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New Bar Exam Shaves Three Hours Off Testing Time

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

If you went to college without a fake ID, you may have spent most of it wishing you could get into a bar. But for those of you that went on to law school, you probably came to regret that wish pretty quickly when confronted with a very different kind of bar. Bar exams, at least in the United States, are notoriously hellish, both in their difficulty and their duration. The good news? They just got three hours shorter (if not any easier).

Bar Background & Basics

For much of the country, the bar exam has existed more or less in its current form for many decades. Although there have been revisions, updates, and other tweaks to the legal knowledge tested on the exam, both at the national and state levels, the test hasn't undergone any major overhaul for as long as most current attorneys will remember.

Even though bar exams vary from state to state, a major portion of it is developed by the non-profit called the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). This content is used to comprise the great majority of the content in "UBE states" (Uniform Bar Exam). It is also used by non-UBE states, such that its content is used by a total of 54 different bar jurisdictions in the country.

NCBE creates the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE, a multiple choice test of 200 questions, lasting an entire day), Multistate Essay Examination (MEE, usually six essay questions lasting 30 minutes each, totaling half a day), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT, two simulated legal cases lasting 90 minute each, totaling another half day). Together, these three components are known as the Uniform Bar Exam.

A Long-Unexamined Exam

For a long time, this content drove the spirit of bar prep and legal learning, but there were many criticisms. For one, the traditional test has a strong emphasis on memorization. In reality, lawyers don't treat their practice like a closed-book exam — and if they did, they'd probably be liable for malpractice. They can and should look up the most current rules and take their time with thorough research. But the bar exam expects you to cram a lot of legal knowledge in your head (a lot of which you'll probably never use again). This may also be the reason why a lot of law professors make their finals a closed-book exam: in anticipation of the bar.

Another major critique of the bar exam is its disconnect with skills and knowledge actually required to be an attorney in the real world. The bar puts you in a lot of hypothetical legal situations ("hypos," as law students like to call them), and some are more far-fetched than others; you'll probably never be in a situation similar to many of the hypos on the bar.

On the flip side, the exam does not test a lot of what you will actually be doing in practice. Half of the bar is a rigid, multiple-choice format, which is very limited evaluation of a practice that can be pretty subjective in reality. And even though there are free-response components on the bar exam, they fail to test essential legal practice such as drafting contracts, negotiating, conducting interviews and depositions, and oral argument.

These are just some of the shortcomings of the bar exam that have been voiced for a long time. Other problems with the exam focus less on content and more on structure, and highlight issues of accessibility, inclusivity, and equity.

The New and Improved Test

The push for a more thorough reform of the bar exam has been making headway for a long time, and not just from law students. Legal educators, concerned about aligning their curriculum with the bar, as well as practitioners, who personally faced challenges sitting for the exam in the past or find it an inadequate evaluation for their newly-hired associates coming in, have been voicing for change. They have been joined by state supreme courts and bar associations, policy organizations, and access to justice advocacy groups.

As a response, in 2018, the NCBE created a Testing Task Force to revaluate the structure of the bar exam. In 2021, its recommendations were put forward and approved by NCBE's Board of Trustees. The new test, called the "NextGen" bar exam, is set to debut in July, 2026.

The NCBE describes the revamped test as designed "to balance the skills and knowledge needed in litigation and transactional legal practice" and one that "will reflect many of the key changes that law schools are making today, building on the successes of clinical legal education programs, alternative dispute resolution programs, and legal writing and analysis programs."

One change to the test is the practice areas of law that it tests. Among several other legal subjects, the previous exam tested family law, conflict of laws, trusts and estates, and secured transactions. For a lot of law school students, these are classes that are elective rather than required for their courseloads. The new test will drop all four of these subjects. The test will keep the subjects of contracts, civil procedure, constitutional law, torts, criminal law, evidence, real property, and business associations.

Another major change is in the divided structure of the exam and its mapping of hypothetical scenarios to questions. In the current version of the test, each of the MBE's 200 multiple choice questions were about different scenarios, with no commonality. The same for each of the 6 essay questions in the MEE and each of the two MPT hypos. In the new version, the division will be created at the hypo level first. The test takers will be given different scenarios, and each one will have multiple-choice, short-answer, and long essay questions based on each scenario.

In terms of test logistics, the new exam will be three hours shorter than the current exam, which is usually 12 hours over two days. It will also be completely computer-based; prior to changes necessitated by the COVID pandemic, the exam consisted of paper booklets, bubble answer sheets, and computer-based essay responses. The NCBE has stated that they are committed to "keeping the cost of the bar exam affordable for all," though they have not state how the cost may change.

Test Results Yet to Come

The revamped exam has been touted as testing more skills than memorization, which addresses a key critique of the current version. And the spirit of the new exam aligns with NCBE's "Diversity, Fairness, and Inclusion" campaign.

While many are celebrating the long-awaited reform, not everyone is optimistic that the new solution will be an improvement. Notably, Justice Mitchell of the Alabama Supreme Court denounced the new model, claiming that it "puts DEI over competence."

It will still be a few years before the kinks are ironed out and we can see what the new exam looks like, although the NCBE has released some sample questions. For the time being, today's matriculating law students can look forward to, if nothing else, three fewer hours of test torture and holding their bladders.

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