Iowa Bar Exam

Written by: Nik Ventouris

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Passing the Iowa 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 through an Admission on Motion for out-of-state attorneys.

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Iowa Bar Exam Overview

The Iowa bar exam is administered by the Iowa Board of Law Examiners, which operates under the guidance of the Iowa Supreme Court. The Board collaborates with the Office of Professional Regulation to evaluate the qualifications of candidates, oversee the examination process, and ensure that all candidates meet the necessary standards for character and fitness.

Applicants should be aware that the examination is held biannually, with sessions on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. The deadline for applications is April 1 for the July exam and November 1 for the February exam.

Keep in mind that those who fail the exam may reapply within 30 days of receiving their scores in order to arrange a retake at the next available session.

The standard exam fee is $800, with a reduced fee of $550 for those who have both previously applied for the Iowa bar exam and have never been licensed to practice law in any other U.S. jurisdiction.

Keep in mind that in order to be eligible for the Iowa bar exam, according to Chapter 31 of the Iowa Court Rules, candidates must meet the following criteria:

  1. J.D. or LL.B. Degree from an ABA-Accredited Law School: Candidates will need to possess a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree from an American Bar Association-accredited law school.
  2. Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE): Applicants must achieve a score of 80 or higher on the MPRE, which indicates a thorough understanding of the ethical standards and responsibilities of legal professionals.
  3. Intention to Practice Law: Candidates are required to declare their intention to practice law in Iowa or in another jurisdiction that accepts UBE scores. This intention is proven through an affidavit and is verified by the Iowa Board of Law Examiners.
  4. Character and Fitness Application: Applicants are required to complete the NCBE Character and Fitness Application, which enables the Iowa Board of Law Examiners to thoroughly assess each candidate’s background in education, professional experience, and personal conduct (see below).

Note: Candidates close to completing their law degree may be eligible to sit for the exam before graduating by providing to the Committee an affidavit from their law school dean. This affidavit must verify their expected graduation within 45 days of the bar exam’s start date.

Iowa Exam Structure

Since 2016, the state of Iowa has adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which adheres to the following structure:

Day 1:

  • Multistate Performance Test (MPT): Two 90-minute Multistate Performance Test Questions (20%)
  • Multistate Essay Examination (MEE): Six 30-minute Multistate Essay Exam questions (30%)

Day 2:

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

The UBE exam is scored out of 400 points, 266 of which need to be answered correctly in order for a candidate to receive a passing mark.

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

Multistate Performance Test (MPT)

The MPT is made up of two 90-minute parts, and the materials for each part contain a “File” and a “Library.”

The File consists of source documents that contain all of the facts of a specific case.

As the examinee, the assignment that you will need to complete will be described in a memorandum from a supervising attorney.

The File can also include things like transcripts of interviews, depositions, pleadings, trials, client documents, newspaper articles, police reports, and any other similar documents.

Keep in mind that irrelevant information is generally included, and facts are sometimes incomplete, ambiguous, or even conflicting.

This is meant to mirror legal practice, in which a client’s or supervising attorney’s version of events may be unreliable or entirely incomplete. In such a scenario, you will be expected to recognize when facts are inconsistent or missing in the exam and identify sources of additional facts.

The Library part contains things like cases, statutes, and regulations, some of which may also not be relevant to the task that you will be assigned. You will need to be able to extract the legal principles required to analyze the legal problem you’ll be presented with and perform the requested task.

For more information, you can have a look at the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Instructions for Taking the MPT document.

Free summaries of MPTs from recent examinations are also offered (e.g., MPT Summaries of 2023).

Multistate Essay Exam (MEE)

The MEE consists of six 30-minute sections that can cover a variety of legal areas, including:

  • Civil Procedure
  • Business Associations (e.g., Agency and Partnership, LLCs, Corporations, etc.)
  • Conflict of Laws
  • Constitutional Law
  • Contract Law
  • Family Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Torts
  • Trust and Estates

Keep in mind that questions can often include issues in more than one area of law. This means that it’ll be important to ensure that you have a “wide” range of understanding rather than a deep focus on one or two subjects.

Note: For more information, have a look at the NCBE’s official Instructions for Taking the MEE document or check out a few official MEE questions.

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.

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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.

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

For more information, we recommend having a look at the NCBE’s Official Sample Test Questions document. A holistic Subject Matter Outline is also offered.

