California Bar Exam

Written by: Will Bond

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California Bar Exam

Passing the California bar exam is an essential part of being admitted into the state’s bar and beginning a successful career practicing law.

In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to get started, including:

  • The bar exam’s eligibility criteria, content, and structure
  • The steps you can take in order to give yourself the best chance of passing on your first attempt
  • The additional requirements you’ll need to satisfy in order to become admitted into the state’s bar

We’ll also briefly look at the process of getting admitted without a completed law degree.

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California Bar Exam Overview

The bar examination in the state of California is administered by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California — which was created by the Legislature in 1927.

The Committee’s operations are overseen by the California Supreme Court, which has complete jurisdiction over the practice of law in this state.

In California, the bar exam is administered twice a year: once in the last week of February and again in the last week of July. Applications for the bar exam should be submitted by April 1 for the July examination, or November 1 for the February examination ($667 fee).

If you miss these dates, you’ll still be able to apply up until June 1 for the July exam or January 1 for the February exam, but will have to pay late fees of up to $250 — any applications received after these dates will not be accepted.

Bar Exam Prerequisites

Keep in mind that in order to be eligible for the California bar exam, you will need to satisfy the following education requirements under Chapter 3, Title 4 of the Rules of State Bar:

General Education: All applicants are required to have completed a minimum of two years of college work, or be able to demonstrate an equivalent intellectual achievement that their law school can certify. 

  • “Two years of college work” refers to at least sixty semester or ninety quarter units of college credit equivalents (equal to half of a bachelor’s degree) from an establishment with the authority to grant degrees; and with an average grade that’s acceptable for graduation. 
  • To satisfy the “equivalent intellectual achievement” requirement, you’ll need to obtain acceptable scores on exams specified by the Committee prior to commencing your legal studies.

Legal Education: In addition to these general education requirements, candidates must have either a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from a law school that is either approved by the American Bar Association or accredited by the Committee, or prove that they’ve:

  • Studied law for at least four years in either a law school registered with the Committee, a law office, a judge’s chambers; or a mixture of these; or
  • Fulfilled the legal education rules for candidates who studied in a foreign state or country.

First-Year Law Students’ Examination: Candidates who cannot establish exemption will be required to take a one-day test during the first year of their legal studies. This exam, also known as the “baby bar”, must be taken by students in the first year of:

  • A JD degree program at a university that is not accredited by the State Bar; 
  • The Law Office Study Program; or
  • Candidates at American Bar Association-accredited law schools that didn’t complete “two years of college work”.

You can read about these requirements in more detail in The State Bar of California’s Rules of the State Bar, Title 4 Division 1.

California Exam Structure

Unlike the majority of other states, California has opted to forgo the Universal Bar Exam (UBE) in favor of their own proprietary assessment called the California Bar Exam.

This test adheres to the following structure:

Day 1:

  • Essay Questions: Five one-hour essay questions (three in the morning and two in the afternoon
  • Performance Test: 90-minute exam made up of “closed universe” practical questions

Day 2: 

  • Multistate Bar Examination (MBE): 200-question multiple-choice exam (50%)

In addition to the California Bar Exam, all candidates will also be required to pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in order to be eligible for the California bar.

Below, we’ve broken down the content and structure of each exam-related requirement in more detail.

Essay Questions

The five essay questions within the California Bar Exam are spread across the morning and afternoon sessions and can cover a variety of topics, including:

  • Business Associations
  • Civil Procedure
  • Evidence
  • Remedies
  • Community Property
  • Trusts
  • Professional Responsibility
  • Wills and Succession

In each question, you’ll be provided with a fact situation and assessed on your analytical skills and ability to apply legal principles in the given scenario. Unless specifically instructed, you’ll need to answer these essay questions using generally applied legal theories and principles, not California law.

Just like in real life, some of the facts provided to you in these passages will be irrelevant to your decision — it’s your job to distinguish the material and immaterial facts in these texts as well as discern the legal principles upon which each case hinges.

