Should you take the California Attorneys’ Exam or the General Bar Exam?

So you’re a licensed attorney who already made it outside of California and, for some reason, wants to join an already overcrowded state and tackle the hardest bar exam in the country (debate me, New Yorkers).

No judgment. But the question on your mind is whether to take the one-day Attorneys’ Examination (essays and PT only)… or the two-day General Bar Exam (essays, PT, and MBE) like the rest of them.

Is it smarter to take the General Exam because of the higher the pass rate and the ability to boost your score with the MBE questions?

It seems crazy that you would choose to take a longer test, but could it be easier to study for it?

How are other attorneys making this decision?

Is it easier to study for the two-day General Bar Exam?

Not really.

Maybe doing multiple-choice questions brings a spark of joy to your day. Maybe you love the mini-drama in each MBE question and think it will motivate you to learn the MBE subjects better, making your bar preparation more enjoyable and easier. That might be a reason to lean toward the two-day exam.

Otherwise, you’d be studying not only for the essays and performance test—but also for the MBE.

They require different skills, approaches, and types of practice. That’s extra time you need to find and an extra portion of the bar exam that you don’t need to prepare for as a licensed attorney (who probably spends most of the time working).

Also, the pass rates are NOT always lower for the Attorneys’ Exam! For example, check out the statistics for 2019 February here. You can find the rest of the stats here.

However, pass rates don’t indicate the difficulty of the Attorneys’ Exam itself since the essay questions are the same as those of the General Bar Exam. It could be, for instance, that attorneys who have been practicing law tend to write like a lawyer, not like a bar taker.

Now, should you opt to take the full General Bar Exam anyway?

That is, is the longer exam going to increase your chances of passing and getting licensed in California? That’s a different question…

How should you decide whether to take the one-day Attorneys’ Exam or the two-day General Bar Exam?

Ultimately, whether to take the full two-day General Exam or the one-day Attorneys’ Exam in California is a decision that depends on a case-by-case basis.

If you take the full General Exam, 50% of your score will depend on five essays and one performance test, and the other 50% will depend on the MBE. You will pass if your overall composite (average) score is 1440 or higher (1390 or higher as of the 2020 October exam).

If you take the Attorneys’ Exam, 100% of your score will depend on the five essays and one performance test.

So the big questions are: How proficient and confident are you with multiple choice and the MBE subjects? How proficient and confident do you think you will be with multiple choice and the MBE subjects by exam time?

The main reason you might consider adding the MBE and taking the longer exam is to hedge a lower written score with a high MBE score. I’m talking a bare minimum of 1390 scaled on the MBE (or very roughly about 123/200 questions correct).

Most experienced attorneys tend to overestimate their writing ability on the essays and especially the performance test, for good reason. They come to find (sometimes too late) that writing like a bar taker is different from writing like a lawyer. Take that into consideration when you make your decision.

If you can’t hit 1390 scaled on the written portion (roughly at least an average raw score of 60), you can balance it out with a higher MBE score.

But if you CAN hit 1390 on the written, there is no reason to also take the MBE because you will pass with just the essays and PT anyway.

That means taking the MBE can only hurt your chances unless you excel at it enough to make up for any deficiencies in essays and PT.

Your limited time may be better spent focusing on writing solid essays (by being able to identify relevant issues and recall the rules) and performance tests.

So, if you are very strong in multiple choice or the MBE subjects, then yes, taking the full exam may work out better for you. Again, by strong, I mean you should expect to score at the very least 1390 scaled on the MBE.

On the other hand, if you aren’t that strong in multiple choice or the MBE subjects, taking the full exam won’t help you out much.

In fact, you’re less likely to pass either type of exam if you are weak in the MBE subjects.


Regardless of whether or not you choose to include the second day (MBE), you will still need to be solid on the MBE subjects because you will see at least 3, if not 4, MBE subjects tested across the 5 essays (and sometimes PT), including crossovers.

In short, consider taking the two-day General Bar Exam only if you see your MBE score being at least 1390 (at least 123/200 raw).

Otherwise, stick to the one-day Attorneys’ Exam and focus on writing solid bar essays. This category of articles will get you started on writing like a bar taker.

What have other out-of-state attorneys done?

So you know what I would do in your shoes. What about people who have actually had to make this decision?

Answers from the MTYLT community:

California Attorneys' Exam experience 1
“Passed taking the Attorneys’ Exam. . . . if you aren’t good with the essays or PT, the points form the MBE won’t be there to save you.”
California Attorneys' Exam experience 2
Don’t get me wrong. You can still pass with the two-day exam.
California Attorneys' Exam experience 3
Even a high MBE score may not save you from the essays.
California Attorneys' Exam experience 4
“Time-wise it was easier to study for the Attorneys’ Exam.”
California Attorneys' Exam experience 5
If you are strong at essays, you’ll naturally have a better chance at passing either.
California Attorneys' Exam experience 6
This assumes you’re strong on the MBE. And we can take advantage of the subjectivity of the essays.
California Attorneys' Exam experience 7
California Attorneys' Exam experience 7
MBE, unnecessary torture.

So now you have a framework to decide with, and accounts of others who took the Attorneys’ Exam. What will YOU do?

If you want strategies (and coupons for UWorld MBE QBank, AdaptiBar, and BarEssays) to stay on track for either type of bar exam, you can get my weekly emails directly in your inbox:

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