How to Pass the Iowa Bar Exam

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

Iowa Bar Exam Tips

Despite the infamous difficulty of Iowa’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 Contract Law, 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 Iowa Bar Requirements

Apart from qualifying for and passing the Iowa bar exam, there are several other requirements you will need to meet in order to become and remain a licensed attorney in the state, including:

  1. Pass the Character and Fitness Evaluation
  2. Satisfy the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Requirements

1. Character and Fitness Evaluation

Following the exam, certain candidates may be required to fulfill additional stipulations to secure their full admission to practice law. These stipulations are designed to address any remaining concerns regarding the candidate’s commitment to the legal profession’s ethical standards.

Such requirements might involve further background investigations, completing professional ethics courses, contribution to community service, or undertaking temporary supervised practice.

Having said that, candidates facing denial or conditional admission due to character and fitness considerations are granted the opportunity of a hearing. This process permits candidates to provide additional information or clarification concerning their suitability for legal practice.

Ultimately, final decisions on admission rest with the Iowa Supreme Court, which considers the Board’s recommendations, hearing outcomes, and any contested findings by the applicants.

2. Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Requirements

In Iowa, attorneys who have passed the bar exam and gained admission to practice must engage in ongoing professional development through Continuing Legal Education (CLE).

The state mandates that licensed attorneys complete a minimum of 15 CLE hours every year. This requirement, which is overseen by the Iowa Commission on Continuing Legal Education, ensures attorneys remain up-to-date with the latest legal developments and maintain high professional standards.

The annual CLE curriculum must include:

  • At least one hour focused on legal ethics, which covers the principles and responsibilities that govern the behavior of lawyers
  • At least one hour on attorney wellness or diversity and inclusion, which emphasizes the importance of mental health and promoting equality and understanding within the legal community

Attorneys are tasked with reporting their completed CLE hours to the Commission by March 10 of each year. While attorneys can carry over excess CLE credits to the following year, the specific hours dedicated to legal ethics, attorney wellness, and diversity and inclusion cannot be carried over.

It’s important to note that the CLE requirement for the first year following admission to the bar is waived, which gives new attorneys a grace period to adjust to their professional responsibilities.

Admission on Motion (Reciprocity)

Admission on Motion provides a pathway for attorneys licensed in other states or the District of Columbia to be admitted to practice law in Iowa without the need to take the state’s bar exam.

This process is designed for attorneys with extensive legal experience and a proven record of professional integrity.

In order to be considered for admission on motion applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • Bar Membership: Must hold a current license and be an admitted member of the bar in any U.S. state or the District of Columbia
  • Practice of Law: Must have actively practiced law for at least five years within the seven years immediately preceding their application
  • Character and Fitness: Must comply with the character and fitness requirements specified in Iowa Court Rule 31.12

Keep in mind that, in accordance with Iowa Court Rule 31.12(8), applicants may be disqualified from Admission on Motion under several conditions:

  • Failure of the Iowa bar exam within five years preceding the application
  • Failure of five or more bar exams in any jurisdiction
  • Possession of an Iowa license in exempt or inactive status, according to Iowa Court Rules 39.7 or 41.7

For more information, you can have a look at this publication provided by the Iowa Legislature. 

Iowa Bar Exam FAQ

Can you take the bar without going to law school in Iowa?

To sit for the bar exam in Iowa, candidates must have a Juris Doctor (J.D.) or Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) degree from an American Bar Association-accredited law school. Iowa does not offer alternative pathways to the bar exam that bypass this educational requirement, which highlights the importance of a formal legal education as a foundation for legal practice in the state.

How long is the Iowa bar exam?

The Iowa bar exam spans two days, following the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) format. The first day includes two 90-minute MPT tasks and six 30-minute MEE questions. The second day is dedicated to the 200-question MBE. Keep in mind that the Iowa bar exam application must be submitted by April 1 for the July exam and by November 1 for the February exam.

How hard is it to pass the Iowa State bar examination?

The Iowa bar examination is notably challenging, which aligns with the high standards expected in the legal field. Its difficulty is mirrored in the Iowa bar exam results. Candidates must navigate through the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and Multistate Performance Test (MPT), which require a broad understanding of legal concepts and the ability to apply them practically. Interested in finding out more? Take a look at our What Is the Bar Exam article.

How much does the IA bar exam cost?

The Iowa Bar Exam has a standard fee of $800, with a reduced fee of $550 being available for certain applicants. To qualify for the reduced fee, applicants need to meet two criteria: they must have previously applied for the Iowa bar exam, often during their law student registration phase, and they must not have been licensed to practice law in any other U.S. jurisdiction.