The California Bar Exam

Structure, Topics, Dates, Cost, Scores, and Eligibility

Saying that the California Bar Exam is difficult would be an understatement. The California Bar Exam is considered one of the most challenging exams of its kind in the United States, primarily due to having the lowest historical pass rates. For example, of the 7,930 applicants who took the July 2021 California Bar Exam, only 3,995 passed—an overall pass rate of just 53% (71% for first-time applicants and 19% for repeat applicants).

Still, that is not to suggest that you cannot pass this daunting, high-stakes exam, whether as a law graduate or an apprentice. This article will offer critical information about the California Bar Exam so you know how to prepare and what to expect before and on exam day.

California Bar Exam Structure

The California Bar Exam is administered over two days in three sections:

  1. California Essay Questions (Day one),
  2. California Performance Test (Day one), and
  3. Multistate Bar Exam (MBE®) (Day two)

California Essay Questions

This section consists of five essay questions designed to assess your ability to analyze legal issues arising from fact scenarios or patterns. Your answer should demonstrate that you are competent in analyzing the facts of the question, identifying the difference between material facts and immaterial facts, and discerning the law and fact upon which the question is based.

Moreover, your response must indicate that you know and understand the essential principles and legal theories, their merits and limitations, and how they intersect. What's important here is not proving that you can recite the legal principles you happened to have memorized but that you are adept in their use and application in real-life scenarios. These essays test your ability to think like a lawyer, apply the law logically, and reach a reasonable conclusion based on the facts presented.

California Performance Test

California offers a 90-minute performance test designed to evaluate your ability to handle a select number of legal authorities in the context of a factual problem involving a client. The question presents a scenario and asks you to identify the correct task(s) to be performed in response to that scenario. You will receive a memorandum setting forth the instructions for the task you are to complete, various documents containing factual information relevant to the case (and likely some that are not), and the legal skills needed to complete the task (and probably some that are irrelevant).

This test requires you to demonstrate your ability to analyze legal issues, separate relevant and irrelevant facts, assess the reliability of the facts, and identify whether they are sufficient to arrive at a logical conclusion.

Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)

Developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE®), the MBE features 200 multiple-choice questions administered in two three-hour sessions (each testing 100 questions) for a total of six hours. You will be tested on these seven subjects:

  1. Civil Procedure
  2. Constitutional Law
  3. Contracts
  4. Criminal Law and Procedure
  5. Evidence
  6. Real Property
  7. Torts

Pass the MBE Your First Time.

Illustration of partial performance in a contract.

California Bar Exam Dates, Requirements, and Scheduling

When it comes to preparing for the California bar exam, no date is more important than the filing date. The filing date for the February 21-22, 2023 exam is November 1, 2022. However, you may submit your application by January 3, 2023, but you will incur additional fees (see table). California bar examinees must also submit their Application for Moral Character Determination, along with their fingerprints. Students typically submit this application in the third year of law school, and approved applications are valid for three years.

Exam Dates

The California essay questions and performance test are offered on Day 1, while the MBE is administered on Day 2. On Day 1, applicants will answer three essay questions in the morning and two in the afternoon, plus a performance test that same afternoon. On Day 2, they will take the two-part MBE.

Feb 2023 California State Bar Exam
Exam Dates February 21-22, 2023 (Tuesday & Wednesday)
Exam Location Los Angeles, San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, Sacramento, San Diego
Timely Filing Deadline On or before November 1, 2022
Final Filing Deadline On or before January 3, 2023

Requirements

About 16,000 individuals sit for the California bar exam annually. To be eligible, candidates must fulfill the following requirements:

  • Have completed a minimum of 2 years of college before beginning law school or have completed approved College Level Equivalency Program examinations.
  • Have graduated from an American Bar Association (ABA) approved law school or one accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California.
  • Have completed their first year of law school or have passed the First-Year Law Students' Examination.

Candidates who have not graduated from approved or accredited law schools are eligible for the California bar exam if they studied law at:

  • A correspondence school registered with the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California.
  • A law office or judge's chamber meeting the Rules Regulating Admission to Practice Law in California.

Scheduling

Scheduling your California Bar Exam is done through your exam application.

  • To apply for the California State Bar Exam, visit their website, navigate to "Admissions," select "Create a new registration," and continue through the registration process.
  • Once you've completed registering, you will receive a confirmation email prompting you to pay a one-time registration fee of $119. At that point, you can begin working on your online application.

