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In order to obtain a license to practice law, law school graduates must apply for bar admission through the board of bar examiners in the state(s) where they wish to practice. Licensing involves a demonstration of worthiness in two areas—competence and character and fitness. To meet the competency requirement, an applicant must hold an acceptable educational credential (most often a J.D., though also on occasion an LL.M.) and pass the state’s bar exam. To meet the character and fitness requirement, the state-specific board of bar examiners must be satisfied that the applicant’s background meets certain standards of conduct.
Because each state determines what criteria it will use to determine an attorney’s eligibility for law practice, it is critical that you determine the individual requirements for your state prior to embarking on the bar admission process. Links to each state’s bar admissions office is available online through the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) website. Simply click on a state from the drop-down list found under the Directory heading.
YLS Assistant Dean Monica Maldonado is available to speak with students about bar exam and bar admission requirements, as well as to discuss jurisdiction options.
YLS Associate Dean Ellen Cosgrove is available to speak with students about character and fitness requirements.
If you wish to discuss bar exam jurisdictions in light of career considerations and goals, please contact the YLS Career Development Office for an appointment.
Bar Exam Formats
The bar exam is offered two times per year, generally on the last Tuesday, Wednesday, and (in states that use a three-day exam format) Thursday of July and February.
Currently over 35 jurisdictions, including New York and Washington, DC, have adopted the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). The UBE is a two-day exam, comprised of the below three components:
- The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)—a six-hour, 200 multiple-choice question exam covering civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property and torts.
- The Multistate Essay Exam (MEE)—a three-hour, six-question essay exam, which may include questions covering the seven MBE topics plus business associations, conflict of laws, family law, UCC Art. 9 (secured transactions) and trusts and estates.
- The Multistate Performance Test (MPT)—two 90-minute skills questions covering legal analysis, factual analysis, problem solving, identification and resolution of ethical dilemmas, organization and management of lawyering tasks, and written communication.
The most common format for states not using the UBE is a two-day exam, with one day devoted to the MBE and, depending on the jurisdiction, other elements included above, and another day of substantive essay questions tailored for practice in that jurisdiction. However, there is considerable variation among non-UBE state bar examinations.
For specific details regarding the type of exam administered in the jurisdiction(s) in which you are interested, consult the NCBE’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements, which is available in CDO and on NCBE’s website under the Publications tab. Chart 8 of the Comprehensive Guide lists the exams that are required in each state.
With numerous and varying conditions, recent UBE scores are transferable to other states using the UBE exam. You can view information pertinent to the jurisdiction in which you are interested on the NCBE’s UBE webpage, by opting for “list view” and then checking a particular jurisdiction’s information. In addition, you should confirm your findings with the bar examiners’ website of the jurisdiction in which you are interested, as well as with the jurisdiction in which you are considering sitting for the exam.
A note for those who may be considering sitting for the UBE in Connecticut, and then using that UBE score to apply for admission in other jurisdictions: This is not a particularly compelling course of action for many, since Connecticut will not allow people to sit for the UBE in Connecticut without first applying for the Connecticut bar, which among other requirements involves an $800 fee.
Requirements for New York and DC Bar Admission
As so many of our students work in New York and DC, and because the specific requirements for these jurisdictions are a bit complicated, we provide some additional details below.
An applicant to the New York Bar who achieves a score of 266 or higher on the UBE, whether taken in New York or in another jurisdiction, may qualify for admission to the New York Bar if that applicant has achieved a score of 85 or higher on the MPRE (discussed more fully below), completed an online course on New York-specific law (known as the New York Law Course, or NYLC), and passed an examination on that New York-specific material (known as the New York Law Exam, or NYLE). You can review the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ New York Bar Information Guide, as well as the New York State Board of Law Examiners website, for full details on these requirements.
The NYLC is an online and on-demand course covering New York state law. It consists of approximately 15 hours of recorded lectures with embedded questions. The NYLC may be completed up to one year prior to, or three years subsequent to, passing the UBE. You must complete the NYLC prior to applying for the NYLE.
The NYLE is a 50-item, two-hour, open-book, multiple choice test administered online that tests knowledge of New York rules and law. It is offered four times a year (March, June, September, and December), and its registration deadlines tend to fall approximately a month prior to the exam dates. You can view the dates and times of upcoming NYLE administrations on the New York State Board of Law Examiners’ Dates of Exams webpage.
