Virginia Bar Exam

Written by: Will Bond

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Virginia Bar Exam

Passing the Virginia 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 on motion” as an out-of-state attorney.

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Virginia Bar Exam Overview

In Virginia, it’s the responsibility of the Board of Bar Examiners to administer the bar exam and admit those who satisfy its requirements into the state’s pool of practicing lawyers. The Board is an agency of the Supreme Court of Virginia with statutory authority found in Article 3, Chapter 39, Subtitle IV, Title 54.1 of the Code of Virginia.

The bar exam in Virginia occurs twice each year: on the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. If you want to sit the bar exam in February, the application deadline is Dec. 15. Those planning to take the July exam must submit their application by May 10.

Submitting this application involves paying a $575 filing fee in addition to the cost of the required character and fitness investigation, which ranges from $175 and $575.

There’s no late filing available in Virginia because the Board will simply reject your application if it doesn’t receive it by the deadlines listed above. This is because the filing deadlines are statutory, meaning the Board doesn’t have authority to waive or extend them.

Keep in mind that in order to be eligible for the Virginia bar exam, you’ll need to provide the Board with evidence that demonstrates you satisfy one of the following academic requirements:

  1. You Hold a Juris Doctor (JD) Degree. You must have earned a JD degree from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or the Board.
  2. You’re a Current Law Student. Students currently enrolled in — and in good standing with — a law school approved by the ABA or the Board should have successfully completed at least five semesters of legal studies or an equivalent of this time in a non-semester system.
  3. You Completed a Law Reader Program. Alternatively, you could have completed the required period of law study as set forth in the Board’s Law Reader Program Rule and Regulations.
  4. You’re a Foreign Law School Graduate. Graduates of foreign law schools — as well as those not approved by the ABA — must obtain a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from an ABA-approved law school and be admitted to practice before the highest court in a US jurisdiction.

Note: You shouldn’t file your application form any earlier than 90 days prior to the filing deadline.

Virginia Exam Structure

Instead of the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE) commonly adopted in many other states, Virginia requires candidates to take a tailored bar exam that includes a mixture of the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) and a Virginia Essay exam.

All candidates must take the Virginia Essay exam and select one of the following bar exam options:

  • Option 1: Under this option, candidates sit both the MBE and Virginia Essay exam and must obtain a minimum overall score of 140 to pass. Candidates will need to select this option if they haven’t previously taken the MBE or haven’t achieved an MBE scaled score greater than 133 in the three years prior to their bar exam application
  • Option 2A: Applicants who already obtained a passing MBE score of 133 from a previous bar exam taken in Virginia within the three years preceding their exam date can elect to use that MBE score and only sit the Virginia Essay exam
  • Option 2B: This option functions just like Option 2A, but suits applicants who achieved an MBE scaled score of 133 or greater on a previous bar exam taken in a jurisdiction outside Virginia
  • Option 3: Attorney applicants with a current active license who’re in good standing in a jurisdiction outside Virginia aren’t required to provide an MBE exam score. Instead, their score is based entirely on their performance on the Virginia Essay exam. They’ll need a score of 64 points or greater (out of 100) in order to pass

In all options where the Board uses both the MBE and Virginia Essay exam to calculate a candidate’s score, it’ll weight these two modules by adding together 60% of the Virginia Essay exam scaled score and 40% of the MBE scaled score.

In addition to the Virginia bar exam, all candidates must pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) with a score of 85 or higher in order to be eligible for the bar.

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

Virginia Essay Exam

This section, which is mandatory for all bar applicants in Virginia, features two three-hour sessions that occur on the first day of the exam.

The morning session includes five essay questions while the afternoon session includes four essay questions and 10 multiple-choice questions.

All of these essay and short-answer questions will test your knowledge of the following topics:

  • Contracts
  • Domestic Relations
  • Professional Responsibility
  • Virginia Civil and Criminal Procedure (Including Appellate Practice)
  • Business Organizations
  • Evidence
  • Real and Personal Property
  • Federal Practice and Procedure
  • Creditor’s Rights
  • Torts
  • Criminal Law
  • Local Government Law
  • Uniform Commercial Code (Articles 2, 3A, and 9A)
  • Wills, Trusts, and Estates

In addition to the principles and rules listed above, the essay questions contained within this portion of the Virginia bar exam are specifically designed to test your ability to:

  • Identify the legal issues posed in these hypothetical scenarios
  • Distinguish the relevant facts and details from the irrelevant ones
  • Accurately apply the relevant legal rules to the issues and facts
  • Analyze the pertinent issues by breaking them down in a clear and well-organized manner
  • Finish your writing with a logical conclusion to this analysis

The Board emphasizes the importance of reading the essay questions carefully before you begin writing because an early misinterpretation of the facts or situation may greatly hinder your ability to apply the appropriate laws and principles, which is how you’ll earn the bulk of your points.

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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, see the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ (NCBE) official Sample Test Questions document. A holistic Subject Matter Outline is also offered.

How to Pass the Virginia Bar Exam

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

Virginia Bar Exam Tips

Despite the infamous difficulty of Virginia’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 Virginia Bar Requirements

Apart from passing the Virginia bar exam, you’ll also need to satisfy several other requirements in order to practice law in this state. These include:

  1. Submitting a Character and Fitness Questionnaire to the Board
  2. Registering With the Virginia State Bar (VSB)
  3. Finishing the Professionalism Course for New Lawyers
  4. Completing Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements

1. Submitting a Character and Fitness Questionnaire to the Board

In order to obtain a license to practice law in Virginia, you must provide satisfactory evidence to the Board that you possess the necessary qualities for this profession. This includes demonstrating you have an “honest demeanor and good moral character.”

