A Helpful Approach to the Bar Exam

By: Prof. Quentin Huff, Assistant Director of Bar Success at Wake Forest University School of Law

A student anxiously cramming for the bar exam

Everybody knows the bar exam is difficult. Indeed, it’s the very magnitude of the difficulty that causes us to lose sight of what’s important on the exam.  In my view, when examinees misinterpret the rule of thumb that the bar exam is testing “minimum competency”, they risk losing sight of the many skills they acquired and developed through law school.

The bar exam tests what you can do in addition to what you know. So, before we get to that, let’s first breakdown the basics. I divide bar exams into two types: (1) the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) and (2) state-specific examinations.

The Uniform Bar Exam

The National Conference of Bar Examiners creates the UBE, which consists of three primary components: (1) the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) (200 multiple choice questions); (2) the Multistate Essay Exam (MEE) (six essay questions); and (3) the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) (two closed-universe problems).  Completion of all three components results in a test score out of 400 possible points.

The jurisdiction where you sit for the bar will determine the required passing score, sometimes referred to as the “cut score”. Passing scores range from 260 to 280. Alabama’s passing score of 260 is an example of the lowest. Alaska’s passing score of 280 is the highest. North Carolina falls in between, requiring a minimum passing score of 270 points.

MBE: Over a total of six hours, the MBE’s 200 multiple choice questions cover various areas of law, including Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts (including Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code), Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts. The subjects are tested based on “majority” rules, such as the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Evidence, comparative fault instead of contributory negligence, and common law principles of criminal law instead of the Model Penal Code. The MBE is graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

MEE: The essays for the MEE’s six questions may cover any of the subject areas tested on the MBE as well as other topics like Business Associations (including Agency, Partnership,  and Corporations, LLCs), Conflict of Laws, Family Law, Secured Transactions, Wills, and Trusts. The jurisdiction administering the exam will grade these essays.

MPT: For the MPT, the test makers provide the statutes, rules, and precedent necessary for examinees to complete a specific task. The examinee may need to use the materials to respond to a client letter or a directive from a senior partner, resulting in the synthesis of the given statutory material and case law into a particular type of written work product, such as a memo, contractual agreement, proposal, or other document. For many examinees, the MPT will resemble an assignment from a law school legal writing course. Once again, the MPT is graded by the individual jurisdiction where the examinee sits for the exam.

State-specific exams, on the other hand, tend to incorporate one or more of the above components, either created by the state bar or by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Some states administer short answer questions. Others administer 12 or more essays. State-specific exams usually require knowledge of state law, so examinees in these jurisdictions must be able to pivot between the “majority rules” of the MBE to the state-specific distinctions raised by the essay questions.

With this foundation, let’s now discuss “minimum competency”. Continue reading “A Helpful Approach to the Bar Exam”

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