The California Bar Exam

For various reasons, students from the University of San Diego School of Law tend to perform below their predicted average on the California Bar Exam.  As the table below illustrates, students from the University of San Diego School of Law perform worse than students with similar admission profiles.  For example, Loyola of Los Angeles School of Law has probably the most comparable student body as compared to the University of San Diego School of Law, at least in terms of overall ranking, undergraduate GPA, and LSAT scores.  Despite the similarities in student body profile, the table below illustrates that on average, 7% more Loyola students pass the California Bar as compared to students from the University of San Diego School of Law.

The table below also illustrates passage rates for California Western School of Law.  On average, students from California Western School of Law also outperform students from the University of San Diego School of Law on the California Bar Exam, despite the fact that, for what it’s worth, students from the University of San Diego School of Law, on average, have more competitive undergraduate GPAs and LSAT scores.


CA ABA Approved Pass Rate

University of San Diego School of Law Pass Rate

California Western Pass Rate

Loyola-LA Pass Rate































All information in the table is for first time takers of the CA Bar.

The million dollar question is therefore: why the discrepancy in bar exam passage rates?  The answer: preparation and preparedness for the bar exam. 

For example, California Western School of Law offers its students their own bar preparation course.  Second year students at California Western take a short course focused on skills used for essay writing and multiple choice questions.  Third year students at California Western take another course that further refines a student’s essay writing and multiple choice skills.  These second and third year courses are specifically designed to aid students in learning the techniques necessary for performing well on the essay and multiple choice sections of the California Bar Exam.  Lastly, California Western provides its graduates with a California Bar/Bri Bar Review Course. 

The key difference between students from California Western School of Law and students from the University of San Diego School of Law is therefore preparation and preparedness for the bar exam.  That’s it.    

1. The Bar Exam is not the LSAT

Remember, even law schools that have extremely competitive student LSAT and GPA profiles (Stanford, Boalt, UCLA, USC, etc.), have pass rates that hover around 90%.  In many years, the difference in pass rates between California Western and the top law schools in the nation is only around 10%, despite the fact that students from these schools have much larger differences in LSAT scores.  For example, Boalt Hall, with a bar passage rate around 90% has a median LSAT of 167-168, which corresponds to students who score in the 95th to 96th percentile.  California Western, with a bar passage rate of around 80% has a median LSAT of 154, or 60th percentile.

This cursory statistical analysis isn’t rigorous, but hopefully you get the idea that the bar exam is a much different test than the LSAT, and doing well on the LSAT does not necessarily indicate that you will pass the bar exam.

The most important distinction between the LSAT and the bar exam is that the LSAT requires very little knowledge.  Everything you need to perform well on the LSAT is on the paper in front of you.  The logic games give you everything you need to solve the questions, as with the logic reasoning questions, and the reading comprehension questions.

The multiple choice questions on the bar exam are the exact opposite of the LSAT.  The multiple choice questions on the bar exam give you facts, you are responsible for knowing the law and then knowing how to apply the law to the facts of the question.  Additionally, the multiple choice component of the California Bar exam comprises 1/3 of your total grade.  Even if you consider yourself a “standardized test whiz” or a “multiple choice whiz,” you will need to perform well on the essay portion to pass. 

Essays obviously are much different from the LSAT, not only because essays aren’t multiple choice, but also because bar exam essays require that you know enough substantive law and legal principles to correctly address the call of the essay question.

The performance exam portion of the bar exam doesn’t require that you know a substantial amount of the law.  The obvious point here is that the performance exam comprises writing essays, so again, the Bar Exam is not the LSAT.

            Some law students get lulled into a false sense of security because they scored highly on the LSAT, especially if the law student is the classic University of San Diego School of Law splitter—you have a relatively low undergraduate GPA (2.8-3.4) in poli sci/psychology/international relations, scored a 168 on the LSAT, and ended up at the University of San Diego School of Law. 

2. The Bar Exam is not a law school exam

            Pretty much anything goes when it comes to law school exams, especially essay exams.  While many professors value issue spotting and formulaic legal writing, essays for the California Bar Exam differ in several import areas.  First, the California Bar Exam tests on “black letter law.”  The Essay portion of the California Bar Exam requires you to apply the fact pattern provided in the essay to the black letter law.  The California Bar Exam does not test you on favorite law professor test topics such as: abstract theories on legal philosophy, public policy/rationale behind different laws, or distinctions between dissenting opinions.  Additionally, you will not receive open ended questions such as “discuss a controversial law and explain why you agree or disagree with such a law.”  California Bar Exam essays strictly require you to (1) know the law and (2) apply the law to the facts of the essay.  The California Bar Exam doesn’t purposely hide the ball and for the most part the facts and call of the question are apparent.

