New York and California are well-known for their rigorous bar exams, and these exams are set to change during July 2016 in New York and July 2017 in California.

In the U.S., states have the freedom to develop their own licensing exam for the practice of law, a standard that has been in existence since Delaware created the first bar exam (consisting of essays) in 1763. Most bar exams continued to be mostly essays until 1972, when the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) was created by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), and some states began using these multiple-choice questions as part of their bar examinations.

Twenty-four states are now using a common exam, called the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), which usually includes a supplement with state-specific questions, as well. According to the American Bar Association (ABA),

“The most common testing configuration consists of a two-day bar examination, one day of which is devoted to the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), a standardized 200-item test. The second day of testing is typically comprised of locally crafted essays from a broader range of subject matters; however, in a growing number of states, two nationally developed tests, the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT), may be used to round out the test.”

If you are planning on taking the new exams in New York or California, here’s what you need to know:

New York Bar Exam

New York is switching to a standard test, the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), developed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners. To see how jurisdictions set the policies on how the UBE is used in each state, click here. The Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) has been in use in New York since 1979, and the Multistate Performance Task (MPT) was added in 2001, which is the last time the testing format was changed in New York.

New York will be the largest of the 24 states currently utilizing UBE. While each state participates in the same exam, they still have the opportunity to determine their own passing guidelines and create supplementary state-specific requirements. New York lawyers will be required to pass the uniform exam, which tests knowledge concerning the general principles of law, as well as an online course (NYLE) and multiple choice questions geared toward demonstrating a specific understanding of New York state law.

Currently, the New York bar exam includes about 200 questions from the multistate bar exam, as well as five essays on New York State law and 50 multiple-choice questions on New York law. Finally, there is a multiple state performance test. According to the New York Times, under the new exam plan, one day will still be devoted to the 200-question multistate bar exam, except now the first day of testing will have six essays and two “lawyering skills tasks.” There will be no testing on “unique distinctions in New York law,” which is a major shift away from the current state-specific bar exam. Significantly, only six years after the creation of the UBE exam, almost half of the states in our country will be using it.

Jenny Rivera, an associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals and chairwoman of the advisory committee on the UBE, said the two new lawyering skills tasks should be an excellent addition and welcome alternative to the current standardized testing format. A performance task presents a file to the test-taker and requires them to complete an exercise that a lawyer does, such as write a memo or write a letter to a client.

The highly touted new benefit of the UBE is that it will enable new lawyers to apply for positions in multiple stateswithout requiring them to pass multiple state bar exams. According to New York’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, “The universal exam allows for better job prospects because it offers more flexibility.”

The UBE also solves two issues currently plaguing the bar exam process: fairness and other is cost. William Henderson, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law who studies the legal industry, argues, “We have federal law, there shouldn’t be different state bar exams, especially since the curriculum of law schools is mostly the same. States are throwing up the flag and are saying it’s too expensive to build their own exams. They’d rather have an expert body do it.”

California Bar Exam

For the first time in more than 25 years, the format of the California bar is changing. Currently a three-day process, the test will become a two-day exam in July 2017. The first day will be multiple-choice testing and the second day will focus on essays. There will be significantly less writing on the exam, as test-takers will complete five one-hour essays, instead of six, and the performance task will take 90-minutes, instead of six hours.

According to Derek Muller, a professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, the changes will not make California’s bar exam any less difficult, as scores will most likely be recalibrated to maintain testing rigor. However, it will make the test less grueling in terms of time. Additionally, the Committee of Bar Examiners is hoping the change to the exam will save money, which will lower testing fees, and hopefully speed the California bar’s notoriously slow grading process. According to the California Bar Journal, the change will save 1.1 million dollars a year and bring California in line with the majority of states that offer two-day exams.

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