Keep in mind that the best answers in this section will not only show an understanding of the relevant legal principles at play, but also an ability to apply them and logically work toward a conclusion using the relevant facts, as a lawyer would be expected to.

Note: For more information, you can have a look at The State Bar of California’s website for a free collection of official past exams.

Performance Test

Performance Test (PT) questions present candidates with a simulated legal task involving a client’s factual problem that is explored through two primary materials:

  • The File: This contains various documents related to the fictional case, such as correspondence, witness statements, depositions, trials and any other relevant materials
  • The Library: The library, on the other hand, provides legal resources, including statutes, case law, and regulations

Alongside these materials, you’ll be presented with instructions that outline the specific tasks you’ll need to complete, which can range from drafting a legal memorandum to preparing closing arguments for a trial.

While PT questions are designed to evaluate a broad spectrum of skills that are vital to the practice of law, the key to succeeding in these questions lies in accurately interpreting these instructions and applying the materials you’re provided with effectively.

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Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)

The MBE is made up of 200 multiple-choice questions, which are broken down into 175 scored questions and 25 unscored questions.

The exam is broken down into two three-hour sections, with one administered in the morning and one in the afternoon, both of which contain 100 questions each.

Keep in mind that there are no scheduled breaks during either one of the sections.

All 175 scored questions on the exam are distributed evenly, with 25 questions being attributed to each of the following seven topics:

  • Constitutional Law
  • Civil Procedure
  • Contract Law
  • Real Property
  • Tort Law
  • Evidence
  • Criminal Law and Procedure

Each question on the MBE exam will have four potential answers. You should choose what you believe is the best answer — keep in mind that scores are based on the number of questions answered correctly, and points are not subtracted for answering incorrectly.

If you want to have a look at the exact format, you can have a look at the NCBE’s official MBE Sample Test Questions document.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)

The MPRE is made up of 60 multiple-choice questions (50 scored questions and 10 unscored questions) and is administered via Pearson VUE.

Like the MBE exam, each question offers four possible answers, one of which is correct.

The exam’s content is based on law that relates to the conduct and discipline of attorneys and judges and includes the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct and Model Code of Judicial Conduct, as well as important constitutional common law and generally accepted principles.

In relation to questions of professional responsibility in the context of evidentiary issues (e.g., litigation sanctions, attorney-client evidentiary privilege, etc.), the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence will apply unless otherwise stated.

Note: You will have two hours to complete the MPRE exam in its entirety.

For more information, we recommend having a look at the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ (NCBE) Official Sample Test Questions document. A holistic Subject Matter Outline is also offered.

How to Pass the California Bar Exam 

In order to give yourself the best chance of passing the California exam on your first attempt, it’s important to take enough time to make sure that you are adequately prepared.

California Bar Exam Tips

Despite the infamous difficulty of California’s bar exam, passing it on your first attempt is definitely possible with the right tools and preparation techniques.

Below, we’ve broken down a few key tips that should aid you in your licensing journey:

  • Start Strong in Your First Year: This is important due to the fundamental areas of law practice that the first year of law school generally covers, such as Contracts, Tort, and Constitutional Law
  • Leverage Academic Support: If your law school offers additional support services that are aimed at improving your preparation, we recommend utilizing these as much as possible. This can involve one-on-one tutoring, academic counseling, and mock exam programs
  • Obtain Practical Legal Experience: If possible, we recommend gaining as much practical experience as you can during law school (i.e., through summer internships, mock trials, etc.). This is because this can go a long way in cementing your legal knowledge
  • Adopt a Broad Study Approach: When studying for the bar, you should aim for a wide-ranging understanding of various subjects rather than an in-depth study of a few. This is important due to the huge amount of content that you will need to learn and/or will be tested on

Most importantly, make sure you remain consistent so that you do not have to resort to last-minute cramming.

