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Bar Admissions & Exam

The California Bar Exam: Tackling the Beast

Azin Abedian

The California Bar Exam: Tackling the Beast
dusanpetkovic via iStock

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The California Bar Exam is notorious for being the toughest licensing exam in the nation. If you’re contemplating a legal career in California, you’re likely already anticipating the California Bar Exam—perhaps with a little bit of trepidation. But we have you covered with answers to some of the most asked questions regarding the test to help you feel confident when it’s time to start prepping for exam day!

What is the format of the exam?

The California Bar Exam is a two-day exam administered twice a year—the last Tuesday and Wednesday of February and July. The first day is the written portion of the exam, which consists of five one-hour essays and a 90-minute performance test. California essays can cover any subjects tested on the MBE (more on that below), plus Community Property, Wills and Succession, Remedies, Professional Responsibility, Trusts, and Business Associations. Some essays are even “crossover” questions, testing multiple subjects. So be mindful that anything is fair game! Look at past California Bar Exam questions to give you an idea of what to expect.

On day one, in the morning session, you will answer three essay questions. Then in the afternoon session, you will answer two essay questions and spend the remaining 90 minutes on a performance test. The performance test is a closed-universe exam where you get to show off your lawyering skills. You receive an assignment from a fictional supervisor, as well as all the facts and rules you will need to complete your task (i.e., draft a motion or write a persuasive brief). It’s your job to read through the materials and plan and execute a cogent analysis of the legal issues within the time allocated. You can explore the California Bar Exam instructions and grading details to understand better what the bar examiners are looking for with the essays and performance test.

Day two is the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). This is the multiple-choice portion of the exam that tests your knowledge of and ability to apply substantive law in specific and precise factual scenarios. There are 200 questions on the MBE, testing Contracts, Torts, Civil Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law and Procedure. One hundred questions are administered in a three-hour morning session and another 100 in the afternoon. To learn more about the MBE (and how to prepare for it), check out this lesson on Ask EDNA!®—The Education Network at AccessLex. (Create your free Ask EDNA! account to access helpful resources and tools to support your law school and bar prep journey.)

When do I need to apply for the California Bar Exam?

In addition to knowing what will be tested, make sure that you add important dates and deadlines for the California Bar Exam to your calendar now so that you don’t miss an application deadline and pay more in filing fees!

When should I start studying?

Here’s the lawyerly answer—it depends. Those following a traditional study path (taking the bar exam immediately following graduation) typically have about 10 weeks between graduation and the exam to prepare. During this 10-week study period, you will review (or re-learn) 13 subjects of law, distilling all the key rules and committing them to memory while simultaneously completing practice essays, performance tests, and MBE questions. To accomplish this feat in ten weeks, those who can are at a distinct advantage if they can study full-time.

However, not everyone can commit 40 hours per week to bar prep. If you know you will have other obligations, consider starting bar prep earlier. If possible, create an academic plan that gives you a light course load in the final semester of your 3L year, so you’ll have the bandwidth to start reviewing before graduation. Some courses, like Helix California, open up to 20 weeks before the bar exam, giving you a nice long runway to prepare. Really, any prep you can do—even light reviewing—during your 3L year will help you get a jump start!

When I’m ready to study, where do I begin?

Before you dive into bar review, it is helpful to know which topics you are confident in and where you may need more time and attention. Look at the courses on your transcript and compare them to the subjects tested on the California Bar Exam—you’ll see that most of the subjects tested on the exam were likely required courses in law school (see, you’ve already started studying!). Create a list of the remaining subjects you did not take and prioritize them from most difficult to learn to least difficult to learn. If you need help with the order, visit your academic support office! They can talk through your strengths and weaknesses to identify which subjects will require more time and attention. Once you have a good idea of your superpowers and shortcomings, you can begin developing your study plan.

How should I choose the best California Bar Exam prep program for me?

There is a plethora of bar review courses out there, as well as private tutors. How do you navigate the process of selecting the resources that will best support you during your bar study—without breaking the bank? You can get advice from friends, mentors, and academic support professionals, but make sure that you do some self-reflecting, too. Ask yourself the following questions:

How do I learn material best?

The California Bar Exam is different from law school exams; however, your approach to learning the material and general exam preparation shouldn’t change drastically. Do you learn by reading an outline, sitting through a lecture, doing practice questions—or maybe a combination of all three? Do you like to have physical books in front of you to highlight? Do you love using flashcards? Make sure that the bar program you choose is a good fit with the way you prefer to learn.

Are there specific portions of the exam that I am worried about?

Knowing this information will help you select tools, resources, and programs to target your weak areas. For example: if you typically do not perform well on multiple-choice exams, focus on finding tools and resources that will prepare you for the MBE portion of the exam (shameless plug: like Helix MBE).

Am I able to assess my own work?

Self-assessment on the bar exam is critical and you will not always have someone to evaluate your work. To accurately gauge your progress throughout bar prep, you must know how to grade your own assignments to ensure your practice sessions are productive. It is important to select a bar prep program that provides opportunities for external feedback and resources to help guide your own self-assessment so you will be able to identify your strengths and weaknesses and self-correct as needed!

How am I going to focus and stay engaged?

Remember that, with most bar prep programs, you will be spending long hours studying on your own. There’s no classroom debate to hold your interest or office hours to help you understand the rules. So, when selecting a bar program, make sure to take a test run—use the MPRE course or look around in the Sneak Peek—to see whether you think you’ll be able to remain actively engaged with your studies over the long bar prep period!

Remember, at the end of the day, this is just another exam. You were admitted to law school for a reason, and you have made it this far. Think about the hurdles you have overcome during your professional journey to becoming a lawyer. This is just one more jump. Have confidence in your abilities as a law student and future attorney. We are behind you every step of the way!