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

So you’re a licensed attorney. You have a blossoming life outside of California. And for some reason, you want to join an overcrowded state and tackle the hardest bar exam in the country (debate me, New Yorkers).

No judgment here! 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 full exam because of the higher pass rate? What about the possibility of boosting 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 non-California attorneys making this decision?

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

Not really.

Everyone pack up and go home! No, but of course it’s more nuanced than that. You should know that as a lawyer whose decision-making ability has eroded from years of hedging your advice with multiple perspectives and allowing stiff professionalism to leak into your personal life and relationships.

Going back to the exam, 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 for the essays, making your bar preparation more enjoyable and enhancing your overall score.

That might be a reason to lean toward the two-day exam.

But you’ll be preparing for the MBE as well, not just for the essays and performance tests. They all require different skills, approaches, supplements, and types of practice.

That’s extra time you need to find to prepare for an extra portion of the bar exam that you don’t need to prepare for as a busy 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, where 46.6% of attorney candidates passed while 31.4% of general candidates did. You can find more stats here.

Based on this, you could argue that the full bar exam is not always easier than the Attorneys’ Exam.

But this is almost a moot point because pass rates don’t dictate your OWN chances of passing. Pass rates also 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 California Bar Exam anyway, as an attorney candidate?

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? (Plus a handy decision matrix)

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.

(How does it feel being on the other end of “it depends”? But bar prep is personal.)

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 1390 or higher.

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 (as a form of testing) and the MBE subjects?
  • How proficient and confident do you think you will be with multiple choice (as a form of testing) and the MBE subjects by exam time?

You may have a sense of this from a prior bar exam you took or from your student days.

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 an absolute 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 performance tests (PTs).

Your limited time may be better spent focusing on writing solid essays (by being able to identify relevant issues and recall the rules in IRAC format) 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. Here are some examples of past score reports to get a sense of what that looks like.

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 (General Exam or Attorneys’ Exam) if you are weak in the MBE subjects.

Why?

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.

These are the big considerations. Don’t get caught up on small questions like predictions and pass rates.

I summarized the above recommended framework in this handy decision matrix (click to embiggen):

How to decide whether to take the California Attorneys' Exam or the General Bar Exam
In short, consider taking the two-day General Bar Exam only if you are comfortable with multiple choice and see your MBE score being at least 1390 (at least about 123/200 raw).

Otherwise, stick to the one-day Attorneys’ Exam and focus on writing solid bar essays and PTs.

I also recommend grabbing Approsheets so you can make sure that you identify all the relevant issues in an essay because, on bar essays, issues are king and you don’t have time to stare at a blank page.

What have other out-of-state attorneys done?

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

Answers from the MTYLT community regarding their experience with the California Attorneys’ Exam:

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

So now you have a framework to decide whether to take the California Attorneys’ Exam or the General Bar Exam. You also have perspectives of others who actually took the Attorneys’ Exam.

What will YOU do?

Want strategies to stay on track for either type of bar exam? Let me know where to send them in my weekly emails directly in your inbox (plus a free do/don’t guide and coupons for UWorld MBE QBank, AdaptiBar, and BarEssays):

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