The California Bar Examination consists of the General Bar Examination and the Attorneys’ Examination.
The General Bar Exam consists of three parts: five essay questions, the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), and one performance test (PT). The parts of the exam may not be taken separately, and California does not accept the transfer of MBE scores from other jurisdictions. The Attorneys’ Exam consists of the essay questions and performance test.
The essay questions are designed to be answered in one hour each and to test legal analysis under a given fact situation. Answers are expected to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to analyze the facts in the question, to tell the difference between material facts and immaterial facts, and to discern the points of law and fact upon which the case turns. The answer must show knowledge and understanding of the pertinent principles and theories of law, their qualifications and limitations, and their relationships to each other. The answer should evidence the applicant’s ability to apply the law to the given facts and to reason in a logical, lawyer-like manner from the premises adopted to a sound conclusion. An applicant should not merely show that they remember the legal principles, but should demonstrate their proficiency in using and applying them.
PT questions are designed to be completed in 90 minutes and to test an applicant’s ability to handle a select number of legal authorities in the context of a factual problem involving a client. A PT question consists of two separate sets of materials: a file and a library, with instructions advising the applicant on the tasks(s) to be performed. In addition to measuring an applicant’s ability to analyze legal issues, PT questions require applicants to:
An applicant’s performance test response is graded on its compliance with instructions and on its content, thoroughness, and organization.
The MBE is developed and typically graded by the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
The Committee of Bar Examiners (Committee) maintains a diverse pool of approximately 150 experienced attorneys from which graders are selected for each grading cycle. A majority of the graders have been grading bar exams for at least five years, and many of them have participated for well over 10 years.
Six groups, each consisting of experienced graders and up to four apprentice graders, are selected to grade the essay and PT answers. The groups convene three times early in the grading cycle for the purpose of calibration. A member of the Examination Development and Grading Team and a member of the committee supervise each group of graders.
At the first calibration session, the graders discuss a set of sample answers they received prior to the session. These books are copies of answers written by a sample of the applicant pool. After this discussion, the graders receive a set of 15 copies of answers submitted for the current exam, and they begin by reading and assigning a grade to the first answer in the set. The group then discusses the grades assigned before arriving at a consensus, and the process is repeated for each answer in the set. After reading and reaching consensus on the set of 15 books, the graders independently read a new set of 25 answers without further group discussion, and submit grades for analysis and review at the second calibration session.
At the second calibration session, graders discuss the results of the first meeting, reread and discuss any of the answers where significant disagreement was seen, and resolve the differences through further discussion. An additional 10 answer books are read, graded, and discussed before a consensus grade is assigned to each. The groups are then given their first grading assignments.
During the third calibration session, the grading standards are reviewed, and the graders read 15 additional answer books as a group to ensure that they are still grading to the same standards.
Graders evaluate answers and assign grades solely on the content of the response. The quality of handwriting or the accuracy of spelling and grammar are not considered assigning a grade to an applicant’s answer. Answers are identified by code number only; nothing about an individual applicant is known to the graders. Based on the panel discussions and using the agreed-upon standards, graders assign raw scores to essay and performance test answers in five-point increments, on a scale of 40 to 100. In order to earn a grade of 40, the applicant must at least identify the subject of the question and attempt to apply the law to the facts of the question. If these criteria are not met, the answer is assigned a zero.
All written answers submitted by applicants who completed the exam in its entirety are read at least once before pass/fail decisions are made. Based on the results of empirical studies relative to reliability, scores have been established for passing and failing after one reading of the exam. For applicants whose scores after the first read are near the required passing score, all answer books are read a second time, and scores of the first and second readings are averaged. The total averaged score after two readings is then used to make a second set of pass/fail decisions.
To pass the examination in the first phase of grading, an applicant must have a total scale score (after one reading) of at least 1390 out of 2000 possible points. Those with total scale scores after one reading below 1350 fail the exam. If the applicant’s total scale score is at least 1350 but less than 1390 after one reading, their answers are read a second time by a different set of graders. If the applicant’s averaged total scale score after two readings is 1390 or higher, the applicant passes the exam. Applicants with averaged total scale scores of less than 1390 fail the exam.
Results from the February administration of the exam are traditionally released in mid-May, and results from the July administration are released in mid-November. Results from the October 2020 exam are scheduled to be released in January 2021.
Results are posted on the Applicant Portal. At 6:00 p.m. on the day results are posted, applicants can also access the pass list on the State Bar website.
Applicants who have failed the exam receive the grades assigned to their written answers as well as their MBE scaled score. The answer files of unsuccessful applicants will be posted in the Applicant Portal with the release of results.
Successful applicants do not receive their grades nor their MBE scores, and will not have their answers returned.