Research has shown that we are able to retain a higher degree of information – and more easily – when revisiting old content in comparison to when learning it for the first time. This is known as Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.

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Other California Bar Requirements

Apart from qualifying for and passing the California bar exam, there are several other requirements you will need to meet for The State Bar of California to sign off on your application, including:

  1. Registering with the State Bar; and
  2. Satisfying the Moral Character Determination

1. Register with the State Bar

The admissions process will begin by registering with the State Bar as either a law student or an attorney applicant using The State Bar of California’s Applicant Portal. If you’re registering as a law student, you’ll be required to complete this process within 90 days of starting their legal studies.

As part of this process, any applicants that are eligible for U.S. Social Security numbers will be required to provide one in order to satisfy Business and Professions Code sections 30 and Family Code section 17520. If you’re ineligible, you’ll have to submit a request for exemption instead.

While most applicants won’t need to provide any additional documentation as part of this registration, the following types of candidates will:

  • Law Office Study students: You’ll either need to submit official sealed transcripts from the undergraduate institution you attended, or your scores from the College Level Examination Program (CLEP)
  • Foreign-educated applicants: You’ll need to submit a report evaluating the equivalence of your law degree, or a detailed evaluation of all your post-secondary education. Additionally, a Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary Form must be provided alongside an authenticated transcript of all your legal studies
  • Foreign attorney applicants: Foreign attorneys are required to provide an original Certificate of Admission or a Certificate of Good Standing from the legal jurisdiction in which they’ve been admitted. This document must be accompanied by a certified English translation if it’s in a foreign language

For more details on registering online as an applicant, see The State Bar of California’s website.

2. Satisfy the Moral Character Determination

Once you’ve completed the registration process, you’ll be able to access the Application for Determination of Moral Character. This is a mandatory background check that all applicants must undergo and receive a positive determination on in order to qualify for the bar.

This application can be submitted at any time after registering with the State Bar, either online through the Applicant Portal, or by requesting a hard copy from the Office of Admissions.

However, if you’re applying as a law student it’s encouraged that you submit a moral character application before the start of your final year of legal studies, since the review process can take over six months to be completed. Filing early ensures this process is done before your bar exam results are released.

Note: You can find more guidance on how to complete your moral character application in the official instructions provided by The State Bar of California.

Attorney Applicants

While California does not allow reciprocity or admission by motion for attorneys licensed in other jurisdictions, attorney applicants may be entitled to reduced examination requirements as long as they:

  • Have an active license; and
  • Have been certified as in good standing for at least four years immediately preceding the first day of the examination applied for

If you satisfy the above requirements, you can elect to sit the one-day Attorneys’ Examination rather than the general bar examination.

However, if you’ve been practicing for less than four years, or are inactive/not in good standing, you’ll be required to take the full two-day California Bar Exam like everyone else.

California Bar Exam FAQ

How hard is the California bar exam?

The California bar exam is known for its challenging nature. Given that it tests a wide range of legal knowledge and skills, and historically has one of the lower pass rates in the United States, it’s one of the more demanding bar exams to prepare for and pass. For more information on the bar exam, check out our What is the Bar Exam article.

Can I take the California bar exam without law school?

In California, you can take the bar exam without attending law school. However, you’ll still be required to follow either a “law office study program”, which involves studying under the supervision of a practicing attorney or judge, or certain non-ABA accredited law school programs. To read more about the eligibility requirements, we recommend our California Bar Exam article.

How many times is the California bar exam offered a year?

The California bar exam is offered twice a year — typically in the last week of February and the last week of July. This biannual schedule allows candidates multiple opportunities per year to sit for the exam, which is particularly beneficial for those who may need to retake the exam.

Which state has the hardest bar exam?

The California bar examination is often cited as having the hardest bar exam in the United States due to its comprehensive subject matter, the format of the exam, and its historically low pass rates compared to other states. That being said, the bar exam is going to be tricky regardless of the seal of the state you take it in.