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The Top Hardest and Easiest Bar Exams: Which Bar Exams and the Hardest and Easiest?

published January 24, 2023

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Summary: Do you know which state has the most difficult bar exam? Find out in this article.
The Top Hardest and Easiest Bar Exams: Which Bar Exams and the Hardest and Easisest?
  • There’s little doubt amongst current and already graduated law students, that the bar exam is one of the most demanding aspects of law school.
  • And yet, that “demanding aspect” can be subjective depending upon the state in which a recent law school graduate takes the exam.
  • In short, one state’s bar exam may inevitably be more difficult than another state’s bar exam.
  • Of course, that level of difficulty can have a direct bearing on a law graduate’s ability to practice in the state of their choosing.

The bar exam is one of the most grueling experiences of an attorney’s career, but apparently, some states’ tests are easier than others. As Pepperdine Law Professor Robert Anderson succinctly put it: “How much do a law graduate's chances to pass the bar depend on which state's examination he or she takes? It turns out that the choice of state makes a big difference. Some states have bars you could trip over if you're not careful, and some are challenging even for the most elite test-takers.”

In 2013, Anderson made quite a stir in the legal community when he released his ranking of the most difficult bar exams. Using LSAT and GPA data from ABA-approved schools and statistics from each state’s bar passage rate (except for Alaska, Delaware, and Washington DC), Anderson created a widely-read list that said California was the most difficult state to pass the bar, followed by Arkansas, Washington, Louisiana, and Nevada, respectively.
Since Anderson’s list was published, however, there have been changes with states’ bar exams—mainly the implementation of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) which has thus affected rankings. With the UBE now in effect, which state has the hardest bar exam? Is it still California, and if so, why? It is noted that although the UBE is administered in over half the country, each state has different “cut scores,” meaning that you can score a 140 on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) in one state and pass but if you had the same score in another, you’d fail. Thus, the factors of content and cut scores should be examined when determining what states have “easy” and “difficult” bar exams.

What is the Uniform Bar Exam?

When Professor Anderson created his list of the hardest state bar exams, State Bars were considering implementing the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) but had not yet done so. Flash forward to today, and the UBE has been adopted in over half of the United States’ jurisdictions. (For a complete list, see the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) official website.) Since administering the UBE, states with notoriously hard bar exams such as New York have disappeared off many legal experts’ hardest bar exams list.
The UBE is coordinated by the NCBE and consists of the following components:
The UBE is administered the same way in every participating state, and test-takers who pass in one UBE state can easily transfer their scores to other jurisdictions. For example, if you pass the UBE in Alabama, you may take your score and use to get a license in Wyoming.

What States Have the Hardest Bar Exams?

The list of which states have the most difficult bar exams continuously change because states keep changing whether or not they will implement the UBE. However, as of publication, the following are the non-UBE states where it is notoriously hard to pass the bar.
  • California: The California Bar Exam is infamous for its high failure rate, and it is well-known throughout the country for being one of the most difficult exams…ever. The exam tests on state-specific laws as well as portions from the UBE, and the state has the second highest cut score in the country. Dean Jennifer Mnookin from UCLA Law told LawCrossing that this high cut score basically requires students to get a higher “grade” than students in every other state besides Delaware.
  • Louisiana: Louisiana has a reputation for being difficult because the state has a unique legal system that candidates must know to pass. But what further baffles its test-takers is that it uses none of the NCBE tests such as the MBE or MEE, which even states not administering the UBE usually utilize. Louisiana’s test is a tortuous 21 hours and is a blend of essays, short answer questions, and multiple choice questions. For the July 2016 test, only 66% of its test-takers passed.
  • Nevada: Nevada’s pass rate for the February 2017 exam was 49%, earning it one of the worst rates in the country. The test uses the MBE and MPT, but what makes it hard for its lawyer hopefuls is the state-specific essay questions. The two and a half day long test also has a high cut score.
  • Virginia: Virginia has a high cut score, and its test could potentially quiz candidates on 24 topics for the Virginia essay portion. This is about 5 more than every other state, and it’s this extra level of studying that makes Virginia one of the hardest bar exams in the country.
  • Arkansas: Arkansas’ bar exam is administered over two days, and it is difficult because of its numerous state and local law-specific questions. While Hillary Clinton said the test was easier than the bar in Washington DC, it seems to stump everyone else. February 2016’s test had an abysmal 51% pass rate.
  • Maryland: The Maryland bar exam uses the MBE and MPT, but test-takers tend to hit a wall when it comes to the state essay questions, which are heavily weighted. Proof of Maryland’s difficult bar exam can be seen in the February 2016 test where only 53% of its hopefuls passed.