Applications for the February 2023 exam opened on October 1, 2022. The application submission deadline is November 1, 2022, and the final filing deadline is January 3, 2023.

* The July 2023 California Bar Exam schedule has yet to be determined.

California Bar Exam Costs and Fees

The cost to register for the California Bar Exam varies depending on the filing date and whether an applicant is taking the General Bar Exam or the Attorney's Exam. Below is a breakdown of fees:

*The July 2023 California Bar Exam deadlines and dates have yet to be determined.

California State Bar Exam Fees, Requirements, and Deadlines
Application Type Fees* Deadline
Registration with the California Bar $119 First year of law school
Moral Character Determination $551 Complete in fall of third year of law school. Good for three years.
Fingerprinting Varies 90 days before Moral Character application is submitted
Bar Exam
Exam Fee $677 On or before November 1, 2022
Filing Late Fee +$50 If filed between November 2, 2022, and November 30, 2022
Filing Final Deadline Fee +$250 If filed between November 30, 2022, and January 3, 2023, for the February 2023 exam.)
Attorney Exam Fee $983
Laptop Fee +$153
Filing Late +$15 If filed after regular filing deadline

Payment Policies

California Bar Exam applicants must be registered before submitting their exam application. Applicants can file their registration form and their exam application concurrently. However, if their registration is not approved within 10 days, their exam fee will be returned. Disputing, stopping, or dishonoring a payment will not be honored as withdrawing from an exam.

If a candidate wishes to withdraw their application, they must do so before established deadlines via the Admissions Applicant Portal. Below is the refund schedule of withdrawals fees for the February 21-22, 2023 California Bar Exam:

2023 California Bar Exam Application Withdrawal
Fee Schedule
Timelines Refund
October 2 - December 1 60%
December 2 -16 30%
December 17 - February 0%
December 1 - December 30 60% (for immediate repeaters)
December 31 - January 3 30% (for immediate repeaters)
January 4 - February 7 0% (for immediate repeaters)
February 7 - Failure to withdraw before the final deadline will result in a "no show" and may delay processing for the next exam. (immediate repeaters included)

95% of all paid fees may be refunded in the case of death or physical incapacity by filling out a refund form.

Cost-Saving Options

These bar exam costs can become quite expensive. The good news is that you have options that could waive some of the fees or help you avoid paying them altogether. One such option is applying for scholarships dedicated to helping bar exam candidates with related costs.

For example, the California Bar Foundation awards 15 bar exam scholarships to law students who intend to pursue public interest law careers. Nominated by their law schools, recipients of the Rosenthal Bar Exam Scholarship have typically demonstrated a significant commitment to service in the public interest within their communities through leadership and volunteerism.

Berkeley Law has an outside agency scholarships page dedicated to third-party scholarships that are available to law students enrolled at a law school in California. The page provides a snapshot of pertinent information about the various scholarships, ranging from $500 to over $10,000, including the application deadline, award amount, and website link. This scholarship page is a helpful resource for bar exam candidates to consider.

Other California Bar Exam scholarship resources include the Mexican American Bar Foundation and the Latina Lawyers Bar Association. As a California Bar Exam candidate, explore as many of these scholarships as possible to help you with bar exam costs.

California Bar Exam Subjects and Topics

Every topic on the California State Bar Exam is essential, so candidates should prepare for all of them. However, it would be helpful to pay special attention to the following:

The essay questions may test the following:

  • Article 1
  • Article 2
  • Article 9 – Fixtures
Examinees will encounter questions regarding Corporations, Sole Proprietorships, Partnerships (General/, Limited/Limited Liability), Joint Ventures, LLCs, among a variety of other Business Associations. One must also cultivate a thorough understanding of the principles of agency inherent in business relationships.
Brush up on Federal Civil Procedure and how it compares and contrasts with the California Code of Civil Procedure, especially where the California Code of Civil Procedure has no counterpart in the Federal Civil Procedure.
California is a community property state, and the topic weighs heavy on the bar. If you didn’t cover community property in law school, review issues regarding the termination of the marital economic community, separate property, quasi-community property, transmutations, and debts.
Constitutional law is a highly nuanced topic covering individual rights, the nature of judicial review, the separation of powers, and the relation of nation and states in a federal system. Ensure that your constitutional law outline covers all the rules and their many exceptions.
Contracts are a quagmire of sophisticated legal jargon crucial to creating a binding agreement that protects all interested parties. Beginning with the most heavily weighted, essential subjects for review include formation of contracts, performance, breach and discharge, defenses to enforceability, contract and content meaning, remedies, and third-party rights.
This MBE section of the California State Bar is split relatively evenly between Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure. Understand the variables involved in deducing exactly what crime has been committed or if a crime has genuinely been committed at all. Focus your review primarily on constitutional protection of accused persons, followed by homicide, other crimes, inchoate crimes, parties, and general principles.

