Which States Have the Hardest Bar Exams?
Every law student probably wants to know which states have the hardest bar exams. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Of course, you can look at the overall pass rate and see which one is the lowest (California), but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. States can offer incredibly difficult exams, but if their takers prepare well, this won’t reflect in pass rates. Or maybe the exam itself isn’t too outrageous, but the students taking it don’t have the proper education. You can search the internet and find countless different opinions on what the hardest bar exams are. While one state does tend to show up the most frequently, good luck reaching a consensus on what comes next.
It is important not to let pass rates scare you away from a particular state. Consider the type of material on the exam, the exam’s format, and even the duration of the exam. Many factors come into play when defining the hardest bar exams, and the exam that is best for you. Don’t let your career path be determined by statistics alone because you (and your study habits!) play the biggest role in your bar exam fate!
Which States Have the Hardest Bar Exams?
While this is by no means an exact science, what follows is a list of the states that are generally considered to have the hardest bar exams. The states are in alphabetical order.
When thinking about the hardest bar exams, it’s hard not to immediately bring up California. According to popular opinion, California might have the most difficult bar exam in the country. Often referred to as a “torture session” spread over three days, California recently decreased it to two. That might make things a little more manageable for students. California has frequently had the lowest pass rate of all 50 states, (sometimes as low as 40%). However, this number shouldn’t scare people away from taking California’s bar, as many factors can impact your own pass rate. First-time takers do have a higher success rate, and of course, it comes down to how much effort you put in.
One unique thing about California to be aware of that might drag down its pass rate is that California does not require its students to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. Not surprisingly, pass rates for students who choose a non-accredited school are typically lower than those who do. Thus, keep that in mind when looking at the pass rate. The fact remains, though, that California’s exam is extremely difficult. Pursue your preparation seriously.
Update: In 2020, California announced that it would lower its passing score to 1390 (rather than 1440). This is positive news for California test-takers as it will likely make a huge difference in California’s pass rate!
Delaware makes the list as one of the hardest bar exams in part because of the score required to pass. Students must obtain at least a 145 to pass, which is the highest in the nation. Delaware also only offers the exam once per year, giving students who fail a very long wait before they can take it again. It tests very narrow subjects that few schools in the country teach. Outside of the bar exam itself, Delaware is very picky about who it allows to become a lawyer in the state. There are extensive hoops to jump through. Delaware had a reasonable pass rate of 66% in 2016, but of note is that only 69% of first-time takers passed. That is among the lowest in the country.
Louisiana’s bar exam is probably the most unique in the country. It has not adopted any of the standard testing portions (MBE, MEE, MPT, etc.). Rather, you need to know both the common law and Civil Law, or traditional law in France and other portions of Europe. Law schools in Louisiana teach this material. So, you should attend school in Louisiana if you think you want to practice in Louisiana.
There is no portability of scores to Louisiana. The test is approximately 21 hours long, and asks essay, short answer, and multiple-choice questions. Now, Louisiana’s pass rate in 2016 was approximately 65%, so it is not considered one of the hardest bar exams based on statistics alone. Rather, it is the originality of the material and the strenuous nature of the format that makes it so difficult.
Nevada’s pass rate was a mere 52%, and its 60% pass rate for first-time takers tied it with California for the lowest in the country. While it has adopted the nationwide MBE and MPT, it also includes a difficult state essay portion that is said to be quite challenging. Nevada also requires a very high score to pass at 140, tied for 4th highest in the country. It has a reputation for having extremely long model answers for the essays. This means that there is a lot that students are supposed to be able to identify and discuss.
Virginia’s bar exam is one of the hardest bar exams by virtue of the wide variety of topics. It is another state-specific exam (although also requiring the MBE), and 24 different areas of law can be tested. That is far more than most other states. This forces students to learn a great deal more information, even though a vast amount of it won’t appear. The pass rate in Virginia is quite reasonable, however, so you have a good chance to succeed if you are willing to put in the work. One thing to note about Virginia is that it requires you to take the bar exam in a suit. Keep that in mind when evaluating test day conditions.
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