100%).

Since its 1972 inauguration, the Multistate has been adopted by all but four (4) states—Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana and Washington. Certain jurisdictions will accept MBE scores from different jurisdictions: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virgin Islands, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Others will not. Always check.

You also need to check the jurisdiction, to which you seek admission, to determine whether it will accept the scores that you received on earlier exams and whether the jurisdiction where you sat will transfer scores. Only Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia so far have authorized the transfer of MBE scores. You must verify any and all transfer arrangements through both boards of bar examiners.

The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The National Conference of Bar Examiners administers the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). Its purpose is to test an applicant's knowledge of ethics. This exam, which can be taken before graduation (except in Florida, which requires that it be taken after graduation), is also national in that it does not test local rules. It requires knowledge of the ABA Code of Professional Responsibility, the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the ABA Code of Judicial Conduct. Copies of these items can be obtained from the ABA, Attn: Service Department, P.O. Box 1090-82, Chicago, Illinois, 60611-9082, (312)988-5855.

The MPRE is a two-hour exam which consists of 50 multiple choice questions. It is now required in 40 jurisdictions. MPRE scoring mirrors the MBE. The number of correct answers constitutes the raw score which is then scaled. Each state determines its own passing score. The range of scores tends to be between 72 and 85. Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Oregon and Texas have highs of 85. New York has a low of 72.

The Multistate Essay Examination (MEE). In an effort to standardize the essay portion of the bar exam, the National Conference designed the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE). The MEE consists of six questions covering Agency & Partnerships, Commercial Paper, Conflicts, Corporations, Family Law, Federal Civil Procedure, Sales, Secured Transactions, Trusts & Estates and Future Interests. This three hour exam tests four skills: the ability to discern legal issues; the ability to separate relevant from non-relevant facts and issues; legal reasoning, and legal knowledge. Although the MEE is still experimental, students have sat for it in Arkansas, D.C., Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Utah and West Virginia, as part of their bar exams.

You can obtain an information booklet containing sample questions and answers by writing to the NCBE, 333 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1025, Chicago, Illinois, 60601-4090, (312) 641-0963. To find out whether your jurisdiction requires the MEE, contact the bar examiners in the state where you plan to take the exam. Given the variability of bar exams, this advice should be followed on any aspect of the bar exam. You should obtain as much information as you can on the exam you are planning to take so that you can direct your energies appropriately.

The Local bar exams

It will be a while, if at all, before the MEE or some other standardized essay exam gains acceptance to the point of eliminating the local law part of bar exams. So until that time, you should gain a firm understanding of the processes and peculiarities of your jurisdiction's exam and its administration.

Each jurisdiction has a committee, board or office which prepares and administers the bar exam. In New York, it is the New York State Board of Law Examiners. This entity oversees the admissions process, prepares and administers the New York exam on behalf of the New York State Court of Appeals. In California, it is the Office of Admissions, the State Bar of California.

Write to your board of bar examiners, requesting any and all information about the bar exam and the admissions process. You can find out the exact name of the local board and its address by using the "Comprehensive Guide to Bar

Admissions.” For example, the Florida Board will send you the rules governing the admissions process. These rules detail the application process and describe the exam. You should obtain and read all the information available about your exam well before you begin studying for it. You need to do this to know about the mechanics of applying for the exam as much as you need to know the art of studying for the exam.

Local Law Day

Most bar exams are given over a two-day period. One day of the bar exam is devoted solely to the MBE. The other day(s) is considered the local day where a jurisdiction tests its local rules and practice. The format is generally essay. Notable exceptions are California and Hawaii, which administer three day exams. The local law tested by many of the jurisdictions usually consists of the local practice rules and procedures, the domestic relations law of the locale, the law of decedents' estates, local criminal law and procedure, real estate law, corporate or business law. The number of legal subject areas tested depends upon the state and may vary greatly. Florida usually tests eleven (11) subjects. New Jersey tests on six (6) subjects but you need familiarity with a handful of others. Delaware tests on fourteen (14). New York probably wins the prize for testing on more than twenty (20).

The format of the questions also depends on the individual state. New York asks essay and multiple-choice questions. Some jurisdictions are following California's lead by adopting "performance" questions. The goal of performance exams is to evaluate an applicant's ability to digest and analyze facts, and to apply law in client-based settings. To this end, the performance question provides students with the necessary documents, usually contained in a "file" and "library." The files provide the facts of a given case and the libraries contain relevant case law and statutes. Using the two, the applicant is asked to draft a memorandum, brief, letter, or other legal documents, setting forth his/ her analysis of the issues identified. The questions are graded based on responsiveness, thoroughness, organization and accuracy. Students in Georgia, Virginia and New Mexico have been given the option of taking a half-day performance exam, administered by the National Conference.

California provides copies of sample performance exams. If you are taking the California bar exam, you should receive an order form along with your application. For an $8.00 fee, you can obtain performance questions. For another $5.00, you can get essay questions and answers. Write to: The Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California, Office of Admissions, 555 Franklin Street, San Francisco, California 94102, (415) 561-8303 or 1149 South Hill Street, 10th Floor, Los Angeles, California 90015, (213) 580-5500.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners will also provide you with a sample performance test and answer. If you receive their 1990 sample test, you should note that it is based upon a California test administered in July of 1987. Its time allotments may be different from other performance exams. Take that into account before you practice it at home. You can obtain a copy of the sample exam by writing: NCBE, 333 North Michigan Avenue, Suite 1025, Chicago, Illinois 60601-4090, (312) 641-0963.

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