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The Bar Admission Process and Bar Reciprocity

published May 03, 2022

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
( 28 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
One of the most important steps in any lawyer's legal career is graduating from law school and passing the bar examination. After that, the attorney can practice law in the state where they passed the bar exam and start building their successful career and future. But what can attorneys who have not yet passed the bar examination do in their professional life? And how can they approach wanting to move to a different legal market with a different bar exam? This article looks at the bar admission process in different states and the general legal concepts of bar reciprocity and uniform bar exam to help you answer these questions.

Why Is Passing the Bar Examination Important for Practicing Law?

While it is not necessary for every lawyer to pass the bar exam and get admitted to the bar, it will improve your career and give you more opportunities. It is something that I, as a legal recruiter, strongly encourage every attorney to do. It might be difficult, and you might retake the exam several times or even try to take the bar exam in a different state where it is a bit easier to pass. However, having the bar exam in at least one state is worth it.

Having the information that you have been admitted to the bar on your resume benefits you. First of all, it is the only way to practice law in that state's courts. Also, law firms and potential employers see you as a more serious candidate and someone dedicated to law practice. Having a law degree and not passing the bar often looks suspicious and might make law firms think you are not committed or smart enough to pass it.

Admission to the bar also allows you to open your law practice and provide legal services to your clients. If you know how to generate business and attract your clients, you can be set for life and have a long, successful career doing what you love.

The best thing to do is pass the bar exam as soon after graduating from law school as possible. The knowledge is still fresh in your mind, so studying for the exam will not be as difficult as if you took it years after leaving school. Also, if you leave the bar exam for later in life, you will usually have more responsibilities and less time because of family and work to find the time to study.

Bar Examination in a Single State and Uniform Bar Exam


Being admitted to the bar in one state means that you can officially practice and go into court as a lawyer in that one state when your bar exam was taken. Someone with a New York bar exam can only practice in New York, not California or Ohio.

Bar examinations differ from state to state, and the length and difficulty can vary significantly. However, efforts are made to unify the bar admissions process across the states. It is being done through Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). The National Conference of Bar Examiners created UBE, and it consists of three separate testing devices that focus on general concepts in law rather than on state-specific legal concepts. Thus it can assess skills across the country.

The first of the three parts is a Multi-State Bar Exam. It is a test with 200 multiple choice questions focused on basic types of law - Constitutional Law, Criminal Law and Procedure, Federal Civil Procedure, Real Property, Contracts, and Torts. The other two parts of the exams are the Multi-State Essay Examination and Multi-State Performance Test. States can pick and choose which parts of UBE they want to use and how they want to score them, and they can also add some state-specific examinations. California, for instance, only uses the MBE part and adds its state-specific performance test and essay. States can also decide whether they accept scores from UBE taken in different states.

The first states to start with UBE were North Dakota, Missouri, and Alabama in 2011. Other states that are using UBE are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the last state to start using the exam (in 2018) was Massachusetts.

Some states, like Idaho or Minnesota, accept passing UBE scores taken in other states, making it easy to get admitted to the bar in multiple states.

On the other hand, some states do not accept UBE scores from other states. An example of such a state is California. Suppose an attorney wants to practice in Californian courts. In that case, they can only do so if they have the California state bar exam, which is one of the most difficult ones there are in the U.S. Even if the attorney passed the bar in a different state and has a great MBE score, they have to take the test again in California together with their state-specific essay exams over a two-day exam period.

Multiple State Admissions

It is always smart to look at multiple markets when job hunting. Being admitted to the bar in more than one state can increase your chances of finding your dream job; however, it may be very time-consuming to take multiple bar exams eventually, one by one. In some areas, it is possible to arrange a multi-state bar examination where attorneys take bar exams from multiple states around the same time. It is, for instance, the metropolitan tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. This examination system is especially valuable for attorneys in areas with fewer work opportunities. It opens their options and allows them to move to a different legal market when needed easily.

Bar Admissions and Federal District Courts

Federal district courts also have rules for who can practice law, which differs from court to court. Some federal courts' bar admissions require the attorney to be admitted to the state bar in their state. The United States District Court for the Central District of California is an example of such a court. You could not practice law there without being admitted to the California State Bar. In other states, it is enough to be admitted to the bar in any state or even get the admission supported by a different attorney (who is admitted to the practice before that district court) through an affidavit.

