As part of our features aimed at law students and newly graduates, those looking for work in the legal sphere, and those simply interested in the colours of the law world, Associate Dean and Professor of Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Nelson Miller answers the question: is the bar exam for me?
Response: The bar exam offers one of the great intellectual and career challenges of our time. Law addresses all social and commercial activity. Lawyers are wonderful economic drivers, helping to maintain order in relationships while also helping individuals, families, corporations, and communities create, preserve, and benefit from wealth. Yet lawyers must generally pass a bar exam to obtain a law license and practice law. So the bar exam is both a necessary and worthwhile challenge for many who are interested in practicing law, especially those in private practice.
Many law or law-related jobs, though, do not require a law license and so do not require that you take and pass the bar exam. Many professionals, such as those in business or leadership roles, who go to law school mid-career never intend to take a bar exam. Unlicensed in-house corporate counsel may provide an employer with certain services while supervising licensed outside counsel. Research staff attorneys for courts, attorneys working for government agencies in compliance matters, and individuals using their law degree in business, nonprofits, and administrative capacities need not take and pass the bar exam.
Whether you are likely to pass the bar exam is an important consideration. The bar exam is far from easy. Pass rates vary widely from state to state, from lows of around fifty percent to highs of around eighty percent. How well you did in law school generally gives a good indication of your probability of passing. But remember that the very best students sometimes fail, and the very worst sometimes pass, largely depending on their preparation.
Whether you have the time and inclination to prepare for the bar exam is another important consideration. Bar exams vary from state to state, but nearly all make the Multistate Bar Examination one exam component. The MBE is 200 multiple-choice questions that the examinee must answer in two three-hour sessions. The questions address about 300 topics across the seven subjects of civil procedure, constitutional law, contract law, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property law, and tort law. States also add essay and skills components. In short, if you are unable or unwilling to prepare, then you shouldn’t take the bar exam.
Whether you are going to use your law license is another important consideration. Most lawyers love their jobs. Some do not. Some law graduates give law practice a try, don’t care much for it, and quickly move on to other careers. Explore careers while in law school so that you make a good choice. Do internships or clinics until you get a feel for law practice and are reasonably sure that law is for you and that you should take the bar exam.
If you are not sure about taking the bar exam, then consider whether waiting it out while you explore other options makes sense. The longer you wait, the harder you may find it to be to pass because you may be forgetting your law studies. On the other hand, if you dive right in before committing to prepare, then you increase your chances of failing, getting discouraged, and abandoning what could be a great career. If you don’t pass on the first try but still want to practice law, then take the bar exam again. Many, including famously successful professionals, pass on the second or third try.
Once you pass the bar exam and obtain a law license, keeping the license is generally pretty easy whether you practice law or not. In some states, you need only pay annual dues to the state bar that licensed you, while in other states you must complete some continuing legal education. Lots of lawyers take and pass the bar, stop practicing law after a time, but maintain their law licenses so that they can easily return to a law career.
Nelson Miller is the author or co-author of four books on bar-exam preparation including Preparing for the Bar Exam and three volumes of Preparing for the Multistate Bar Examination. He is also the author of Dear J.D.: What to Do with Your Law Degree.