What States Have the Easiest Bar Exams?

While some states have reputations for kicking their test-takers’ butts, other states have exams that are as close to a proverbial walk in the park as it comes. South Dakota has a reputation for being the easiest test in the country, followed by Wisconsin, which allows any graduate of a Wisconsin law school to automatically be admitted to the bar. This policy is known as diploma privilege.

What States Have the Highest Bar Exam Cut Scores?

As mentioned above, each state, regardless of what kind of bar exam it gives, has a “cut score,” which is the minimum amount needed to earn on the MBE’s 200 point scale to pass. UBE-giving Delaware is the number one on the list, followed by California. Cut scores are another way to determine how difficult a state’s bar exam is, not based on what you are tested on but how high you must score not to fail.
“Cut scores indicate bar exam difficulty,” legal watchdog Law School Transparency wrote. “Difficulty does not refer to how challenging a state's exam is—the scaling and equating process smooths over that variance. Difficulty refers to the chances a state will consider a person minimally competent to practice law in the state based on the same performance. A hypothetical test-taker could take the bar in two states and pass one and fail the other based on nothing more than both states' cut scores. Different cut scores reflect different views on minimal competence.”

According to Law School Transparency, the following list is the top highest bar exam cut scores in the country:

States with Highest Bar Exam Cut Scores

  • Delaware—145
  • California—144
  • Oregon—142
  • Nevada—140
  • Virginia—140
  • Idaho—140
  • Alaska—140
  • North Carolina—138.4
  • Rhode Island—138
  • Maine—138
  • Colorado—138
While Delaware has a higher cut score than California, California’s bar exam is arguably the hardest in the country because more students take and fail the test. Dean Mnookin from UCLA explained why the cut score negatively affects students and why it needs to change.
“California bar takers, as a whole, perform better than the national average on the multi-state exam. The lower-than-typical pass rate is NOT because they are less prepared or less capable than bar-takers elsewhere, but rather because of what the California bar currently requires in order to pass. It’s like they require bar takers to run a 7 minute mile instead of an 8 minute mile — even though it’s supposed to be a minimum competency test,” Dean Mnookin said.
“Right now, the California Supreme Court is considering whether to retain this atypically-high cut score, or whether perhaps to reduce it to be more in line with other states. There is absolutely no evidence that this high cut score produces better lawyers, or that other highly populated states like New York and Pennsylvania, with significantly lower cut scores, are licensing incompetent lawyers. So the reality is that this high cut score has a variety of clear costs and no clear benefits,” Dean Mnookin added.

Which Schools Have the Best Bar Exam Passage Rate?

Now that we know what states give the hardest tests, let’s examine what law schools have the best bar passage rates. Internet Legal Research Group ranked all law schools based on their pass rates from summer 2014 and winter 2015, and the list turned up some curious results.
Two Wisconsin schools had near-perfect pass rates, which seem obvious considering that all graduates from Wisconsin law schools are admitted to the bar. But what was fascinating about the list was that a school from Virginia, which was rumored to have a difficult bar exam, had an exceptionally high pass rate of 98%.
Out of the ten schools with the worst pass rates, California dominated the list, and this is no surprise considering the state’s reputation for having a difficult bar exam.