The format of your answer is another big difference between the California Bar Exam and law school exams.  Many bar exam prep courses teach students to answer California Bar Exam essay questions in a highly formulaic manner that resembles an outline more than an essay.  Prep courses encourage students to use many different underlined headings when answering essay questions.  Many professors don’t value this approach and prefer less formulaic responses.  Some law school classes and/or professors will actually have courses and exams that may mimic the California Bar Exam.  For example, professor Wesley (community property) uses fact patterns and essay formats that closely resemble the community property essays given on the bar exam.


3.  Reasons for Taking the Bar Exam Seriously

            Nobody wants to go into the California Bar Exam and fail, and no public record exists that identifies test takers who failed the California Bar Exam.  However, many University of San Diego School of Law students who do not pass the California Bar on their first try fail to take the California Bar Exam seriously from day 1.  Why should you take the bar exam seriously?

            It’s expensive.  It currently costs $614 to apply to take the California Bar Exam.  If you want to use a laptop, you will need to pay an extra $149 dollars, making the cost of the exam alone $763 dollars.  This does not include any preparation materials.

            In addition to the $763 test fee, most students purchase and participate in a professional bar preparation course.  Professional bar preparation courses cost anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000.  Barbri is probably the most popular course, and it costs around $4,135.  High end courses that enroll fewer students and provide more personal feedback cost more, but you can use Barbri’s price as the standard.  Any course that has a price point around the Barbri price point should provide full bar exam preparation.  That means that any course at or near this price point should provide full MBE instruction, simulation, and preparation and should provide full essay and performance exam instruction, simulation, and preparation (including grading 1 or more performance exams and several essays).  As courses get more expensive, applicants typically receive more personal instruction and feedback.  This is why the price for review courses has such a large range in price.  As illustrated by California Western’s stats, MOST students do not need extremely expensive personalized instruction.  A course similar to Barbri or Barmax will suffice IF you have the discipline to follow the program.  

UPDATE: BarBri prices appear to have actually gone down in recent years, most likely due to competition from other bar prep services like Kaplan and Themis.

            It’s time consuming.  Irrespective of the fact that the California Bar Exam takes 3 full days (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday), the State Bar of California only offers the California Bar Exam twice a year.  If you fail the test, you will need to wait until the next administration to re-take the test.  Not only do you need to wait until the next administration, but you don’t find out the results of the test until four months after you take the exam. If you take the July 2012 bar exam, you won’t find out the results until the end of November.  If you fail, you must wait until February 2014 to re-take the exam, and you won’t find out the results of the February bar until May 2013.  So failing the bar exam once can prevent you from obtaining a California Bar number for 1 full year after law school graduation.

            Outside of large law firms, smaller law firms do not permanently hire post bar clerks until they have achieved bar passage.  This means that until you pass the bar, your employer will probably only pay you by the hour and you won’t receive health care or other full time employment benefits.  Many other smaller law firms won’t consider applicants unless they have a bar number.

4. Real Stories of Failure

This section chronicles people I know who have failed the California Bar Exam and why I think they failed.  This is not a feel good story about somebody who failed the bar 5 times and then went on to create a successful food truck empire or become a successful plaintiff's attorney.  This section is about people who failed the bar exam because they made (what I deem to be) highly irrational/terrible decisions during the bar preparation process.