The United States Tax Court and the United States Patent and Trademark Office also have specific admissions rules.

The "Waive-In" Process (Admission on Motion and Reciprocity)

Many states allow attorneys to "waive" into the bar instead of taking the bar exam. These attorneys are then "admitted on motion." The conditions under which it is possible to do so differ from state to state, and some do not allow it (e.g., California).

States usually set time requirements on how long an attorney has to be practicing law in their previous state in good standing with the bar or even add the requirement of being vetted and sponsored by a different attorney in that state bar association. Many states also allow attorneys to waive in only if they come from a state with reciprocity with that state. If one state allows attorneys from another state to be admitted on motion, the other state also admits attorneys on motion from the first state.

Some federal district courts also allow admitting attorneys on motion, and they have their own rules for that. The reciprocity state bar is currently recognized in 25 district courts out of the 94 in our country. However, there is a big possibility that this number will increase as we can see a trend toward more unified bar admissions and greater access to more legal markets.

The American Bar Association (ABA) proposes guidelines for admission on motion and reciprocity. However, every state has the right to modify them or create its guidelines. That is why many states have their own set of rules.

Admission on Motion in States with Reciprocity

Colorado allows attorneys, not from states with reciprocity or who do not come from a law school that ABA has accredited to petition for a waiver of these conditions.

If attorneys want to be "waived in" under "Admission Without Examination" in Connecticut, they must have practice law as their main source of income for 5-10 years in a reciprocal jurisdiction. This period has to be directly before they apply for admission in Connecticut.

Georgia has very similar rules (they call it "Admission on Motion Without Examination"), but their time requirement is 5-7 years. However, if the other state's requirements for reciprocal admission on motion are stricter, the process follows those. Oregon has the same practice requirements for their “Reciprocity Admission/Alternative Admission;” however, it makes an exception for attorneys coming from Alaska, Idaho, Utah, and Washington, who have this requirement lowered to 3-5 years.

The requirements in Mississippi vary a lot based on what jurisdiction the attorney is coming from. The state allows for reciprocal admission to attorneys from all states that grant similar privileges to attorneys coming from Mississippi (the Board determines whether granted privileges are "similar"). The bar association in Mississippi also determines its passing score based on the passing score in the reciprocal jurisdiction. They require the attorney to pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE).

Virginia allows attorneys from reciprocal jurisdiction to be "Admitted Without Examination" who have practiced at least three years from the past five to be admitted to the bar in their jurisdiction. The reciprocal jurisdiction cannot require any additional testing for attorneys coming from Virginia. The same applies to "Admissions on Motion" in Wyoming; however, the time requirements for practicing law are 5-7 years preceding the application.

Admission on Motion and Being Admitted by Diploma Privilege

Some states also allow attorneys to be admitted on motion even though they have been admitted to the bar in their state by diploma privilege.

Arkansas and Connecticut allow this if the attorney has graduated from committee-approved or ABA-accredited law school. Mississippi has similar rules as those in regular admission on motion - if the other state grants equal privileges, attorneys admitted by diploma privilege can be admitted on motion in Mississippi. In Ohio, the attorney must be admitted as an attorney at law in a different state (or District of Columbia) to be admitted on motion with diploma privilege. In the District of Columbia, attorneys have to be in good standing with the bar for five years, and in Tennessee, they have to file a petition to the Board, which then conducts a hearing to decide this issue.

Requirements for the Attorney's Exam When Graduating From Law School Not Approved by ABA

In Maryland and Rhode Island, attorneys who have graduated from a non-ABA-approved law school can apply for the attorney's exam if they have practiced law for 5-10 years directly preceding the application. In California, they have to be in good standing with the bar for at least four years. Attorneys applying in Maine must have practice law for at least three years in the jurisdiction where they have been admitted. Attorneys with active law licenses, in good standing with the bar, and who have passed the bar examination in another jurisdiction can only do the essay section of the bar examination in Virginia.

