In order to obtain a license to practice law, almost all law school graduates must apply for bar admission through a state board of bar examiners. Most often, this board is an agency of the highest state court in the jurisdiction, but occasionally, the board is connected more closely to the state’s bar association. The criteria for eligibility to take the bar examination or to otherwise qualify for bar admission are set by each state, not by the ABA or the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.

The Bar Exam

Licensing involves a demonstration of worthiness in two distinct areas. The first is competence. For initial licensure, competence is ordinarily established by showing that the applicant holds an acceptable educational credential (with rare exception, a J.D. degree) from a law school that meets educational standards, and by achieving a passing score on the bar examination.

Boards of bar examiners in most jurisdictions expect to hear from prospective candidates during the final year of law school. Bar examinations are ordinarily offered at the end of February and July, with considerably more applicants taking the summer test because it falls after graduation from law school. Some boards offer or require law student registration at an earlier point in law school. This preliminary processing, where available, permits the board to review character and fitness issues in advance.

Over time, bar examinations have had some unanticipated consequences. Because the content of bar examinations closely resembles that of the law school curriculum, this content strongly inhibits change in educational programs. The extent to which a school introduces innovative programs or markedly deviates in its curriculum from traditional programs places its graduates at a competitive disadvantage in taking a bar examination. Moreover, because law schools are accredited according to, among other criteria, the number of students who pass the bar exam, and are often rated by students according to this standard, legal education has become very much examination- oriented in many states. Subjects included in the examination are required of the students, and courses in those subjects are often molded according to the questions asked on the examinations.

More and more law school graduates, in preparation for the local bar examination, take cram courses and sit through 6 hours of daily lectures for 6 to 12 solid weeks, memorizing endless outlines and gimmicks of local “examinationship”—which will be erased from their minds within months after the examination date. And more and more of them take out “bar exam loans,” averaging many thousands of dollars, to pass the fiscal bridge between commencement and the first paycheck and to pay for living expenses and for high expense of a bar review course. There is also a registration fee for the bar exam, which can be several hundred dollars and varies from state to state.

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