The California State Bar Exam was held the last week of July. The results do not come out until mid-November, so I wait.  This administration underwent a major change.  It is still insanely difficult but it is no longer quite as sadistic.

California State Bar Exam Then vs. Now

The California State Bar examiners decided that it was time for a change.  Not just any change but a complete overhaul of the logistics of the exam.  It used to take three days, now it is only two days.  They have reduced several portions of the exam to accommodate the reduced time.  The goal of reducing the number of essays and performance tests was not to make passing easier (we are not that lucky), but to reduce the work load of the Bar exam graders.

As irony would have it (a sweet irony if you ask me), the July 2017 Bar had the most number of Bar exam takers in the history of California.  I’m guessing that the Bar Examiners did not anticipate that by reducing the number of essays and performance tests that there would be such an influx of Bar exam takers.  So it is likely that they will have to grade approximately the same number (at least this administration) of essays and performance tests.


In previous Bar exams, there use to be six one hour essays.  Now, there are only five one hour essays.  The topics have not changed, they still expect you to know up to seventeen different areas of the law.  In some instances, they have crossover essays where they test multiple subjects.  So even though they only have five essays, they could still test up to fifteen different topics if they did three topics per essay.  It would be mean, but they could do it.

Performance Test

They used to have two performance tests.  Each performance test was three hours (yes you read that correctly) for a total of six hours just on the performance tests.  They reduced the number of performance tests to only one and it is only supposed to be 1.5 hours. It is still rather challenging because the performance test is generating an attorney like work product.  They give you the law and facts and expect you to draft a memorandum or persuasive brief or letter.

The essays and performance test combine to make up 50% of the total score needed to pass the Bar.

Multistate Bar Exam (MBE)

The National Committee of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has kept the MBE questions generally the same with two caveats.  They reduced the number of questions that count towards your score from 190 to 175.  The remaining twenty-five questions are used to test new questions for scientific validity for future Bar exams. California specifically has raised the value of the MBE questions from 35% to 50%.

The questions have gotten progressively harder over the years (I have taken all 1,591 released MBE questions so I’m pretty good at judging the level of difficulty).  The NCBE seems to delight in torturing Bar exam takers.  The questions are subtle and nuanced.  If you do not know the law or the way the NCBE likes to trick you, it is unlikely that you will get the number correct necessary to pass.

Day of the Exam

The California State Bar Exam is broken up into a total of four sessions.  The first day is the essays and performance test.  There are three essays in the morning session for a total of three hours, two essays and the performance test in the afternoon for a total of 3.5 hours.

The second day is the MBE and is also broken up into two sessions with each session lasting three hours.  That means that you have 1.87 minutes per MBE question.  That is not a lot of time given the level of detail that is required to read, comprehend, and answer the question correctly.

Final Thoughts

Although the California State Bar Exam has changed recently, it is unlikely to make a significant difference in the scores.  Afterall, it is the MBE that causes the vast majority of people to not pass the Bar.  The essays are challenging but generally, a good faith and thorough effort will get a passing grade.  The MBE offers no chance for mercy.  The question is either correct or it is not.  As a matter of fact, the MBE portion has most likely already been graded.  The NCBE is mired in the past using pencils and scantrons so all they have to do is send them through the machine that reads them.  I mean the essays are typed on a laptop, but apparently, the NCBE still feels that a pencil and paper is the best way to go despite the likeness of error.

On a happy note, the reduced number of essays no longer adversely affect minorities.  In the study done by the Bar, it was found that more essays meant fewer minorities would pass.  Because the California State Bar examiners have increased the weight of the MBE portion it will make it fairer for minorities. I would have to say that is a win.

California State Bar Exam is a Relic

Perhaps the largest problem with the Bar itself is the fact that when it began to be a requirement to practice law most attorneys were generalists.  It was rare to have an attorney that specialized.  An attorney would take whatever type of case that came in the door (also known as “door law”).  The Bar tests many subjects but it is not representative of how the law is practiced today. The Bar is a relic of the past.

Times have changed and attorneys more often than not have a specialty or a few areas they practice.  If an attorney receives a question or case for an area of law they are not familiar with, they do not take the case or help the client.  A good attorney will refer the client to someone who does specialize in the area of law the client needs.  It is better for the client and it is better for the attorney.  The client gets the best help possible and the attorney gets to work in their chosen specialty.

For instance, I will be a business attorney, it is more likely than not that I will never see a criminal case.  I would almost certainly be committing legal malpractice if I represented someone in a criminal matter.  I am not going to risk my career to represent someone poorly.  Instead, I am going to find attorneys I know and trust and refer my clients to them.

The California State Bar Exam needs to be reconfigured so that it represents how the practice of law is done now, not how the law was practiced when the Bar was first created and required.

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