Top 10 Law Schools with the Best Pass Rates

  1. University of Wisconsin-Madison—100% (Wisconsin)
  2. Marquette University—99.5% (Wisconsin)
  3. University of Pennsylvania—99.3% (Pennsylvania)
  4. University of Virginia—98% (Virginia)
  5. Harvard University—97.3% (Massachusetts)
  6. University of Chicago—97.3% (Illinois)
  7. Yale University—96.4% (Connecticut)
  8. New York University—95.7% (New York)
  9. Boston University—95.4% (Massachusetts)
  10. University of Alabama—94.8% (Alabama)

Top 10 Law Schools with the Worst Pass Rates

  1. Southern University—55.8% (California)
  2. Arizona Summit Law School—54.7% (Arizona)
  3. Ava Maria School of Law—54.4% (Florida)
  4. Liberty University—52.8% (Virginia)
  5. University of the District of Columbia--52.2% (Washington, DC)
  6. Whittier Law School—45.9% (California)
  7. Mississippi College—45.8% (Mississippi)
  8. Golden Gate University—45.1% (California)
  9. Thomas Jefferson—60.2% (California)
  10. Appalachian School of Law—33.3% (North Carolina)

Which States Have the Easiest Bar Exams for Foreign-Trained Attorneys?

When most people talk about bar passage rates, they are usually talking about first-time test-takers from ABA-approved law schools. These applicants can take the bar in all 50 states with no issue. However, this is not the case for foreign-trained attorneys. According to The National Jurist, foreign attorneys can take the bar in only 28 states, and they said that the following five states have the easiest bar exams. Each state requires the foreign candidates to complete an LL.M. at an American law school or a similar requirement, but the publication said that these states’ process is easier than others.

5 of the Easiest Bar Exams for Foreign-Trained Attorneys

  • California
  • New York
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Georgia
It is noted that while these tests offer a less difficult option for examinees, the bar exams are never truly easy. The National Jurist spoke to George Edwards, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, who had this advice for foreign attorneys wanting to practice in the United States:
“No U.S. bar exam is easy! LL.M. graduates and J.D. graduates both have to work very hard to pass!” Edwards said. “You might check the bar pass rate for non-U.S.-trained lawyers for states that interest you. For up-to-date bar pass statistics, check the websites of the bar authorities in those states. You might also check with the U.S. law school whose LL.M. program you wish to join, and find out what percentage of that school’s non-U.S.-trained LL.M. graduates sit for a bar, which bars they sit for, how many pass the bar on their first or subsequent attempt, and how many never pass.”
“When assessing whether it is “easy” to become eligible for a particular bar, you might also consider whether you satisfy certain requirements already, or whether you can take steps in the future to cement your eligibility,” Edwards continued. “States consider your background. Different states look to different aspects of your background to determine your eligibility to sit for the bar exam in their state.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Is The Bar Exam The Hardest Exam?

The bar exam is difficult. What about it, exactly, is hard? That is because law is hard. It is hard to practice law. A career of challenging work begins with the bar exam. You must rise to the challenge.

The following are the 8 most difficult things about the bar exam:

1. The Massive Body Of Law

A bar exam study session is similar to drinking from a fire hydrant. The feeling is never-ending. You can never know too much. There is no time to think about it because it all happens so fast. It is challenging to synthesize the law into a coherent whole so you are ready to answer any question on the test.

Studying effectively means prioritizing what is important and remembering what you learn as fast as possible.

2. Time Pressure

A timed exam is already stressful. More importantly, most students will be prepared for the test in about 10 weeks. The bar exam is difficult in part because of the huge time constraints. The material has to be learned quickly, so the test can be taken quickly.

3. The Questions Themselves

Imagine you are exhausted and reading, "If Maynard wins at trial, the least likely reason that he loses is ...". There will be tears in your eyes. The question is: what do they want? What is the best reason for him to lose? Is the best answer also the most incorrect answer? What is the least incorrect answer?

