Bloomberg Law
May 24, 2023, 9:00 AMUpdated: May 24, 2023, 2:11 PM

ANALYSIS: Much-Needed Bar Exam Reform Is Finally Coming (1)

Stephanie Pacheco
Stephanie Pacheco
Legal Analyst

It’s not like anyone really gets excited over the idea of taking the bar exam, but it’s a requirement to practice law in the US. However, the number of test-takers has been declining over the past several years, and legal professionals are ambivalent—at best—about the bar’s usefulness.

The number of exam-takers has decreased by 15% since 2016, according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). While Covid-19 contributed to the drop in 2020, the numbers were declining well before the pandemic hit, and the number of annual test-takers hasn’t exceeded 65,000 since 2019.

Furthermore, a majority of respondents to Bloomberg Law’s most recent Law School Preparedness Survey said that the bar exam in its current form isn’t a reliable test to measure competency to practice law. Perhaps, in addition to the pandemic, general dissatisfaction with the exam has contributed to fewer people being willing to spend the time–and frankly, the money.

The bar is no stranger to controversy, and ChatGPT’s impressive bar exam score has reignited the debate on whether the exam truly measures competency to practice law. All the signs indicate that a new exam is well overdue—and this fall’s incoming class of first-year law students will have the chance to take one.

The National Conference of Bar Examiners’ (NCBE) “NextGen Bar,” anticipated to debut in July 2026, is an integrated exam that sets out to assess both a test taker’s doctrinal knowledge of the law and the skills that are fundamental to practicing law.

Bar Exam Fails to Impress

Bloomberg Law’s Spring Law School Preparedness Survey asked nearly 1,000 practicing attorneys and law school staff whether the current bar exam reliably gauges the competency of law grads to practice law.

The majority of practicing attorneys and law school staff who responded didn’t agree with the statement. However, practicing attorneys were less inclined to look unfavorably on the bar exam than law school staff. The split for attorney respondents as to whether the bar exam measures competency to practice law was much closer to 50/50, reflecting an ambivalence among licensed professionals about whether the exam serves its purpose.

This equivocation may be the result of time: The lawyers who responded reported being in practice, on average, for about 22 years and simply may not remember a lot about the exam. Even if the staff respondents also took the bar exam years ago, it’s likely that they have to remain up to date with exam developments to better prepare law students. And additional survey data support this notion.

Over 80% of law school staff (84% of faculty and 91% of law librarians, respectively) reported that they were aware of the NCBE’s decision to modify the bar exam. Fewer than one-quarter of attorneys were aware of the development.

Nevertheless, most respondents said that the bar exam fails its intended purpose, so it’s no surprise that a majority of each group—84% of law school staff and 56% of attorneys, respectively—feel it needs to be remedied.

A New Generation Is Coming

The NextGen Bar Exam could be the fix the legal profession needs. The test will combine doctrinal knowledge with “foundational skills” for lawyering (practical skills like legal research, client counseling and advising, and negotiation and dispute resolution) to create an integrated exam that focuses on more than just a test taker’s ability to recall legal concepts.

The NCBE will release a final content scope, including the full range of topics to be covered on the exam, sometime this summer. The new exam will:

  • have fewer subjects and concepts to be tested overall;
  • have a greater focus on assessing lawyering skills essential to real-world practice;
  • incorporate closed universes of legal resources (statutes, rules, cases);
  • integrate the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (not to replace the MPRE); and
  • be shorter (estimated between eight and nine hours of testing instead of 12).

The introduction of a bar exam that actually tests skills that are critical to being a good lawyer and reduces the coverage of niche legal concepts (I’m looking at you Rule Against Perpetuities) is an exciting thought.

The new exam may persuade law schools to prioritize the teaching of practical skills to ultimately result in less of a learning curve for new lawyers. Additionally, bar exam prep courses will have to find a way to integrate the new test into their study courses—further reinforcing skills development before entering practice.

Although the adoption of the NextGen Bar Exam will take some time (of the 41 jurisdictions that have adopted the UBE, only six adopted the exam within a year of its initial release), it’s a step in the right direction to make the admissions test more relevant to the practice of law. But will the new exam address the economic and racial disparities that plague the current bar? This is a topic that I plan to follow up on soon.

Related content is available for free on our In Focus: Lawyer Well-Being page. Bloomberg Law subscribers can find additional content geared toward firm associates, including practical guidance, workflow tools, surveys, and more on our In Focus: Core Skills – Litigation and In Focus: Lawyer Development pages.

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(Updates language in sixth paragraph to clarify the bar exam's purpose.)

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