You can do this by filling out the Character and Fitness Questionnaire and answering any questions the Board may have about your past conduct or record. A record showing a distinct lack of honesty, trustworthiness, reliability or any of the other qualities necessary to practice law in Virginia is sufficient basis to deny your admission to the bar.

In particular, the discovery of any of the following may encourage the Board to engage in further questioning:

  1. Criminal convictions or numerous traffic offenses
  2. False statements or deliberate omissions on your Character and Fitness Questionnaire
  3. Misconduct in the workplace
  4. Abuses of the legal process
  5. Neglect of financial responsibilities

The purpose of the Character and Fitness Questionnaire is to safeguard the public and maintain the fairness of the justice system. For this reason, all applicants have the responsibility to clearly demonstrate their record of conduct justifies the trust of their potential clients.

Note: It costs $575 to file the Character and Fitness Questionnaire the first time or $175 if you’ve filed one less than five years ago.

2. Registering With the Virginia State Bar

After getting licensed by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners to practice law, you must register with the VSB.

You can do this by filling out the Official Registration Form and returning it to the VSB via this email address. Once the VSB receives your completed registration form, you’ll receive your member portal login credentials via the email address on your record.

As soon as you get your login details, you’ll need to sign in to the portal and pay your yearly membership fees.

Note: For any further help regarding registration, contact the VSB’s office at (804) 775-0530 or by email.

3. Finishing the Professionalism Course for New Lawyers

Based on a decision made by the Supreme Court of Virginia in 1987, all newly qualified lawyers in the state must complete a mandatory course on professionalism and the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct within 24 months of registering with the VSB.

This course — currently called the Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Course — is taught by a group of prominent Virginia lawyers and judges selected by Chief Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn. The course’s curriculum focuses on:

  • The Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct
  • The broader ethical obligations of lawyers to their clients
  • The role of lawyers in the judicial system
  • The duty lawyers owe to society

You can register to take this course online or by mail using this form and paying the $200 registration fee. However, you can register online if you have any course fee credit on your record.

Note: If you fail to complete this course within 24 months of your registration date with the VSB, the Board will administratively suspend your attorney license.

4. Completing Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Requirements

The Virginia Supreme Court requires all active members of the VSB to complete a mandatory 12 hours of approved CLE courses each year. To help administer these CLE requirements, the Virginia Supreme Court established the Continuing Legal Education Board.

The board stipulates that some of this time needs to include:

  • Ethics/Professionalism Credit (2 hours)
  • Live-Interactive Programs (4 hours)

The annual deadline to complete these required CLE hours is Oct. 31. However, newly admitted attorneys are exempt from this requirement for the remainder of the reporting period after they obtain their license.

Note: You can learn more about Virginia’s CLE requirements on the VSB website.

Admission Without Examination (Reciprocity)

Under the Code of Virginia § 54.1-3931 and Rule 1A:1 of the Supreme Court of Virginia, attorneys who’ve been admitted to the bar in a United States territory for at least five years may be eligible to apply for admission in Virginia without taking the bar exam.

Attorneys currently practicing law will be eligible for this admission option as long as they:

  • Otherwise meet the educational requirements
  • Are admitted to the bar of a Reciprocal Jurisdiction (see below)
  • Have been engaged in the practice of law on a full-time basis for at least three of the last five years

In addition to meeting the above requirements, you’ll also need to complete a specific course (W. Scott Street, III Rule 1A:1 Reciprocity Course) in the six months immediately preceding your application for Admission Without Examination.

You’ll need to include the Certificate of Attendance you receive after finishing this course along with your application and the $2,500 filing fee. You can pay this fee by money order or check made payable to the “Virginia Board of Bar Examiners.”

Importantly, you won’t qualify for Admission Without Examination if you’ve done either of the following:

  • Failed — either partly or wholly — any bar exam in the past five years years; or
  • Failed more than two bar exams in any jurisdiction in your lifetime

While processing this type of application can take up to six months from its receipt, you can’t submit your application before you’ve held a license for five years.

Note: For a full list of the states with which Virginia shares reciprocity, see the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners’ website.

Virginia Bar Exam FAQ

How hard is the Virginia bar exam?

Considered challenging, the Virginia bar exam represents a comprehensive assessment of a candidate’s understanding of legal principles and their ability to apply them. Success on past exams seems to vary greatly with pass rates fluctuating between 57% and 87% in the last five years alone. Make sure you’re thoroughly prepared by checking out our What is the Bar Exam article.

Can I take the bar exam in Virginia without going to law school?

Yes, Virginia allows for an alternative path to taking the bar exam for candidates who aren’t law students. Test takers can undertake an apprenticeship with a practicing attorney for a specific period to fulfill the state’s requirements. This path, known as “reading the law,” is rigorous and requires significant dedication.

What is the passing score for the Virginia bar exam?

In order to pass the Virginia bar exam, candidates need to obtain a score of 140 on a 200-point scale. The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners determines this score by combining your performance on the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) and the Virginia Essay exam. However, you’ll also need to obtain a score of 85 or higher on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) to earn admission to the Virginia Bar.

How much does it cost to take the bar exam in Virginia?

The cost to take Virginia bar exams is typically always $575 due to no late filing options in this state. This is because the filing deadlines are statutory and the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners can’t extend them. To read more about the rules, procedures, and subjects tested on this exam, check out our Virginia Bar Exam article.