By: Kimberly Wolenberg, Managing Director, Helix Bar Review Engagement
Each jurisdiction establishes its own licensure requirements and there are many steps in the bar application and character and fitness evaluation process. Although several of the licensure requirements are fairly consistent across jurisdictions, there are many nuances regarding documentation, deadlines, and fees that are state-specific. With multiple steps, confusing and varied requirements, and your career on the line, the admissions process can feel overwhelming.
The challenge for most prospective attorneys is not the application itself but keeping track of all the additional documentation that must be submitted, including the scope of information needed and the timeline for completing each component of the process. The good news is that with a little focused research and planning, you can equip yourself with everything you need to make the process as smooth as possible. As you embark on the application process, here are five tips to keep you calm, cool, and collected.
1. Determine Where You Will Take the Bar Exam
This first tip may seem obvious, but the decision about where to sit for the bar exam isn’t an easy one for many law students. If you’re someone who came to law school already knowing exactly where you want to live and work following graduation, thank your type A personality and skip to tip number two. For everyone else not tied to a specific jurisdiction and/or willing to take the bar exam wherever you land a job, determining where to take the bar exam can be a little trickier and feel more stressful.
During the last year of law school, most students are working to secure post-graduation employment, and as job offers start to come in, they commit to taking the bar exam in the jurisdiction required by their new employer. Those who secure jobs early on typically feel less stress because they know which bar exam they will be taking and can start researching the admissions process right away.
But if you are seeking public interest work (where job offers typically come later in the academic year), still waiting on offers from employers who don’t recruit during the traditional OCI season, or putting off your job search until after the bar exam, the pressure of not knowing where to take the bar exam can really weigh on you. If it feels like your plans are on hold, it can be easy to put the admissions process on the back burner, but that can cause even more stress down the road should you end up with an opportunity in a jurisdiction where you were not anticipating an offer.
So, if you are not 100% sure where you will be taking the bar exam, then at a minimum, you should identify the top three jurisdictions where you are most likely to practice after law school, and then gather the key licensure requirements for those three jurisdictions. This way, once you finalize your plans and choose a jurisdiction, you will be ready to move forward with the admissions process.
(Tip: Use this Applying for the Bar Exam – Preliminary Checklist on Ask EDNA! – the Education Network at AccessLex to map out requirements, deadlines, costs, and application nuances, so when it’s time to apply, you’ll know which steps you need to take and which ones to prioritize.) (Create your free Ask EDNA! account today to access helpful resources and tools to support your bar prep and application process.)
2. Know the Licensure Requirements
The first resource applicants should consult to determine the licensure requirements for a jurisdiction is the board of law examiners’ website for that jurisdiction. (You can find a link to the website for every jurisdiction here.) The website will detail the requirements for the application itself along with all the additional licensure requirements, such as documentation for character and fitness investigation, passing score on the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), law school certification, reference letters, and other state-specific requirements (e.g., completion of pro bono hours or passage of a state law component.)
Two specific requirements that are common among most jurisdictions, yet vary widely in their timing, are the character and fitness process and MPRE requirements. So, let’s talk in a little more detail about those.
Character and Fitness
Every jurisdiction has a process in place for determining whether applicants possess good moral character and fitness to practice law. In most states, the character and fitness evaluation begins at the same time you register to take the bar exam, and, regardless of whether you pass the exam, you may not be sworn in as an attorney until you receive character and fitness certification or clearance. Some jurisdictions don’t begin the character and fitness process until after you have taken the bar exam and others even wait to complete the character and fitness evaluation until after you have passed the bar exam. Finally, there are a few jurisdictions that require character and fitness certification or clearance before you are eligible to sit for the bar exam.
Regardless of when your jurisdiction evaluates your character and fitness to practice law, it is critical that you timely, thoroughly, and truthfully answer all questions and complete all follow-up requests, especially if you think challenges may arise during your investigation and interview process. Staying on top of the character and fitness process is even more important in a jurisdiction that requires clearance before the bar exam, since any issues that cannot be resolved before admission tickets are sent to bar examinees could keep you from sitting for that administration of the exam and delay your ability to practice for at least six months.
