Lawyer: An Overview of the Bar Exam

Oct 20, 2021

After finishing law school, a lawyer must pass a state bar exam to become licensed. This exam contains a comprehensive series of essay and multiple-choice questions based upon all facets of legal knowledge. The exam can take 2-3 days to complete.

Essential Information

Passing the bar exam is a general requirement to become a licensed lawyer. After completing a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree program from an accredited law school, graduates can prepare for their state's bar exam. The bar exam is a multi-day event that involves numerous tests, including essay and multiple-choice.

Required Education Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029)* 4% for all lawyers
Median Annual Salary (2020)* $126,930 for all lawyers

*Source: United States Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bar Exam Overview

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), every state requires applicants to pass the state bar exam prior to pursuing licensure ( In most states, the bar exam is an intensive 2-3 day process that consists of a series of tests, including the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The MBE is a 6-hour exam that is made up of 200 multiple-choice questions based on a broad spectrum of legal knowledge.

Applicants may also be required to pass a state-issued portion of the bar exam that focuses on state laws. Other common parts of the bar exam include the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), which tests the ability to practically apply legal knowledge, and the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), which is a group of essay questions on specific legal areas.

Education Requirements

In most states, a potential lawyer must complete an undergraduate program and graduate from a law school that's accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Lawyers who haven't graduated from an ABA-accredited law school are usually limited to taking the bar exam in the state where that school is located. Some states, such as California, allow individuals who have apprenticed under a licensed attorney or judge for at least four years to take the state bar exam.

License Requirements

According to the ABA, individuals seeking legal licensure must demonstrate character and competence before they're admitted to the bar as licensed attorneys ( Competence is demonstrated through meeting educational requirements and passing the state bar exam. Many states also require that applicants demonstrate competency by passing the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), a test that focuses on ethical responsibilities set forth by the ABA codes of conduct. State bar examiners also check for character by performing background investigations. Licensed lawyers who wish to practice in another state or in multiple states must generally retake the bar exam, but exceptions are sometimes made based on character and credentials.

Employment Information

The BLS projects job opportunities for lawyers to increase 4% between 2019 and 2029. Though demand for legal services will, of course, continue, job competition will remain strong due to the fact that the number of law school graduates is expected to outpace the number of job openings. In May 2020, the median salary for lawyers was $126,930. The bottom 10% earned $61,490 or less and the top 10% made $208,000 or more.

When a person passes the bar exam they will be able to receive their license as long as they have earned a degree from an accredited law school. A number of states also mandate a Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination dealing with ethical procedures. The best lawyers will go on to see a bountiful salary, usually over $100,000 per year.

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