Polish your knowledge of the Federal Rules of Evidence and how they compare and contrast with the California Evidence Code, especially where the California rules do not exactly match federal rules.

This probably goes without saying, but the expectation of uncompromising professional responsibility will always be a staple of the legal profession. You should ensure that you are well-versed in the California Rules of Professional Conduct, the California Business and Professions Code, and relevant federal and state case laws.

You should also be familiar with the American Bar Association (ABA®) Model Rules of Professional Conduct and the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility. You may encounter questions on Professional Responsibility in various sections of the California Bar Exam.

Note: Before practicing law in California, you must also pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE®). The MPRE features 60 multiple-choice questions administered over two hours.

Diagram questions dealing with conveyances as they tend to have multiple contingencies, remainders, or grantees. Don’t be intimidated by old legal rules. They vary from their contemporaries in language only. The topics of Real Property are weighted evenly between ownership of real property, rights in real property, real estate contracts, mortgages/security devices, and titles.
Remedies questions are typically tested as general law on the California Bar and sometimes combined with other subjects (Contracts, Constitutional Law, Torts, Evidence, and/or Professional Responsibility). Examinees will likely encounter essay questions involving compensatory damages, punitive damages and restitutionary damages in tort, temporary restraining orders, compensatory damages in contracts, equitable defenses, and specific performance in contracts.

Nearly half of the Torts subject matter involves negligence theory. Make sure you understand how to classify torts accurately before moving on to answer choices. If you’re having trouble making a liability judgment call, ask yourself—is that how a reasonable person would behave? Other topics include intentional torts, strict liability and product liability, and other torts.

You should typically answer Trusts questions in conformity with general law unless you are explicitly prompted to answer according to California law. The exam frequently pairs Trusts with Wills. The most heavily weighted Trusts issues on the essay section involve trust validity, testamentary trusts, charitable trusts, and duties of a trustee.

Refresh your knowledge of the following provisions of the California Probate Code and California law governing these topics:

Division 2. General Provisions

  • Part 1. Effect of Death of Married Person on Community and Quasi-Community Property, Sections 100-103
  • Part 3. Contractual Arrangements Relating to Rights at Death, Sections 140-147
  • Part 5. Simultaneous Death, Sections 220, 222-224
  • Part 6. Distribution Among Heirs or Beneficiaries, Section 240

Division 6. Wills and Intestate Succession

  • Part 1. Wills
  • Chapter 1. General Provisions, Sections 6100, 6101, 6104, 6105
  • Chapter 2. Execution of Wills, Sections 6110-6113
  • Chapter 3. Revocation and Revival, Sections 6120, 6121, 6123
  • Part 2. Intestate Succession, Sections 6400-6402

Division 11. Construction of Wills, Trusts, and Other Instruments

  • Part 1. Rules of Interpretation of Instruments, Sections 21105, 21109, 21110
  • Part 6. Family Protection: Omitted Spouses and Children [for decedents dying on or after January 1, 1998]
  • Chapter 2. Omitted Spouses, Sections 21610-21612
  • Chapter 3. Omitted Children, Sections 21620-21623
Master legal rules easier with effective answer explanations and visuals.
Illustration of larceny.

CA Bar Exam Scoring/Grading

The California Bar Exam had a notoriously high minimum passing score of 1,440/2,000. In July 2020, the California Supreme Court permanently reduced the passing score to 1,390 to be more in line with the rest of the country.

The State Bar of California generates exam scores by halving (multiplying by 0.50) an examinee's MBE score and written score separately before adding them together. For example, if an examinee receives 1390 (x 0.05 = 695) on their MBE and 1400 (x 0.50 = 700) on their written exam, their score for the entire bar exam would be 1395. This means that a superior score on one portion of the test can balance out a lackluster score on the other.

The California Performance Test has a raw score between 80-100, while each of the five essays on the written exam has a raw score between 40-100. If an examinee receives a minimum passing score for each section, their raw score would be 480/700 before it's translated into a scaled score.

