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Admission to the Bar

Legal Education and Admission to the Bar

When the American Bar Association (ABA) was founded a little more than one hundred years ago, its first priority was to set standards for legal education. Its Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar immediately set out to accredit law schools and monitor the quality of the legal education each school provided. The purpose was to guard against widely varying levels of preparedness and education and, thus, professionalism, among attorneys.

What has become a near-universal requirement for becoming a lawyer is possession of a diploma from an ABA-accredited law school, which allows a law school graduate to take the bar examination in any state. Few states permit graduates of non-ABA accredited law schools to sit for their own bar exams, though California allows individuals who have not attended law school but have diligently and in good faith studied law for at least four years to sit for its bar exam. New York, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming also have conditions under which individuals who have not graduated from law school may sit for the bar exam. But by and large a law degree is necessary to take the bar exam, and in most cases it must be from an ABA-accredited school.

Many states allow reciprocity to attorneys already admitted to the bar in other states, while some place various restrictions upon attorneys admitted outside their jurisdictions, such as requiring attorneys admitted elsewhere to have actively been in practice for a certain number of years before s/he can be admitted without an examination. In general, reciprocity is permitted in two ways: accepting the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) score; or admitting on motion. States that do not permit attorneys from other jurisdictions to be admitted without examination require them to take a special or abbreviated exam. These states have a large number of attorneys and maintain that the requirement of the bar exam limits the numbers of attorneys coming into the state.

A very recent change in bar exam testing is the addition of a new test called the Multistate Performance Test (MPT). This test is designed to test reading, logical thinking, research and writing skills. As of the publication date nearly half the states have adopted the new MPT.

Many states have responded to the lack of practical skills among some members of the bar by requiring every attorney to take a required number of continuing legal education courses each year. Mandatory Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) generally focuses on areas of the law that are undergoing rapid, dramatic changes or on areas that strengthen practical skills. Though only about two-thirds of the states have MCLE requirements to date, the trend is clearly to require such ongoing education and MCLE is likely to be a universal requirement in the future.

Inside Admission to the Bar