Can Anyone Take The California Bar Exam?
Even though California has one of the hardest state bar exams to pass, it is still one of the most sought-after bar licenses in the country. So, if you are wondering if you are eligible to take the California Bar Exam, the answer just might be yes—provided that you meet certain requirements. Those requirements differ slightly depending on the path you take to becoming admitted to the California bar (but generally do involve taking the California Bar Exam). In this post, we address whether anyone can take the bar exam as well as the requirements of the different paths to licensure.
Can Anyone Take The California Bar Exam?
Paths to Becoming Admitted to Practice in California
In California, there are three main paths to becoming admitted to the state bar: (1) applicants with a law school degree taking the California Bar Exam, (2) applicants without a law school degree completing the Law Office Program and taking the California Bar Exam, and (3) attorneys already admitted to practice in other jurisdictions who take either the California Attorneys’ Examination or the California Bar Exam. Each path has its own individual requirements that applicants must meet. But the third option is the only one that does not necessarily require sitting for the traditional two-day exam. So, for those looking to practice law in California, you mostly likely will need to take the California Bar Exam!
Path for Applicants with a Law School Degree: California Bar Exam
The first path is the one that most California bar applicants will follow—the traditional route of taking the California Bar Exam after successfully graduating from law school. The process is similar to becoming admitted to practice in a Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) jurisdiction. It is the most straightforward path to take for new attorneys, including foreign attorneys who received their law degree outside of the United States. Read on below for more information on the California Bar Exam and how to prepare for it.
Keep in mind that depending on the accreditation status of your law school, you might also have to take and pass the First Year Law Students’ Examination (commonly referred to as the Baby Bar Exam) before taking the California Bar Exam.
Path for Examinees Who Do Not Go to Law School: Law Office Study Program
The second path of taking the California Bar Exam is for those who did not attend law school. This option is available in California but is not available in most other jurisdictions. Through the “Law School Office Study Program,” which is codified in Rule 4.29 of the State Bar of California, California bar applicants are not required to attend a law school program, as long as they meet certain requirements. Those requirements include:
- Study law in a law office or judge’s chambers during regular business hours for at least 18 hours per week for a period of four consecutive years;
- Pass the First Year Law Students’ Examination;
- Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (“MPRE”); and
- Pass the California Bar Examination.
Even though a law school degree is not required for this route, applicants not only need to pass the already difficult California Bar Exam, but the Baby Bar Exam as well, which also has notoriously low pass rates—making this a challenging path.
The California Baby Bar Exam is a one-day exam that is administered twice per year in June and October. The test is similar to the actual bar exam in that it includes both essay and multiple-choice questions. However, unlike the actual bar exam, the baby bar exam consists of just four one-hour essay questions and 100 multiple-choice questions that test only three areas of law: Contracts, Criminal Law, and Torts. Both the essay and multiple-choice sections are weighted equally on a 400-point scale. Examinees must score at least 560 points out of a possible 800 points to pass the exam, which is the equivalent of answering 70% of the questions correctly.
The Baby Bar Exam gained attention when Kim Kardashian shared at the end of 2021 that she had failed the Baby Bar Exam three times before passing. Applicants are only given three opportunities to pass the Baby Bar Exam to get full credit for law studies though. Even though it can be taken as many times as needed, those who do not pass it in the first three administrations will only receive credit for the first year of law school study.
Because of the difficulties in passing both the Baby Bar Exam and the California Bar Exam, many choose to follow the more traditional route over this non-traditional path (although it certainly is a good option for some!) so that they only need to take the California Bar Exam.
Path for Attorneys Admitted in Other Jurisdictions: the California Attorneys’ Examination
The third (and lesser known) path is the California Attorneys’ Examination, also referred to as the “one-day attorneys’ exam.” The exam is specifically designed for those who are already have a law license in another jurisdiction. As such, this might be an option for few applicants.
The eligibility requirements for taking the California Attorneys’ Examination are:
- You must have been licensed in another state or jurisdiction for at least four years;
- You have to have a positive moral character determination (read about the California moral character application here!) on file with the State Bar of California; and
- You must take and pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination.
Attorneys admitted to practice in another state or jurisdiction that satisfy all of these requirements can sit for the one-day California Attorneys’ Examination as opposed to the two-day California Bar Exam. However, there is one major exception: attorneys licensed in other countries are ineligible to take the California Attorneys’ Examination and will need to take the California Bar Exam.