New York Professional Responsibility Requirement
A minimum of two units earned in a professional responsibility course is required to sit for the bar examination. Please note that while courses which satisfy the New York Board of Law Examiners’ professional responsibility requirement will also satisfy the Yale Law School professional responsibility requirement, not all classes which satisfy the Yale Law School professional responsibility requirement will also satisfy the New York Board of Law Examiners’ requirement.
To learn which courses satisfy the New York Professional Responsibility requirement, go to the courses website and choose New York Bar Professional Responsibility under the drop-down menu for Requirements.
New York Pro Bono Rule
New York requires applicants for admission to the New York State bar to perform 50 hours of pro bono services. (§520.16) Pro bono work may begin after commencing your legal education, and must be completed before submitting an Application for Admission. (Thus, you may elect to determine if you have passed the New York threshold score for the UBE, which is 266, before you engage in qualifying pro bono work, but the 50-hour requirement must be completed before applying for admission.)
The qualifying pro bono work must be performed under the supervision of a faculty member or law school instructor; an attorney admitted to practice and in good standing in the jurisdiction in which the work is performed; or, in the case of an internship with a court, by a judge or attorney employed by the court system. Hours completed through clinical work during law school may be counted toward this requirement. Qualifying pro bono work may also be completed within or outside the United States.
Every applicant for admission to the New York bar will be required to file an Affidavit of Compliance describing the nature and dates of pro bono service and the number of hours completed. Review the Rule and the FAQs for more information.
Please note that since Yale Law School is not the administrator of this 50-hour New York pro bono requirement, neither it nor its employees can officially verify or confirm that any particular activity will count toward the requirement’s fulfilment. Instead, you should direct any such inquiries to the New York State bar administrators, at ProBonoRule@nycourts.gov.
Admission to the New York bar also requires that applicants have earned at least 64 units by attendance in regularly scheduled classroom courses at the law school. You can review the Law School Registrar’s discussion of what sorts of courses go toward this classroom hour count.
Admission on Motion
In addition to all of the rules set forth above, New York also allows for Admission on Motion for applicants who have practiced for five of the preceding seven years and who are admitted to practice in one of 40 listed reciprocal jurisdictions.
Pursuant to the Washington, DC Court of Appeals Rule 46, admission to the DC Bar may be based on:
- receiving a scaled score of at least 266 on the UBE examination in DC; or
- transferring a scaled score of at least 266 on the UBE examination from another jurisdiction taken within the past five years as long as the score was attained by taking the UBE no more than four times; or
- transferring a MBE scaled score of at least 133 administered within past 25 months in another jurisdiction and membership in the bar of such other jurisdiction; or
- being a member in good standing in the bar of another jurisdiction for at least five years immediately prior to the application for admission.
In addition, applicants to the DC Bar must also achieve a scaled score of at least 75 on the MPRE to be admitted.
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)
All states, except for Maryland and Wisconsin, require a passing score on the MPRE exam in order to be admitted to practice. The 60-question, two-hour, multiple-choice exam tests your knowledge and understanding of the ethical standards of the legal profession. The test is offered nationwide three times per year—in March, August, and November. Some states (e.g., Massachusetts) require that you take the MPRE prior to the bar exam, while other states (e.g., New York) don’t care whether you take the exam before or after the bar exam, though in New York the MPRE must be taken within three years before or after a student has passed the New York bar exam. Most students take the MPRE in March of their third year. The deadline for registering for that test is typically late January or early February. Unlike the bar exam, you can take the MPRE in any state and have your score submitted to another state. For more information about the MPRE, including subject areas covered, deadlines, statistics, and fees, consult the NCBE website.
Which Bar Exam(s) to Take
Historically, for students who accepted employment before bar applications were due, this question was easy. Students simply took the bar exam in the jurisdiction where they would be working.
Now, for jurisdictions that do not administer the UBE exam (such as California and Texas), this approach will still hold true.
However, for jurisdictions that administer the UBE exam, students may wish to consider additional factors in deciding which jurisdiction’s bar exam to take given that, with varying conditions, recent UBE scores are transferable across UBE-administering jurisdictions. Visit the NCBE’s UBE webpage to review each jurisdiction’s UBE transferability policies.
If you have not accepted a job and are uncertain about where you will settle, you can either apply to sit for the bar in the jurisdiction in which you hope to obtain employment, take the bar in any UBE jurisdiction, or wait to secure a position before taking the exam. If you find yourself in this situation, please speak with a counselor in CDO.
