One cannot join the legal profession and work as a lawyer in the United States without being licensed by a government to do so. In the United States, each state or territory regulates admission to practice law; the federal government does not license lawyers. Most states and territories regulate admission of new attorneys very similarly by requiring:
- graduation from a law school (in most states, an ABA-accredited one);
- passage of a state-administered bar exam;
- passage of an ethics exam; and
- satisfaction of standards of character and fitness.
Attorneys already admitted to one or more states may seek admission to another state. Whether this can be done by motion (without the need for taking a bar exam again) or requires taking the new state's bar exam depends on the states involved and their rules.
MPRE (Ethics Exam)
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE) is a multiple-choice exam testing applicants' knowledge of the rules of professional responsibility governing lawyers. Most questions seek answers based on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct or the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct. The MPRE is produced by the National Conference of Bar Examiners, and 53 jurisdictions (including all states except Maryland and Wisconsin) require applicants to pass it. Passing scores vary by state. The MPRE is administered in March, August, and November. For more details, see here.
The courses at the Law School that help to prepare students for the MPRE include Professional Responsibility, and Comparative Professional Responsibility.
NOTE: Effective with the February 2015 bar exam, the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), a part of the bar exam in 49 states, now includes Federal Civil Procedure.
Character and Fitness
In addition to a bar examination, there are character, fitness, and other qualifications for admission 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.
Entirely separate from any exam, state bar examiners will ask applicants to provide detailed information related to their character and fitness. The inquiry into character and fitness is designed to ensure applicants can safely be entrusted with the professional responsibility of representing clients. The law is a profession, and in many ways lawyers are to their clients like doctors are to their patients.
The vast majority of applicants meet the character and fitness standards based on a paper review, but in most states only after the sometimes arduous task of gathering the relevant information and submitting it to the examiners. In certain circumstances, bar examiners will require a hearing to consider the character and fitness of an applicant. While it is impossible to generalize in a thorough manner, examiners in most states are likely to require a hearing where there is a history of substance abuse; felony convictions; gross dereliction of financial responsibilities; or falsification of documents, including, most importantly, the failure to disclose relevant, responsive information on the bar application itself. Three states (Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas) have an absolute bar to the admission of applicants with felony convictions.
Character and fitness standards and practices vary widely by state. Find out as early as possible--at least a few months before your state's application is due--what material you will have to gather and submit for your character and fitness review. In some instances it could take an extended period of time for you to obtain responsive information such as criminal records, driving records, employment records, etc. Some states expect much more than do others. Find out what your state's bar examiners expect by consulting their website or calling their office.
Advice and Commentary
Here are three pieces of valuable advice, one for each stage of the process: application, studying, and taking the actual bar exam:
Application: Complete it early! To the bar examiners, a deadline is a deadline. Don't risk being late, or you might not be able to take the exam when you want to take it. Some states have multiple deadlines, with higher and higher fees as time goes on. A few other states expect students to register with the state bar in their first or second year of law school. Those who don't register in time end up paying a higher fee to take that state's exam. Don't end up spending more money than you have to. As soon as you know what state's bar you will likely take, find out when the application (for registration and/or to take the exam) is available. As soon as it is, start in on it.
Studying: If at all possible, obtain past essay questions (and, if applicable, performance tests) and administer them to yourself under test-taking conditions. Commercial courses will flood students with practice MBE questions, and, to be sure, taking lots of practice MBE questions is very important. However, most comprehensive courses don't offer students enough opportunities to take practice essay questions. In those courses that do, students tend not to take enough advantage of the opportunities. Try also to take practice essay questions before you start your commercial course; even if you don't have an area of law being tested fresh in your mind, you can still gain valuable familiarity with the style, format and other attributes of your state's questions. If your state administers performance tests, which require no recall of law at all, definitely take some practice performance tests before you begin your commercial course. You'll find that you're too busy with MBE preparation once you start the course.
Taking the Exam: Eliminate as many non-exam stressors from your life as you possibly can for the days of the exam, and don't talk to anyone about the questions during the breaks.