The California Attorneys’ Examination is a shortened version of the traditional two-day bar exam, consisting of only essay questions. Those essay questions are identical to the ones presented to applicants taking the traditional two-day exam. In fact, the one-day examinees sit alongside the traditional two-day examinees in testing centers, but they simply do not return for day two of the exam.
Note that this is the only path to California bar admittance that does not require that you take the California Bar Exam. However, you may still be able to take the California Bar Exam over the California Attorneys’ Exam. Even though a shorter exam seems ideal in theory, there are a couple of downsides to the California Attorneys’ Examination to consider:
- First, the California Attorneys’ Examination generally suffers from a lower pass rate as compared to the two-day California Bar exam. That is a big deal since the two-day exam already has much lower pass rates compared to other state bar exams.
- Second, examinees who perform poorly on the California Attorneys’ Examination do not have the opportunity to boost their score during the MBE portion of the exam that takes place on day two for those who take the California Bar Exam.
Given the difficulties of passing the bar exam in California, attorneys admitted to practice in other jurisdictions may opt to take the California Bar Exam over the California Attorneys’ Examination if it is an available option.
The California Bar Exam
In sum, if you are seeking to become an attorney in California, you most likely will need to take the California Bar Exam, regardless of which path to bar licensure you follow, so you should make sure you understand what the California Bar Exam entails!
Format and Scoring
The California Bar Exam is administered twice per year: in February and in July. It is a two-day bar exam and contains five essays, one performance test, and the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), which includes 200 multiple-choice questions. On the first day, examinees take the California Bar Exam, there is a 3-hour morning session consisting of 3 one-hour essays followed by a 3.5-hour afternoon session consisting of two 1-hour essays and a single 90-minute performance test. On the second day, examinees complete 100 multiple-choice questions in a 3-hour morning session, followed by 100 multiple-choice questions in a 3-hour afternoon session. You can read more about the format of the California Bar Exam here!
We’re including a scoring breakdown of the California Bar Exam below:
- MBE: worth 50% of the overall score
- Essays: worth 35.7% of the overall score
- Performance Test: worth 14.43% of the overall score
The following fourteen topics are fair game on the essay portion of the California Bar Exam:
- Business Associations (includes Agency and Partnership, Corporations)
- Civil Procedure
- Community Property
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Professional Responsibility
- Real Property
- Wills and Succession
Some questions test general law while others test California-specific concepts. Because certain topics are tested more frequently than others, which you can see in our essay frequency chart, studying the highly tested topics is important in order to maximize your bar exam score! This is especially important because California Bar Exam has notoriously low pass rates.
Performance Test Tasks
Possible Performance Test tasks include:
- Objective memo
- Persuasive brief
- Persuasive letter
- Response to a demand letter
- Opinion letter
- Persuasive memo of points and authorities
- Wildcard task
Similar to the essay portion of the exam, certain tasks appear more frequently on the Performance Test portion. The most common task is the objective memo, tested 517% of the time from 2013 through 2022. Check out our Performance Test frequency chart.
Finally, the MBE covers seven subjects.
- Civil Procedure
- Constitutional Law
- Contracts & Sales
- Criminal Law & Procedure
- Real Property
Although each subject is tested equally, the sub-topics are not, so check out the MBE frequency chart.
It is worth noting that applicants must do more than just take the California Bar Exam in order to become admitted to the state bar. Additional requirements for all applicants include:
- Satisfy the Education Requirement: All applicants must satisfy the state bar’s education requirement prior to becoming admitted to practice. As noted above, that does not necessarily mean getting a law degree. The education requirement is satisfied where the applicant completes: (1) three or four years of study at a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA); (2) four years of study at a State Bar-registered, fixed-facility law school; (3) four years of study with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation at a registered unaccredited distance-learning or correspondence law school; (4) four years of study under the supervision of a state judge or attorney; or (5) a combination of these programs.
- Pass the MPRE: All applicants must take and pass the MPRE in order to be admitted to practice in California. The MPRE tests the established ethical rules that lawyers must abide by (also known as the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct). Applicants do not need to wait until they pass the California Bar Exam to take the MPRE. Rather, they can take the MPRE any time after completing one year of law study. Check out this post discussing the best time to take the MPRE!
- Moral Character: All applicants must undergo a background check and receive a positive moral character determination. Applicants should file early because this process can take six months to complete! Applicants may submit an online application or a paper application after registering as a law student or attorney applicant. Read more about the California Moral Character Application here!
- Family Support: Applicants need to prove that they have complied with any court order for child or family support.
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