(Tip: Review this Character and Fitness Checklist on Ask EDNA! to get an idea of the nature and scope of information commonly requested during the evaluation process in many jurisdictions.)
Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)
Most jurisdictions require a passing MPRE score as part of their licensure process. The majority of jurisdictions allow you to obtain your passing score before or after you take the bar exam, but there are a few jurisdictions that require you to obtain a passing score before you are eligible to sit for the bar exam.
It is also important to note that each jurisdiction determines its own passing score for the MPRE, as well as the length of time a score is valid. In some jurisdictions, a passing score never expires, and in others, MPRE scores are only valid for a certain number of years.
Visit the National Conference of Bar Examiners’ website to learn more about the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). (See also MPRE Overview on Ask EDNA!. And if you are looking for a free comprehensive course to prepare for the exam, enroll in Helix MPRE.)
3. Know the Applicable Deadlines
Some jurisdictions give you a short window to apply, and once that window closes, there are no exceptions. If you miss the deadline, you will have to wait until the next bar exam cycle.
Other jurisdictions give you longer periods to apply and offer a timely filing deadline and a late filing deadline. Some even have an extended late deadline. If you know you procrastinate, or you’re still not sure where you’ll end up after law school, the extended late deadline might sound great because it provides more flexibility. However, keep in mind, that late and extended deadlines come with additional fees or increased costs, often for both the bar exam application and the character and fitness process.
Regardless of whether your jurisdiction has a short window to apply or allows extended deadlines, make sure you know the absolute last date you can apply for that bar exam cycle, and do not miss that deadline.
(Reminder: Check out the National Board of Bar Examiners’ website for your jurisdiction for the most up-to-date information regarding application deadlines. If you’re still considering several jurisdictions, the NCBE Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements is a fantastic starting point for quickly skimming the bar exam details for all jurisdictions, including application deadlines.)
4. Know the Associated Costs
Students who take the MPRE during law school often get a false sense of costs related to the licensure process. Since the registration fee for the MPRE is currently $150 and a passing score on the MPRE is part of the licensure process for most jurisdictions, students assume the bar exam application fees are comparable.
When students start applying for the bar exam, they are often shocked to discover the costs associated with the licensure process. There are typically multiple fees and related expenses – costs for applying, for character and fitness investigations, using a laptop for the written portion of the exam, documentation, fingerprinting, and so on. Plus, there can be expenses related to bar exam preparation, living expenses, and travel costs to the test site.
Start your research early and know the applicable costs so that you have time to plan and budget accordingly. (For bar exam budgeting tips, check out these free resources on Ask EDNA!: Funding Your Bar Exam Experience and Bar Exam Expense Strategy.)
5. Start Gathering the Information You Need Early
If you gather the key pieces of information you need before you start filling out the application and related pieces of documentation for the character and fitness evaluation, it will make your life easier and will significantly streamline the process.
As part of your application, you will be asked for your personal history, residential history, and employment history. Applicants are often surprised at the breadth of information requested. For example, many jurisdictions require a residential history that includes every address you have lived at since high school graduation, and you need to account for every interval of time (including studying aboard). For employment history, you may need to list every place of employment since you were 18 years old, including names of businesses, names of supervisors, and each interval of employment and unemployment.
If you have only moved a few times and have more limited employment experience, providing this history may take you little time to complete. On the other hand, if you have moved multiple times, studied abroad, or worked for multiple organizations (including some that may no longer be in business), gathering the necessary details can be time-consuming. You may need to make phone calls and do more extensive research to track down all the information you need. Often, this means waiting for others to respond, so additional follow-up on your part will be required. Plan for delays and budget your time accordingly.
(Tips: If you moved every year in college or studied abroad, make a call to your institution. They should have every address you lived at while you were a student. Also, take advantage of your legal research skills and research platforms available to search your records for missing details. The Social Security Administration, tax records, and your past resumes are also great research resources.)
The road to licensure in any jurisdiction will feel more manageable when you plan and are equipped with the information you need to move forward with every step of the process. Determine where you will be taking (or are most likely to take) the bar exam, identify the licensure requirements, find out the applicable deadlines and associated fees, and start gathering the information you need as soon as possible. And most importantly, if you have questions, do not hesitate to ask to contact your dean of students or the board of law examiners for help.