Students who will be working in federal government after graduation have some additional considerations as well. For some agencies, being an active member in good standing of a bar of any U.S. jurisdiction will suffice. Other offices, including many U.S. Attorneys Offices, require their attorneys to be admitted to the bars of the states where the offices are located. Be sure to check with your employer about its requirements before registering for a bar exam.
Admission on Motion
You may also find it useful to determine the Admission by Waiver (also known as Admission on Motion or Reciprocity) rules for the states whose bars you are considering taking in order to determine what impact, if any, your passing one state’s bar exam will have on your attempt to relocate to another state years after graduation.
For example, California allows attorneys who have been admitted in active status in good standing for four years immediately preceding the first day of the California bar exam to take a shorter “Attorneys Examination” instead of the bar exam.
To the contrary, the Florida Board of Bar Examiners requires all attorneys to pass the Florida bar exam prior to admission and does not allow any admission on motion.
As is mentioned above, New York also allows for Admission on Motion for applicants who have practiced for five of the preceding seven years and who are admitted to practice in one of 40 listed reciprocal jurisdictions.
DC allows admission on motion to members in good standing in the bar of another jurisdiction for at least five years immediately prior to the application for admission.
Consult each state’s bar admission requirements to learn how they handle these issues.
When to Take the Bar
Most students take the July bar exam during the summer after graduation. However, students who haven’t obtained a job by graduation or who are working in a temporary position, such as a judicial clerkship or fellowship, may decide to defer taking the exam until later. Keep in mind that while many legal positions do not have bar passage as a prerequisite for hiring, a few do. To the extent possible, learn the hiring requirements of your desired employer(s). Feel free to speak with a CDO counselor regarding any questions about these issues.
Judicial Clerks and the Bar
Students who will be clerking for a judge after graduation have some unique considerations relating to the bar exam in terms of both timing and expense reimbursement. Some judges prefer that their clerks not study or sit for the bar during their clerkships; in those situations, clerks schedule their bar exams around the start or end dates of their clerkships. Some judges prefer clerks to take the bar exam prior to the commencement of their clerkships. Other judges have no preference. Because clerks with bar admission and one year of legal experience are eligible for a higher pay grade, clerks who pass the bar prior to their clerkships may be entitled to a (prorated) salary hike late in their clerkship year. Consult CDO’s Judicial Clerkships in the U.S. guide for detailed clerkship salary information.
If you will be working for a law firm upon the completion of your clerkship, the firm will most likely reimburse you for bar expenses and may provide you with a stipend for the summer you spend studying for the bar. Some judges do not allow clerks to receive any financial remuneration from an employer until the end of the clerkship year, other judges allow clerks to accept certain types of reimbursement. The best approach with regard to all of these issues is to speak with your judge about his/her bar exam preferences.
Consult your state’s bar admissions office for accurate application information. Links to those offices are available on the NCBE website through the drop down list found under Directory. Some applications can be downloaded from the web; for other states, you must call or write to request an application.
Some application deadlines are quite early (e.g., Illinois—February 15 for the July exam, though an applicant can register late as late as September 15 upon payment of escalating late fees); some give a range (e.g., New York—between April 1 and April 30 for the July exam); and others are later (e.g., Virginia—typically May 10 for the July exam, or Massachusetts—typically May 11 or May 12 for the July exam). Some states, like Illinois, offer both a regular filing deadline and a late filing deadline (for an additional fee), but many do not.
Get to work on your application early—most of them are very involved and will take more time than you might think to complete. For example, you may be asked to list every place that you have lived in the past 10 years, every job you have held, and information about your financial and credit history. It can take a lot of time to track down all of this information.
The Registrar’s Office is responsible for certifying to your state that you are eligible to sit for the bar. Some states require that you have your degree in hand; some want to know that you have completed all requirements necessary to graduate; others want to know that you are within a certain number of credits from meeting your graduation requirements. Early in your third year, visit Judith Calvert in the Registrar’s Office to tell her which bar(s) you plan to take and to sign a release allowing her to provide your state with all bar-related information it may require, including transcripts. Depending on the state, the Registrar may have additional responsibilities regarding your bar application. For example, New York requires applicants to conduct an in-person verification of a handwriting sample. Other states require that the application form itself be notarized. The Registrar’s Office can assist you with these tasks, but don’t wait until the last minute.
