Which States Have the Lowest and Highest Bar Exam Pass Rates?

A tense bar exam candidate researching which states have the highest pass rates

Congratulations! You’ve completed your journey through law school. Now the only thing between you and practicing as an attorney is the notorious bar exam. By now, you surely know that the bar exam is one of the most difficult high-stakes exams you will ever take. While this is true, the degree of difficulty varies from state to state. This article will cover the bar exam pass rates and which states have the highest and lowest figures.

Among the research conducted to rank the various bar exams by difficulty, a study by Robert Anderson, a professor at Pepperdine School of Law, stands out. Anderson determined the most difficult bar exams using a regression analysis that factored students’ median undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores, the weighted average by the number of test-takers, and bar passage rate.

His study found that California had the most challenging bar exam, followed by Arkansas, Washington, Louisiana, and Nevada, in that order. It is worth noting that different data sources report slight variations in ranking the most difficult bar exams, although California appears to be consistent atop most lists.

Top 5 States With the Lowest Pass Rates

California

Of the 4,205 applicants who took the February 2020 California Bar Exam, only 1,128 passed, good for an overall pass rate of just 26.8% (38.0% for first-time applicants and 22.0% for repeat applicants). With the lowest historical pass rates, the California Bar Exam is considered one of the most difficult bar exams. It is administered over two days and features three components: 1) California Essay Questions, 2) California Performance Test, and 3) Multistate Bar Exam (MBE).

Arkansas

According to Anderson’s rankings, the Arkansas Bar Exam is second-most difficult in the country. With so many state and local laws tested on the exam in addition to federal laws, it can be very challenging to remember them all.

Washington

Administered by the Washington State Bar Association, the Washington State Bar Exam is challenging in its own right. With three law schools to choose from, Washington is a popular destination for law students, meaning many law graduates sit for the exam each year.

Louisiana

When it comes to the bar exam, no state is as unique as Louisiana—all of the state’s law schools teach common law and civil law. Plus, the Louisiana State Bar doesn’t use the Multistate Bar Exam, Multistate Essay Exam, or Multistate Performance Test. That’s why applicants seeking to practice law in Louisiana should probably only attend law school in that state to learn the unique legal systems.

Nevada

Nevada has just a single law school, the William S. Boyd School of Law, but the state’s unique laws (think about what happens and stays in Vegas) and higher passing cutoff score give it one of the lowest passage rates in the country.

The top ten most difficult bar exams are as follows:

  1. California
  2. Arkansas
  3. Washington
  4. Louisiana
  5. Nevada
  6. Virginia
  7. Oregon
  8. West Virginia
  9. Vermont
  10. Maryland

Top 5 States With the Highest Pass Rates

For every list ranking the most difficult bar exams, there must be states at the bottom, representing the easiest bar exams. According to Anderson’s rankings, South Dakota ranks as the easiest bar exam, followed by Wisconsin, Alabama, Nebraska, and Iowa. These states have fewer law schools than their larger counterparts, so fewer law graduates take the bar. Wisconsin has “diploma privilege,” which allows all law school graduates in the state to be automatically admitted to the Wisconsin State Bar without taking the bar exam.

The ten easiest bar exams are as follows:

  1. South Dakota
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Nebraska
  4. Iowa
  5. Montana
  6. Wyoming
  7. Michigan
  8. Oklahoma
  9. New Mexico
  10. Missouri

Pass Rates by State

Due to the various factors mentioned earlier, bar exam pass rates vary from one state to another. Check out the map and table below for pass rates by state to see how the state where you intend to practice law stacks up:

The Verdict

Ultimately, as the passage rates indicate, the bar exam is challenging no matter where you sit for it. You should visit the state bar website for the jurisdiction where you intend to practice law to know what to expect on the bar exam. While the bar exam is consistently difficult, it is not impossible to pass. With the right study approach, proper preparation, and effective study materials, you can be among those applicants who pass the bar exam on their first attempt. 

Good luck!


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