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Evolution of the bar exam

Bar Exam Hall

Each year, thousands of law students prepare for the notable bar exam, a test of knowledge and skills which students must pass to obtain their license. Over the years, many students have spent strenuous hours studying for the exam, but the exam has not always been this daunting.

If you’re looking to become a lawyer, knowing how the bar exam has evolved may allow you to better understand your own path to becoming a lawyer.

Origins of the legal profession in America

The modern legal profession was first seen in the early legal systems of the Greek and Roman civilizations. While the legal system developed differently in each city and civilization, the American legal system emerged drastically once the colonies declared independence and became the United States. Lawyers sought influence on both sides of wars and revolutions, created specializations, and refined the legal system as society progressed.

To practice law, aspiring lawyers sought expertise through oral exams, self-study, and apprenticeships. Lawyer’s expertise was based on their experiences and knowledge of the existing laws.

In 1763, Delaware became the first jurisdiction to offer a “bar exam.” But unlike the bar exam today, this was not a written exam. In 1855, Massachusetts became the first state to administer a written bar exam, consisting of only essays. By the 1860s, every state but two had established bar examinations and if administered, they were oral exams. The American legal profession grew in conjunction with the United States’ emerging political, social, and economic systems.

Following the establishment of the first bar examinations, law schools began to emerge in the 1870s and the process of becoming a lawyer changed. This sparked the practice of diploma privilege, which allowed individuals to receive automatic admission to the bar without having to take the bar exam. Diploma privileges were used to lure students to law schools and provide an incentive to go to law school.

In the 1920s, the American Bar Association and multiple states began their opposition towards diploma privileges. This practice had been deemed discriminatory and, as the term implies, privileged; thus, the American Bar Association and other states sought to create more equal opportunities for candidates.

Formalizing the bar exam process

The opposition towards diploma privilege led to increased efforts to create formal examinations that tested both candidates’ skills and knowledge. Early bar examinations consisted only of essays until the bar exam added the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) in 1972. The MBE was developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners to create a better grading system as well as an equal and fair opportunity for people seeking careers practicing law.

In 1988, the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) was created, and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) was added to the bar exam in 1997. The creation of these examinations established the process of becoming a lawyer today and the requirements people must meet to practice law.

By the early 2000s, the American Bar Association and various jurisdictions began discussing the feasibility of a uniform bar examination that provides candidates with a portable score to other jurisdictions. In 2011, the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) was created and first administered in North Dakota and Missouri.

The UBE consists of the three previously created exams: the MBE, MEE, and MPT. As of 2021, 40 jurisdictions have adopted the UBE, offering candidates the ability to transfer scores with other UBE jurisdictions. Today, every state’s bar exam, except Louisiana and Puerto Rico, includes the MBE as a component of their exam, whether it is the UBE or a state-administered exam.

The admission to the bar also now requires completion of a Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), an ethics test, in every state except Wisconsin. National and state bar associations continue to adapt the exam to changing laws and regulations as well as the needs of the legal profession.

Alternatives to the bar exam

Going to law school and taking either the UBE or a state bar exam is still not the only way to become a lawyer in the United States. Some states still have ways to become a lawyer without needing to go to law school. California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington allow those seeking to become a lawyer to participate in an apprenticeship rather than attending law school. Maine and New York require some law school in addition to an apprenticeship.

Each state that allows apprenticeships has its own requirement. These requirements include the number of years and hours you must be an apprentice, who can be a mentor, how your progress will be measured, potential fees, and other state-specific requirements.

Furthermore, out of the 32 states that originally adopted diploma privilege, Wisconsin is the only state that still offers the practice today. However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple jurisdictions granted emergency diploma privilege to accommodate students whose bar exams were canceled. Emergency diploma privilege allows students and graduates to practice under the supervision of a licensed attorney while awaiting the bar exam.

The five jurisdictions to grant emergency diploma privilege include Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Utah, Oregon, and Washington. Among these jurisdictions, Louisiana has announced an open-book, remote bar exam for 2021. Some states have announced remote examinations, and others are still deciding how students will take the exam to accommodate social distancing guidelines.

The key to lawyer licensure

The process of becoming a lawyer has evolved significantly, but a passing score on the bar exam in your jurisdiction still stands as the key to lawyer licensure. Over time, the examination has evolved significantly to create a more equal opportunity for aspiring lawyers and to be more comprehensive of legal ethics and skills of candidates.

Amy Gaiennie Amy Gaiennie is the managing member of Gaiennie Law Office, founded in 2003. After graduating from the University of Denver College of Law, Amy went on to work for a bar review company and various insurance agencies. Amy joined two large personal injury firms before realizing her desire to provide personalized legal services.