The State Bar of California measures performance on both sections of the test with scaled scores to ensure fairness across various test versions. For example, a 480/700 on this February's exam may be more challenging to achieve than it was on last July's. Therefore, the raw score is converted into a scaled score using a statistical method called equating. Equating penalizes or awards an examinee's raw score based on the difficulty of the exam type. In this case, the scaled score would be out of the 2,000 points possible (this also applies to the MBE).

Now that we understand how the scoring process works, we can move on to the grading process. Six groups grade California Bar Exam essays and performance tests. Each group consists of twelve experienced attorneys and four apprentice graders. These graders participate in three sessions where they calibrate standards for the grading process. Graders then read through the exams and assign a raw score. If an examinee receives a score of 1350 on the first reading, they will move to a second reading and potentially receive a passing score.

CA MPRE Minimum Score

The California Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE®) minimum score is 86, the highest of any jurisdiction in the US. Performance on the MPRE is measured on a scaled score that ranges from 50 to 150. Scaled scoring is done through a statistical method called equating to ensure fairness across various test versions. For example, last year's exam may have been more difficult than this year's exam, in which case examinees will receive "bonus points".

Bonuses or deductions occur when an examinee's raw score is translated into their scaled score. In other words, if you get 30 out of 50 graded MPRE questions correct (a raw score of 60%), your scaled score could be 85. Unfortunately, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NBCE®) does not reveal exactly how these scores are translated, and calculations likely vary from exam version to exam version, but California MPRE examinees should aim for a consistent score of at least 30 on their practice exams.

California Bar Exam Pass Rates

California has some of the lowest historical pass rates of all US jurisdictions. In July 2022, 7,164 applicants appeared for the bar exam and only 52.4% passed. California's one-day Attorney's Exam is also challenging. In July 2021, only 180 of the 394 attorneys who completed the exam succeeded—a pass rate of just 45.7%.

Below is a breakdown of historic pass rates of CA Bar Exam:

*2022 contains only February data
**The board has not released data for the first timers and repeaters for the July 2022 Exam.

California Bar Exam Results

California Bar Exam results are typically released in May and November. February 2023 bar exam results will be available through the examinees' Applicant Portal on May 5, 2023, at 6 pm PST. The exact release date of the July 2023 bar exam results has yet to be determined. The State Bar of California also posts pass lists on its website.

California Bar Exam for Foreigners

You do not have to be a US citizen to become a licensed attorney in the state of California. Attorneys that have been actively practicing law in a foreign country and are in good standing are not required to take additional legal education to sit for the California state bar exam. However, foreign law students must meet particular educational requirements before they become eligible.

Foreign Law Students with a First Degree in Law

Foreign law students with a first law degree may take the California Bar Examination if they can prove that their degree is commensurate with the standards set for a Juris Doctorate (JD) by the American Bar Association (ABA) or California-accredited law school. Furthermore, they must prove that they have completed one year at an ABA-approved law school or a law school accredited by the committee.

The following must be submitted to the State Bar's Office of Admissions in Los Angeles:

  • Registration as a Foreign Education General Application ($119)
  • Foreign Law Study Evaluation Study (for a law degree)

Foreign Law Students without a First Degree in Law

Foreign law students that have studied law outside of the US but have not received a first degree in law must prove that they have completed two years of undergraduate study (or the equivalent), received an exemption from the First-Year Law Students' Examination, and successfully completed four years of legal study in the US.

The following must be submitted to the State Bar's Office of Admissions in Los Angeles:

  • Registration as a Foreign Education General Application ($119)
  • Foreign Law Study Evaluation Summary (for a course breakdown)

What Makes the California Bar Exam Unique?

The California Bar Exam has long been considered the most difficult exam because of the state's higher MBE passing score—commonly referred to as the “cut score”—of 1440, which was the second-highest required score until the October 2020 exam (behind Delaware). Beginning with the October 2020 California bar exam, the cut score was lowered to 1390 (due to COVID), representing the fourth highest cut score in the US as of the July 2021 exams.

In addition, California permits aspiring lawyers to take the bar exam without earning a Juris Doctorate (JD). These candidates are permitted to apprentice with a practicing attorney or judge instead. California is the only jurisdiction with such a policy. California also offers a one-day Attorney Examination, which practicing attorneys in good standing for at least four years in another US jurisdiction can take to practice law in California.

Themis, the only bar review course that publishes its pass rates every year, has recently joined the UWorld family. This development allows students of the California bar exam to sign up for the Themis + UWorld full bar review bundle.