Case Study #1: "I'm not spending 3-4k on bar review course and will create my own study plan"
A group of students at my law school decided to throw caution and advice to the wind and create a self study plan for the CA Bar Exam.  Nearly all of these individuals failed the CA Bar Exam.  I believe 1 person from the group of 5-6 people passed.  Here's the deal: even if you take "bar classes" in law school, there is no guarantee that your professor will actually teach you useful law that you could apply to the bar exam.  So just because you have taken torts doesn't mean you actually know anything about torts, let alone anything about what the CA Bar Examiners deem is relevant for torts.  This is the sad, but true, state of legal education in America.  But I digress.  The biggest advantage provided to a law student from a service like BarBri/Themis/etc. is that these companies eat, live, and breath the CA Bar Exam.  These companies know what the bar exam tests, and have analyzed every single bar exam administered over the last 20-30 years.  You don't have the time to synthesize and review 20-30 years of CA Bar Exams (typically you study for 6-8 weeks before the test).  In order to pass the bar you need to be given concise summaries of the law for a variety of different topics (torts, civil procedure, con law, evidence, etc.).  Part of the reason why you pay 3-4 thousand dollars to take a bar review course is to gain access to this information.  It's simply not feasible to try to locate and study for each different subject on the CA bar exam.  Additionally, most (e.g. greater than 90%) of students need practice writing bar essays, taking multiple choice tests, and working with and receiving feedback from practice performance tests and essays.  The other major benefit of having a bar study program is that it encourages you to study and stay on schedule because most bar courses provide daily schedules of lectures, exercises, and practice tests for each week of June and July. 

     If you're a very disciplined person, at a minimum get a used set of Barbri books and then try to pull off the self-study plan--and then use a website like to get a feel for the grading and content of good and bad bar exam essays.  There are cheaper ways to study for and pass the California Bar Exam, but creating your own plan from scratch isn't the way to do that and in the end the savings are minimal if you fail the test on your first go around: remember it's about 2 months of studying, almost $1,000 in fees just to sit for the exam, and then another few months waiting for results.

Case Study #2: I will ace the MBE and that will carry me towards passing

Out of the roughly 500 students in my bar review class, this was one of the dumbest strategies I had the misfortune of witnessing.  There was a guy who paid good money to take BarBri bar review.  Barbri is all inclusive, the program is designed to guide you through every aspect of the California Bar Exam: essays, multi-state MBE, and performance tests.  So this guy shelled out over $3k for BarBri and then proceeded to ignore 2/3rds of the Barbri course (he could have just taken Kaplan/PMBR if he wanted to focus on multiple choice alone).  This guy ignored everything with respect to essays and performance tests and solely focused on the MBE multiple choice portion with the goal of scoring so high on the MBE that it wouldn't matter if he failed every essay and both performance tests, he would still pass.  The first bar essay he wrote was the day of the bar exam.  He failed.  Nobody was surprised.  The MBE only accounts for 35% of your total bar exam score, therefore "acing" this portion still means you have to perform reasonably well on the essays and performance tests.  The essays count for 39% and the performance tests count for 26%.  The only thing this guy could have done worse would have been to exclusively focus on the performance test aspect of the bar exam--worth only 26% of the total points.     

Case Study #3: I'm going to do the absolute minimum necessary to pass the bar exam and no more

This would be a great strategy, if (1) anybody actually knew what the absolute minimum was--the score required to pass changes each time the test is administered and (2) the grading of the bar exam was anything close to consistent, accurate, and objective.  In other words, you need to give yourself a margin of error on the California Bar Exam.  Multiple choice questions are worded poorly, and the person grading your essays will take 1-2 minutes to skim your essay and give you a score, that's it.  Mistakes happen and graders don't have time to carefully read your nuanced take on an evidentiary question or a Constitutional law question.  The graders look for the proper headings, make sure you have applied the facts to the legal rule, and give you a score.  Most scores fall in the 55-75 point range, and you need an average of a 65 score on each essay to pass.

Case Study #5: My friend from (insert any state other than New York here) didn't start studying until the July 4th weekend and passed the bar exam

California has one of the toughest, if not the toughest, bar exam in the entire country.  At three full days, the California Bar exam is the second longest bar exam in the country (only Louisiana has a longer test).  The New York bar exam is only two days, one day of multistate MBE questions and one day of essays--although New Yorkers have the option of taking a 3rd day of the exam to qualify for both New York and New Jersey.

Another variant of this occurs when people take advice from somebody who has already passed California the bar exam, and the person who passed the California bar exam downplays how much he or she studied during the bar prep process.  It's really common for people who have already passed the California bar exam to forget how many hours they logged studying for the bar or to tell others they studied far less than they actually did to pass the test.  It's just human nature.

Case Study #6: 70% of ABA Accredited Students Pass the Bar, I'm in the Top 50% of my Class at a Better than Average California Law School (e.g. University of San Diego School of Law), So I Will Pass

Ahh playing the odds...Again, see above.  the University of San Diego School of Law usually under performs its ranking in terms of bar passage rates.  Please take the exam seriously and study, you don't want to have to take the exam twice because you didn't take it seriously the first time.