 Bar exams are considered to be of minimum competence by many. The questions may be technically easy, however, they are not easy by any means. There are many misleading questions and you will find that many of the options are correct. There are numerous exceptions to the law in this content.

It is important to understand the nuances and know how to respond to difficult questions.

4. Lots of Unknowns

Not knowing everything about the test makes it difficult. Some states will provide you with essay topics ahead of time, but many do not. In California and the UBE, you will not know in advance what essay topics will be.

To become familiar with the most commonly tested subjects, you should study in a way that makes you ready for any scenario.

5. Stamina

The bar exam is a surreal, mind-bending experience. The vast majority of states' exams consist of a round of six-hour testing over two or three days. After you account for the time you take to arrive, prepare, break, and get home, many people put in long, high-stakes, challenging days. Mentally exhausting.

It requires mental stamina to pass. You can build stamina just like you would with physical stamina.

6. Mental Anxiety

Exams of this importance can cause anxiety. There is something particularly anxiety-inducing about this one.

During your bar preparation, you will probably feel like you will fail. You will feel as if you are failing to write it. In the end, you will be sure that you failed it. Why? You likely overlooked a great deal of content. However, that does not mean you will fail. It is possible to miss 40% of the questions and still pass the test, depending on your jurisdiction.

It is highly distracting and can impact your performance when you feel like you are failing the test while writing it. Achieving success will require you to manage your anxiety.

Be prepared to feel uncomfortable and keep going anyway.

7. Time Management

Most students agree that it is not the exam itself that is hard. The most challenging part, they say, is time management and the months of preparation before the exam. Constantly evaluating your knowledge, your needs, and how to spend your time is not easy.

Prioritize and focus your efforts effectively.

8. Waiting for the Bar Exam Results

Imagine how difficult it will be after you have written the bar exam and are waiting for the results. Often just before Thanksgiving, some believe the July test results are a cruel joke. You have no control over this part. You might end up becoming a lawyer ... or you might go back to working for your uncle's construction company.

Waiting needs to be managed.

Which Bar Exam Is The Easiest?

Let's look at one of the most important factors of bar exam difficulty now that you know the components of different bar exams. Even though states with more and less populated populations do have differing numbers of test-takers, the passing rate is one of the strongest indicators of how easy a bar exam is to pass.

The UBE passing rates are set by every state, including those that administer it. If you scored 270 on the UBE, you would pass if you lived in Missouri or New Mexico, but not if you lived in Alaska or Arizona. Before you begin studying, make sure you find out the passing score for your state.

Only a few states had passing rates above 70% in 2016. In order of their location, the states are Nebraska, Montana, Kansas, Idaho, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Utah. Passing rates above 65% are also common in a lot of states, though 70% is promising. The states are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

What Percentage Of Test Takers Pass The Bar Exam?

Students who pass the bar exam on their first attempt have a high bar-exam pass rate. There is also the bar-exam pass rate according to states, which shows how many students passed the exam in a specific state. Similarly, you can find the percentage of law school graduates passing the bar exam according to schools.

Law Schools with the Highest Bar-Exam Pass Rate

The law schools in the U.S. with the highest overall bar pass rate are:
  • Concordia University School of Law: 100 percent
  • University of Chicago: 98 percent
  • Yale University: 98 percent
  • University of Pennsylvania: 98 percent
  • Columbia University: 97 percent
  • Harvard University: 97 percent
  • Duke University 97 percent
  • New York University: 97 percent
  • University of Michigan: 96 percent
  • Liberty University School of Law: 95.65 percent
  • Stanford University: 95 percent
  • University of Alabama: 95 percent
  • Baylor University: 92 percent
It is important to note that bar-passage rates change constantly. We selected these schools because their pass rates have consistently been over 90 percent - something not many law schools can say.