The offer includes 4,000+ MBE questions (including NCBE-licensed questions), 100+ practice essays from past Multistate Essay Exams (MEE®), 22 Multistate Performance Tests (MPT®) questions from past bar exams, customizable flashcards, performance tracking, in-depth explanations for each answer choice, fitted with helpful visuals, readings with corresponding video lectures, and more.

Practice with recently NCBE-licensed questions, so there are no surprises come exam day. It’s everything you need to ace the California bar exam in one integrated system, with content curated by our in-house team of legal experts.

Final Takeaways

Widely considered the most challenging exam of its kind, the California bar exam will test your discipline, endurance, and desire to practice law in California. We hope that this detailed article has given you helpful information to prepare you to ace this high-stakes exam. Whatever resources you use to study for it, we wish you the best of luck with the California bar exam!

Contact Details of California State Bar

The State Bar of California has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It recommends using email or your application portal for inquiries. Hours of operation are 8:45 am - 5:00 pm PST on weekdays, except for Wednesday, when they close at 4:00 pm PST.

Contact Details of California State Bar for Applicants
Group Phone Email
Admissions and Committee
of Bar Examiners
213-765-1500
415-538-2300
[email protected]
Oath Card Processing N/A [email protected]
Practical Training of Law Students 415-538-2175 [email protected]
Pro Hac Vice 415-538-2300 [email protected]

California Bar Exam FAQs

Not everyone can take the bar exam in California. To be eligible, you must complete at least two years of college or complete the equivalent through approved College Equivalency Program examinations. You must also attend and graduate from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA) or accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of California.

However, California allows individuals to take the bar without meeting the above requirements if they have studied law at a law office or judge’s chamber that meets the Rules Regulating Admission to Practice Law in California.

The California bar exam is offered bi-annually. Once in February and once in July.
The California bar exam is split across two days. The first day consists of 5 one-hour essay questions and a 90-minute performance test, while the second day consists of 200 multiple-choice MBE questions.
The California bar exam spans two days. The first day consists of 3 one-hour essay questions in the morning, followed in the afternoon by two more one-hour essay questions and a 90-minute performance test. The second day consists of the 200 multiple-choice Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) split evenly between the morning and afternoon.
California Bar Exam Schedule
Morning Afternoon
Day 1 3 one-hour essay questions 2 one-hour essay questions and 90-minute performance test
Day 2 100 multiple-choice MBE questions 100 multiple-choice MBE questions
There is no limit to the number of times you can retake the California bar exam.
The deadline to file for the February 2023 California state bar exam is November 1, 2022. The deadline for final filing is January 3, 2023, but you will incur a fee of $250. It is recommended that students taking the bar put aside approximately $5,800 to pay for fees and review courses, including a $667 application fee.
It takes 400 hours to study for the California bar exam. Examinees should spend half of this time studying the law and memorizing outlines and the other half on practice questions and tests. Some students will study more, some less. It depends heavily on their educational background, their personal lives, and how well they optimize their bar exam study schedule.
The California bar exam has consistently had one of the lowest pass rates of any bar exam in the US. To put this into perspective, the February 2020 overall pass rate was 26.8%, 60.7% for October 2020, 33.9% for February 2021, and 53% for July 2021. The large candidate pool in California likely contributes to these low pass rates, but California also has had a notoriously high minimum passing score.
The State Bar of California usually releases July exam results by mid-November and February results by mid-May. You may check your results by visiting the State Bar of California website.
If you fail the exam on your first try, you may retake it. However, you will need to register and pay the $677 again.

California doesn’t offer reciprocity with other jurisdictions. However, licensed attorneys in another jurisdiction who have been in good standing for four years may take the one-day Attorney Exam and skip the MBE portion of the California bar exam.

To transfer your California MBE score to another jurisdiction, you must electronically submit a request for MBE score services through your NCBE account.
The State Bar of California doesn’t allow applicants to transfer MBE scores from other jurisdictions.
There are a few options for those wishing to become a licensed attorney in California:
  • Complete 3-4 years at an ABA-accredited law school.
  • Complete 4 years at a State Bar-registered, fixed-facility law school
  • Complete 4 years at an unaccredited or correspondence law school with a minimum of 864 hours of preparation.
  • Complete 4 years of supervised study under a state judge or attorney.
  • Some mixture of the above.
Yes, California is one of only four states that allows individuals to sit for their state bar exam without having to graduate from law school. Instead, aspiring lawyers can complete 4 years of supervised study under a state judge or attorney.
Individuals needing special accommodations for the California bar exam must submit a complete request online via the Applicant Portal.
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