Admission Requirements for a Specific Matter

Jurisdictions also allow attorneys to practice law in courts without being admitted to the bar for specific and limited occasions. It is called pro hac vice, and states can determine their own rules and requirements for allowing attorneys to be admitted. Most states require the attorneys to have several years of experience, want someone admitted to the bar in the state to sponsor the attorney or be a co-counsel, or even require the attorney to pay a fee.

How To Practice Law Without Being Admitted to the Bar

Although attorneys should be admitted to the bar in their state, there are certain situations where it is possible to practice law without it. In-house corporate attorneys can generally provide transactional legal services within an in-house department.

Many corporations and banks offer positions that require legal background, although they are not solely focused on practicing law. Because of this, a J.D. degree is enough. These firms also often prefer to hire someone who is not admitted to the bar as they can pay them less money.

What To Do If You Failed the Bar Examination?

Passing the bar exam and being admitted to the bar is extremely beneficial for most lawyers (apart from the aforementioned cases); however, it is not easy. Many attorneys and law students cannot pass the exam on their first try, and many of them have to try it several times to pass. Still, it is worth it. And there is nothing wrong with failing and trying again. Even some of the best lawyers had to re-do their bar exam because they could not do it the first time. The important thing is not to let it discourage you and bounce back.

But what to do to be successful the next time?

The first step is to study harder for the next exam to have higher chances of succeeding and passing. The exam is difficult but passable. And in many states and jurisdictions, it is possible to retake the exam as many times as needed. The bar examinations are usually administered twice a year and not only once, so it is sometimes possible to have your second try the same year.

One of the great things about state bar exams is that bar examiners will usually give you your graded exams and essays. This allows you to see where you made the mistakes and what area you need to focus on when learning for your next try. My tip is to discuss these mistakes with an experienced expert, such as your professor, a bar examiner, or a bar exam tutor, to help you nail these things the next time you take the state bar exam.

If you think that the exam is too difficult for you to pass, there is another option if you do not believe you can study any harder. You can pass the bar exam in a different state where the passing rate is higher than in your state.

Although there should not be big differences between the difficulty of the bar exam and the trend to have a Uniform Bar Examination, there are states where the bar exam is more difficult or where the passing rate is really low. California is one of the states with the most difficult exam and lowest passing rates, but the New York State bar exam can also be very hard to pass. If you are considering this option, you should research the passing rates and assess what is most beneficial for you with the additional studying and expenses passing the bar exam in a new state would require.

Law firms will always like candidates admitted to the bar, even if it is in another state more than those with only a J.D. degree. Of course, it is not the best idea to say that you are admitted to the bar in that particular state because the bar exam is easier to pass if the interviewer asks. However, you can say that you have been interested in relocating to that area or are passionate about that jurisdiction's law when applying for the bar exam.

This strategy might not be the best when you apply for a position requiring admission to the bar in that particular state. However, that is when the admission on motion based on reciprocity comes into play. Finding out about all of the options you have is essential when you want to look at more legal markets and increase your chances of finding your dream job.

When studying for a state bar examination in any state or jurisdiction, the general things to pay attention to are first to assess your own skills, strengths, and weaknesses. You can approach studying in a much more logical and effective way after knowing where your biggest gaps in knowledge are. After that, it is vital first to understand the law because it will be much easier to memorize it if you know what it is about. Once you feel like you have memorized everything and the date of your exam, the most essential thing to do during the exam is to read everything carefully. There is no worse feeling than losing valuable points and failing the exam because you have read the assignment wrong.

Although many attorneys like to scare others that the bar exam is extremely difficult to pass, and it often is, it is not impossible. With good preparation, it is only the next step in your legal career that will secure you better options and a better future. Lawyers admitted to the bar have a much better chance of success in the law industry, so it is worth it to figure out a way to pass the exam.


When searching for a new legal position, it is always beneficial to look at multiple legal markets. Opening up your job hunt to more markets can bring you opportunities you would not even dream about. Law firms in different markets can often offer you more money, prestige, better locality, cultural fit, better work-life balance, and even better advancement opportunities. Every attorney has different priorities and looks for something else in their position. Widening your search means having more options that can help you find opportunities aligned with your values. Being admitted to the bar and knowing your options of how to get admitted in other states based on reciprocity allows you to search in other states and find the position and the law firm that fits you the most.

published May 03, 2022

By Author - LawCrossing
( 28 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.