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 4,205 applicants who took the February 2020 California Bar Exam, only 1,128 passed—an overall pass rate of just 26.8% (38.0% for first-time applicants and 22.0% 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 some critical information about the California Bar Exam so you know how to prepare and what to expect before and on exam day.
About the Exam: Dates and Administration
The California Bar Exam is administered over two days in three portions: 1) California Essay Questions, 2) California Performance Test, and 3) Multistate Bar Exam (MBE). 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 the performance test that same afternoon. On Day 2, they will take the two-part MBE.
Please take note of the following relevant exam dates and filing fees:
|Application Deadline||$50 Late Fee Deadline||$250 Late Fee Deadline|
|July 26-27, 2022 (Tuesday & Wednesday)||Los Angeles, Palms Springs, San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, Sacramento||Postmarked on or before April 1, 2022||Received between April 2nd and April 30th, 2022||Received between May 1st and June 1st, 2022|
Structure & Subjects
Generally, the California Bar Exam requires candidates to answer questions on the subjects below:
- Business Associations
- Civil Procedure
- Community Property
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Professional Responsibility
- Real Property
- Wills and Succession
California Essay Questions
This portion 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 question that is 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 that is relevant to the case (and likely some that is not), and the legal authorities 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:
- Civil Procedure
- Constitutional Law
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Real Property,
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:
Uniform Commercial Code (UCC)
The essay questions may test the following:
- Article 1
- Article 2
- Article 9 - Fixtures
You will likely encounter questions on various business associations such as sole proprietorships, general, limited, and limited liability partnerships (LP and LLP), limited liability companies, corporations, and joint ventures, etc. That’s why it’s critical to understand the similarities and differences between these business structures.
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 exact counterpart in the Federal Civil Procedure.
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 have no exact match within the 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 you can practice law in California, you must also pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The MPRE features 60 multiple-choice questions administered over two hours.
Wills and Succession
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
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 lets aspiring lawyers take the bar exam without earning a Juris Doctor. 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 U.S. jurisdiction can take to practice law in California.
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 the cost breakdown:
|Filed by the Deadline (April 1)||$677|
|Filing Late (By April 30)||$727|
|Filing by the Final Deadline (By June 1)||$977|
|Attorney Exam Fee||$983|
As a California Bar Exam candidate, be mindful of the above filing deadlines to avoid late fees, especially the final deadline late fee, or it will cost you a lot of money. For example, if you aren’t vigilant and don’t register for the July exam by June 1st, your exam fees go up by an incredible 500 percent!
These bar exam costs can add up and 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 annually to law students who intend to venture into 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 FAQs
- Completed the exam: 4,205 applicants
- First-time applicants: 1,192 (28.3 percent of total)
- Pass rate for first-time applicants: 38.0 percent overall
- Repeat applicants: 3,013 (71.6 percent of total)
- Pass rate for repeat applicants: 22.0 percent overall
Source: The State Bar of California
If you fail the exam on your first try, you may retake it. However, you will need to register and pay a $677 reapplication fee.
As in most jurisdictions, there is no limit to the number of times you can retake the California Bar Exam.
You can transfer your California MBE score to another jurisdiction. You have to electronically submit a request for MBE score services through your NCBE account.
The State Bar of California doesn’t let applicants transfer MBE scores from other jurisdictions.
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.
The State Bar of California usually releases July exam results by mid-November and February exam results by mid-May. You may check your results by visiting the The State Bar of California Home Page.
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!
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