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Modernized Bar Exam Gets the Green Light

By Karen Sloan for

The long-discussed overhaul of the bar exam is a go.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Board of Trustees on Jan. 28 adopted a series of recommendations for the next generation of the licensing exam, meaning that the test will look significantly different when the new version debuts in about five years. According to the National Conference, the revised exam will place more emphasis on testing legal skills and will require less memorization of wide swaths of law. Among those approved changes:

  • The updated exam will do away with the distinct Multistate Bar Exam, Multistate Essay Exam and Multistate Performance Test in favor of a more integrated format that will ask examinees to use legal scenarios and fact patterns to provide a variety of answer types including multiple choice, short answers and legal documents. The updated exam will more closely resemble the current Multistate Performance Test, which requires test takers to produce a legal memo or brief based on a provided legal scenario.
  • Family law, estates and trusts, the Uniform Commercial Code and conflict of laws will be dropped from the list of tested subjects.
  • Investigation and evaluation, client counseling and advising, negotiation and dispute resolution, and client relationship and management will be added to the legal skills tested on the exam.
  • The exam will be administered entirely on computer, rather than partially on paper as it is now.

But many aspects of the bar exam won’t change under the newly adopted recommendations. The test will still be given at the end of law school, and be administered over two days. It will yield a single score that will determine whether the examinee passed or failed. And it will remain closed book, though National Conference administrators say the revamped test will likely provide examinees with more reference materials than does to current exam. The exam will still be given at specific locations or test centers. (The National Conference gave its first-ever remote exam in October and will do so again next month in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the plan calls for a return to in-person testing in the future.)

The recommendations were issued by the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ Testing Task Force, which spent the past three years studying what people like and don’t like about the current exam, as well as the skills that employers say are most important for new lawyers.

The changes have been met with cautious optimism by many bar exam watchers, as well as some skepticism that they will go far enough to make the exam reflect what lawyers actually do in practice.

“Overall, we are supportive of the NCBE’s changes to the exam, which aim to better prepare graduated students as they venture into the legal profession,” said Amit Schlesinger, executive director of legal programs at test prep provider Kaplan. “It seems that the new exam will test law school graduates on the skills needed to be successful practicing attorneys, based on potential scenarios they’ll face in the workplace. That means making the exam a lot less theoretical and a lot more practical than it is now.”

The bar exam won’t look different for quite some time, however. The National Conference has said it will take four to five years to develop the new test and give examinees ample notice of the changes.