States with the Lowest Bar-Exam Pass Rates

Depending on your state, you may need to pass the bar exam before you can practice law there. You cannot practice law in another state if you pass the bar exam in the state where you passed it.

It is important to note that just because you breezed through the bar exam in one state does not mean you will have the same experience in another. States differ greatly in their bar exams. The bar-passage rate for a particular state is a good indicator of the difficulty of that state's bar exam.

You will likely need to put in your best effort and then some to pass the bar exam in the following states.
  • California — 44 percent pass rate

California is universally regarded as the toughest state for taking the bar exam. This notion is not dissuaded by the state's low bar-pass rate. In addition to the performance test, five essay questions, and the Multistate Bar Exam, the California exam takes two days.
  • Delaware — 68 percent pass rate

Delaware's bar exam is especially challenging because of its minimum passing score, not the bar-pass rate. Delaware requires exam takers to score 145 on the exam to pass, as opposed to many other states that only require a 132 score.
  • Arkansas — 63 percent pass rate

The Arkansas bar exam is considered to be second only to the California bar exam in terms of difficulty. It takes the same amount of time to complete as the California exam. Taking the test can be challenging because of the high number of state and local laws that are covered, which requires more study than most other states' bar exams.
  • Virginia — 66 percent pass rate

The bar exam in Virginia is another tough one. Its grit is due to the wide range of topics covered in the exam, including up to 24 different areas of law. In Virginia, you must also wear a suit to the bar exam.
  • Washington — 67 percent pass rate

This state's bar exam takes two days and is brutal. Nevada and California have a lower bar-pass rate, but many other states have a lower rate.
  • Nevada — 58 percent pass rate

In Nevada, not only is the bar exam hard but the bar pass rate does not inspire a lot of confidence. Aside from being one of the longest bar exams in the country, the Idaho bar exam also requires that you have a thorough understanding of the state's laws. It is also among the highest in the country that the state of Nevada requires a score of 140 on a 200-point scale to pass the bar.

States with the Highest Bar Exam Pass Rates

Consider taking your bar exam in one of these states to maximize your chances of passing on your first try:
  • Iowa — 78 percent pass rate

The bar pass rate in Iowa has been about 80 percent for the last 10 years, except for 2016, when it dropped to 68 percent before rebounding in 2017. For students interested in passing the bar on their first attempt, the exam is one of the top options.
  • Kansas — 75 percent pass rate

Kansas also saw its bar pass rate dip in 2016. Kansas saw only a slight decline, to 72 percent, which was still impressive. Kansas has the highest bar pass rate out of any state, exceeding 80 percent more often than not. Furthermore, since the exam does not test candidates on Kansas-specific laws, students do not need to study or research those laws to pass them.
  • Missouri — 79 percent pass rate

In Missouri, the bar passage rate is generally between 80 percent and 80 percent, except for 2016, when it dropped to 78 percent. There is no state-specific law tested on the exam, but applicants must pass the Missouri Educational Component before taking the actual bar exam, which is a minor inconvenience.
  • Utah — 76 percent pass rate

In the past few years, Utah's bar pass rates have increased, making it a more attractive state for aspiring lawyers. The true extent of the higher passing rates must be seen, however.
  • Wisconsin

To avoid writing the bar exam, go to law school in Wisconsin. You can get licensed by just applying to practice law if you attend ABA-accredited law schools in the state. There is no bar exam needed. However, if you earned your Juris Doctorate (JD) in another state, you will need to take the Wisconsin Bar Exam.

The pass rate in South Dakota has dropped significantly recently from its previous high. JD students in that state are eagerly awaiting the return of improvement.


The difficulty of a bar exam can be judged on a few factors—the state’s pass rate, the content of the test, and the state’s cut score. If you have the option to take the test in an easier state than a harder one, hopefully this information can help you make an informed decision.

However, because states continuously update their testing policies, make sure you check with your local bar if you have any additional questions.

See the following articles for more information:

published January 24, 2023

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