South Dakota Bar Exam

Written by: Nik Ventouris

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South Dakota Bar Exam

Passing the South Dakota 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; and
  • 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 as an out-of-state attorney.

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South Dakota Bar Exam Overview

The South Dakota Board of Bar Examiners (the Board) administers the bar exam under the state’s Supreme Court’s authority.

The Board is responsible for overseeing the examination process, which includes determining eligibility criteria as well as the content and structure of the exam to ensure adherence to the state’s legal practice standards.

Offered biannually, the exam takes place on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. To participate, candidates must register by November 1 for the February session and May 1 for the July session.

To register, applicants are required to pay a $450 processing fee.

Keep in mind that in order to be eligible for the South Dakota bar exam, you must satisfy the following criteria according to the rules established by the Board and the South Dakota Supreme Court:

  • Age Requirement: Applicants must be at least 18 years old when they apply for the bar exam
  • Educational Requirement: Applicants must have obtained a Juris Doctor (JD) or Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA)

Note: Candidates who fail the South Dakota bar exam three times may not apply to retake it unless they obtain permission from the South Dakota Supreme Court.

South Dakota Exam Structure

Unlike the majority of other states, South Dakota opted to forgo the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) in favor of its own proprietary assessment.

This exam adheres to the following structure:

Day 1:

  • Multistate Performance Test (MPT): Two 90-Minute Multistate Performance Test Questions
  • Essay Questions: Applicants complete an essay question on Indian law, which tests their knowledge of the fundamental principles of federal Indian law, and the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), which includes five essay questions that cover both general and South Dakota law

Day 2:

  • Multistate Bar Examination (MBE): A 200-Question, Multiple-Choice Exam

In order to achieve a passing score, applicants must secure a general average of 75% or higher on the combined MPT, MEE, and Indian law essay portion as well as a scaled score of 133 or more on the MBE.

Moreover, candidates must achieve a scaled score of 85 or higher on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in order to be eligible for the South Dakota bar.

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).

Essay Questions

The Essay Questions section of the South Dakota bar exam includes a series of essay prompts designed to assess your ability to apply legal principles to hypothetical scenarios. It encompasses a wide array of legal subjects, notably featuring a dedicated Indian law portion alongside questions from the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE).

The MEE essays test your ability to analyze legal issues across various subjects, requiring a demonstration of your knowledge in areas such as:

  • Constitutional law
  • Contracts
  • Criminal law and procedure
  • Evidence
  • Real property and torts

The Indian law essay question explores fundamental principles of federal Indian law, such as civil and criminal jurisdiction, the Indian Civil Rights Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

While this question won’t delve into tribal laws or customary laws, it will focus on your understanding of the overarching legal frameworks that govern Indian law at the federal level.

When approaching the Essay Questions section, you’ll find complex fact patterns that may include incomplete, ambiguous, or conflicting information. This design simulates the real-world challenges lawyers face, where facts can be uncertain and the available information may not always be straightforward.

Your task will be to sift through the facts, identify relevant legal issues, apply the appropriate legal principles, and articulate a well-reasoned analysis.

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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 South Dakota Bar Exam

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

South Dakota Bar Exam Tips

Despite the infamous difficulty of South Dakota’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 South Dakota Bar Requirements

Apart from qualifying for and passing the South Dakota bar exam, applicants have one additional requirement to fulfill in order to become licensed attorneys in this state.

Passing the Character and Fitness Evaluation

Applicants aiming to practice law in South Dakota must successfully pass a Character and Fitness Evaluation as mandated by Rule 16-16-2 of the Rules and Regulations for Admission to Practice Law in South Dakota.

This evaluation emphasizes the importance of possessing essential qualities like honesty, candor, trustworthiness, diligence, reliability, and respect for the rights of others and the judicial process. Demonstrating a lack of these qualities through behavior that contradicts them may result in the denial of admission to the bar.

The evaluation process involves a detailed review of an applicant’s historical conduct, scrutinizing any instances of:

  • Unlawful behavior
  • Academic and professional misconduct, dishonesty, financial negligence, and potential substance abuse, among other issues

Factors like the applicant’s age at the time of any concerning conduct, the recency and seriousness of the conduct, and any evidence of rehabilitation are taken into account during the review process. The Board’s aim is to ensure an applicant’s past actions align with the ethical and professional standards expected of attorneys in South Dakota.

Note: Should the Board deny an application based on character and fitness, it’ll provide written justification that details the reasons behind the decision.

Admission on Motion (Reciprocity)

Experienced attorneys from out of state may gain entry to the South Dakota bar without taking the bar exam through a process known as Admission on Motion or reciprocity. To qualify for admission on this basis, applicants must:

  • Meet the general requirements set forth in the South Dakota Codified Laws 16-16-2, which include demonstrating good moral character and fitness to practice law
  • Provide satisfactory evidence of having graduated from an ABA-accredited law school

Additionally, attorneys must demonstrate their active, continuous, and lawful practice of law in the following capacities for three of the last five years immediately before applying:

  • As a sole practitioner
  • As a member of a law firm, professional corporation, or association
  • Serving as a judge in a court of record
  • Working as an attorney for any local or state governmental entity
  • Serving as inside counsel for a corporation, agency, association, or trust department
  • Working as an attorney with the federal government or a federal governmental agency, which includes service in the Judge Advocate General Department of one of the US military branches

Importantly, the application also must include documentation proving that the state in which the applicant has practiced law permits a similar admission process for South Dakota attorneys.

Note: Should the state where an applicant has previously practiced impose extra criteria for South Dakota attorneys seeking reciprocity, the Board reserves the right to enforce these identical criteria on those applying for admission in South Dakota without undergoing the exam.

South Dakota Bar Exam FAQ

How hard is the bar exam in South Dakota?

The South Dakota bar exam poses a challenge similar to bar exams in other states. Candidates can manage its difficulty effectively with diligent preparation. A candidate’s success hinges on their grasp of legal concepts, skill in applying these concepts to different scenarios, and the thoroughness of their preparation.

What is the pass rate for the South Dakota bar exam?

The pass rate for the South Dakota bar exam can vary from year to year, but, in 2023, the overall pass rate was 74%. Specifically, 75% of first-time exam takers succeeded — indicating instances where an applicant passed on their initial attempt. Conversely, the pass rate for those retaking the exam stood at 67%.

Can I take the South Dakota bar exam without going to law school?

No, to take the South Dakota bar exam, you must be a graduate of an ABA-accredited law school. To make sure you’re thoroughly prepared for this exam, see our What is the Bar Exam article.

What score do you need to pass the South Dakota bar exam?

To pass the South Dakota bar examination, you need to secure a general average of 75% or higher on the combined Multistate Performance Test (MPT), Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and Indian law essay portion. You’ll also need a scaled score of 133 or more on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE).