Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Find a Lawyer

More Options

Washington State Waives Bar Exam Requirement

BY Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The bar exam: most law students’ biggest dread. It’s long been criticized as an imperfect metric of legal knowledge and skills, and experts have been challenging the way it is administered more and more in recent years. These criticisms were answered by the creators of the test, the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). NCBE approved of a “new and improved” test called the “NextGen Bar Exam” last fall. The test isn’t necessarily any easier, but does shave 3 hours off the notoriously long, two-day exam.

But for some jurisdictions, tweaking the test wasn’t enough. Progress meant offering completely different pathways to practice, and this meant doing away with bar exam requirements completely. Washington has now become the second state to do away with its bar exam requirement.

Washington's UBE

Washington is one of 40 states (along with D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands) that currently use the Universal Bar Exam (UBE). This is a standardized bar examination designed to test the knowledge and skills that every lawyer should have before becoming licensed to practice law. The UBE is uniformly administered, graded, and scored and results in a portable score that can be transferred to other “UBE jurisdictions.” Each state that accepts the UBE may still have additional requirements for admission to the bar, such as a jurisdiction-specific law and ethics exam or a background check. The test consists of three parts: the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), and the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). You can read more about these individual components and what is covered on the UBE on our Law Students pages about the Bar Exam.

The UBE is scored out of a maximum total of 400 points, although the minimum scores required to pass are much, much lower than 400. Before the pandemic and for quite some time, the state of Washington had its minimum passing score set to 270. For comparison, Alaska has the highest minimum passing score at 280.

Pandemic Brings Changes

Starting in the early Pandemic, the powers that be in the state of Washington were clearly skeptical of the bar exam as a whole. Starting in the Fall of 2020, the state’s Supreme Court ordered the creation of the Washington Bar Licensure Task Force to assess the efficacy of the bar exam and to think of potential alternatives. The task force came up with a proposal that included seven recommendations for changes.

During the Pandemic, the Washington Supreme Court reduced the minimum UBE passing score to 266 for exams administered throughout 2020, 2021, and 2022. One of the recommended changes was continuing this minimum score of 266 for future exams. Another recommendation was adopting the NextGen bar exam. Those recommendations were soon adopted. However, the remaining six recommendations required rule changes before they could be implemented, and this required more hoops to jump through.

Now, Washington has adopted the remaining recommendations. Let's take a look at each of them, and how they'll offer major alternatives to the bar exam.

New Alternatives to the Bar

Two of those recommendations involved “graduate apprenticeship” programs through which law school graduates may become licensed. These programs would allow those who satisfactorily complete a six-month program to waive out of the bar exam. Among other requirements, applicants must “be of good moral character and fitness,” be a full-time employee of a WSBA-approved “tutor” in a law office, legal department, or Washington State court, and complete four years of coursework at a rate of six courses per year.

Another recommendation was the “experiential pathway” to licensure that would allow students to graduate law school “ready to practice.” The goal of this program is to ensure that students have the training and experience in practical lawyering skills at graduation. Law schools are already required by the American Bar Association to offer a practical skills course “as part of an increasing push in the legal industry to ensure that law schools are teaching not just how to think like a lawyer, but how to practice like a lawyer.” Law students are required to complete at least six skills credits to graduate, which can be from various practice areas such as mediation, pre-trial advocacy, negotiations, criminal motions practice, and contract drafting.

One of the recommendations aimed to modify existing “reciprocity” standards for the UBE. Previously, Washington would waive the bar exam requirement for just about anyone (including those who had not taken another UBE state’s exam) if they had been admitted to and had been practicing law in another jurisdiction for three or more years in the past five years. The task force recommended shortening that time requirement to just one year, reasoning that “readiness to practice is not about memorization of a jurisdiction’s law, but practical knowledge of how to practice law.”

Lastly, one of the recommendations was not related directly to law students or graduates, but rather to the administration. The task for recommended the investigation, data collection, and assessments on behalf of legal administrators to help ensure that lawyers remain competent throughout their careers. “While competence to practice law is decided once and only once at the moment of licensure, data shows that the majority of public harms brought about by lawyers occur after more than ten years in practice,” the Washington Supreme Court wrote. This problem wasn’t really being addressed aside from Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements. But even CLEs are “judged based solely on attendance and have no way of ensuring comprehension and retention of information.” So, the task force recommended the WSBA to look into and start implementing ways to strengthen and grow skill areas for new lawyers.

As all of these recommendations have now been adopted, the upshot is that you have a number of more practical alternatives to go from being a J.D. to a licensed lawyer in the state of Washington.

Bar None

Washington was not the first state to do away with the bar exam altogether. Just earlier this year, Oregon beat its northern neighbor in creating an alternate pipeline for law graduates to practice. And a handful of other states, such as Minnesota, Nevada, South Dakota, and Utah, are currently considering similar alternatives to their bar exam requirements. So, more law students throughout the country may be able to dodge the dreaded text in the future.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Copied to clipboard