Bar application costs vary—in New York the application fee for JDs is $250; in California it is over $650, plus more for character and fitness investigations. Some states provide a discount to students who register early. Many employers (typically law firms) will reimburse these expenses. Inquire with your employer as to what costs it will cover. You may also wish to speak with the Financial Aid Office about taking out a Bar Loan to pay for fees associated with preparation and taking the Bar, along with support for your living costs during your post graduate Bar study period.
Some jurisdictions require, and others encourage, law students to register with the state during law school. For example, California requires that applicants complete an Application for Registration before any other forms are submitted. Other jurisdictions may provide special discounts for law students who register with them fairly early in their time in law schools. If there is a particular state bar to which you believe you are likely to apply upon graduation, you may wish to check on its website as early as sometime in your first year at YLS to understand any special discounts for an especially early registration. In addition, a list of states that have a law student registration process is available in Chart 1 of the NCBE Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2018.
Bar Review Courses
Most students studying for the bar sign up for a bar review course with one of the numerous bar review outfits. One of the more popular companies is BARBRI, but there are many others, including more competitively priced options like Themis. Many courses prepare students for both the multistate and state portions of the bar exam and for the MPRE. Others focus only on one portion of the test. For a list of some of the many bar review options, visit FindLaw’s website.
These courses are not cheap. Fortunately, many employers (typically law firms) will reimburse these expenses. Inquire with your employer as to what costs it will cover. As mentioned above, judicial clerks should be aware that some judges will not allow clerks to be reimbursed for bar expenses incurred prior to the start of the clerkship. Check with your judge about his/her policies. For students who will not be reimbursed by an employer, bar loans are available if taken out prior to graduation. Speak with the Financial Aid Office for additional information.
Character and Fitness
In addition to passing the bar exam, your character and fitness must be established as a prerequisite to licensure. To assess these qualities, you will be required to provide detailed information about your background. If the bar examiners believe that the information you provide reflects poorly on your character or fitness, they will require additional investigation.
Examples of topics your state may cover include:
- educational history, including any disciplinary actions against you
- residence history, including every place you have lived since the age of 18
- employment history, including any charges of misconduct or discharges
- criminal history, including arrests and convictions which have been expunged
- financial history, including any neglect of financial responsibilities
- litigation history
- driving history
- mental health (this is generally restricted to periods of incapacitation)
- substance abuse
Please start assembling the documents now because this process can be time-consuming.
Consult Chart 2 in the NCBE Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2018 for guidance on the character and fitness determinations of each state. Are You Fit to Be a Lawyer? offers general advice about the process (with a particular focus on New York). Character and fitness applications generally request information regarding mental illness and/or substance use, involvement with the criminal justice system, school discipline, and financial problems. The Bazelon Center has compiled the character and fitness questions used by all 50 states and the District of Columbia pertaining to Mental Health, School/Criminal History, and Financial Issues.
- In reviewing your information and determining its significance, various factors are likely to be considered, including your age at the time the conduct occurred, when the conduct occurred, the seriousness of the conduct, your candor in providing the information, and your conduct since the incident(s) took place.
- As to mental health and substance abuse matters, the bar looks for evidence of mental or emotional instability, for example, the NY Bar asks:
Do you currently have any condition or impairment including, but not limited to, a mental, emotional, psychiatric, nervous or behavioral disorder or condition which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?
- For substance abuse, most states ask about drug or alcohol dependency, for example, the NY Bar asks:
Do you currently have an alcohol, drug or other substance abuse condition or impairment or gambling addiction, which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?
The concern is an addiction that could impair your ability to practice so the bar looks for evidence of rehabilitation.
- Typically examiners want to see that an applicant is taking personal responsibility and addressing the problem(s).
If you are concerned about having to disclose something from your past, you can contact Dean Cosgrove or Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers CT (LCL). LCL is a lawyer assistance program funded by bar dues and provides confidential assistance to attorneys, judges, and law students. There is a lawyer assistance program in each state so, if you prefer, you can contact the program in the state where you will be applying for bar admission. The complete list of lawyer assistance programs can be found here.
Do not omit information for fear that the information will prohibit you from admission. Failure to disclose information is likely to cause you more difficulty in admission than the incident itself. Answer all questions completely and honestly. Feel free to speak with Dean Cosgrove.
Keep in mind that consistency is critical and many of you will undergo government background checks in your career. These background checks can be significantly more invasive (asking about any recent recreational drug use). For more information on government background checks, please see the discussion on CDO’s webpage, Before You Apply: Understanding Background Checks.