In the U.S., a law school graduate cannot practice law or describe oneself as a lawyer or attorney unless licensed. A license requires admission to the bar of at least one of the 56 jurisdictions in the U.S. (the 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories). Each jurisdiction establishes its own criteria for admission to its bar. In most jurisdictions, the initial admission process broadly involves taking a professional responsibility examination (MPRE), taking a 2-3 day bar examination in February or July, and completing a character and fitness investigation. However, because each jurisdiction has its own application procedures, deadlines, fees, prerequisites, examinations, scoring and reciprocity policies, and post-admission requirements, it is incumbent on students to familiarize themselves with the admission process in the jurisdiction(s) where they plan to practice.
Every U.S. jurisdiction has an official bar examination website with detailed requirements and application materials. In addition, the National Conference of Bar Examiners provides an annual summary (updated each spring) of the bar admission requirements in every U.S. jurisdiction: Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements.
If you are entering your final year of law school and still uncertain about where and when to sit for the bar, the interplay of reciprocity policies or whether you should sit for an exam in more than one jurisdiction, please seek guidance from your faculty advisor, an ASP instructor or the Dean of Students as soon as possible.
Character & Fitness
In addition to a bar examination, there are character, fitness, and other qualifications for admission to the bar in every U.S. jurisdiction. Applicants are encouraged to determine the requirements for any jurisdiction in which they intend to seek admission by contacting the jurisdiction. Addresses for all relevant agencies are available through the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
Each jurisdiction determines its own rules for bar admission, including the composition of its bar exam. All jurisdictions except Louisiana and Puerto Rico use some combination of multiple choice and essay questions, often a combination of Multistate exams developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) and jurisdiction-specific questions developed by their own courts or bar examiners. Each jurisdiction decides which Multistate exams it will use, the weight assigned to each section, and acceptable passing scores; this information is published annually on bar examiner websites and in the NCBE’s Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements. Understanding the content and structure of your jurisdiction’s bar exam will help you to tailor your studying and develop strategies for passing the exam.
- Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)
- A six-hour, 200-question multiple-choice examination
- Administered by 54 jurisdictions, including DC, in 2023
- Multistate Performance Test (MPT)
- Consists of two 90-minute writing tasks
- Administered by 50 jurisdictions, including DC, in 2023
- Multistate Essay Examination (MEE)
- Consists of six 30-minute essay questions
- Administered by 48 jurisdictions, including DC, in 2023
- Uniform Bar Examination (UBE)
- Consists of the MBE, two MPTs, and the MEE (some have an additional jurisdiction-specific exam component)
- Results in a portable score that can be transferred to other UBE jurisdictions (minimum score requirements and time limits for transfers differ by jurisdiction)
- Administered by 41 jurisdictions, including DC, in 2023
- Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
- A two-hour, 60-question multiple-choice examination, offered 3 times per year
- Required for admission to the bars of all but two jurisdictions (PR and WI) in 2023
- The MPRE is administered separately from a jurisdiction’s bar exam
- Law students may take the MPRE prior to graduation
- District of Columbia Committee on Admissions
- Maryland Board of Bar Examiners
- Virginia Board of Bar Examiners
- More: Directory of Bar Admissions Offices (includes websites and mailing addresses)
Note: A small number of jurisdictions have a registration requirement or option for current law students. Depending on a state’s rules, a student may be able to save time or money by registering for the bar exam during the first or second year of law school.
- Being admitted to a state’s bar does not mean that a lawyer is automatically admitted to the federal courts physically located in that state. Each federal court sets its own admission rules. For example:
- U.S. Supreme Court Bar
- Requires 3 years good standing in another jurisdiction and sponsorship by another member.
- U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Admissions
- U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Admissions
- U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Admissions (Patent Bar)
- U.S. Supreme Court Bar
- Admission to a bar, i.e. permission to practice law in a particular jurisdiction, is distinct from membership in a bar association. Some jurisdictions, such as DC, have a mandatory (also called a unified or integrated) bar association such that a lawyer must become a member of the jurisdiction’s bar association in order to practice in that jurisdiction. Other jurisdictions, such as Maryland, have a state-wide voluntary bar association that any lawyer admitted to the bar in that jurisdiction may choose to join. In addition, groups of legal practitioners with shared professional or personal interests may form local, state or national voluntary bar associations. While membership in voluntary bar associations is not required in order to practice law, it can play an important role in a lawyer’s professional development. Many voluntary bar associations offer law student memberships.
- See, for example, the DC Bar’s Directory of Voluntary Bar Associations in DC.