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And yet another change is coming to the California bar exam in July 2017: It will become a two-day – not a three-day – exam. Changes to the format essay and performance test components of the exam will result in the overall reduction in time to take the test.

Will this make the bar easier or have no effect on the less-than-50% annual average pass rate for all candidates taking the test?

The answer, I believe, is found through a review of past changes to the bar and at least a cursory examination of the effect of such changes on bar pass results.

Historically, change has come to the bar in many instances: At one time the bar was exclusively an essay exam – with 15 questions. Applicants needed to average 52.5 minutes per essay to finish on time. This number was reduced to 12 questions, with the multi-state section added – 200 questions. Candidates needed to average 60 minutes – still the standard – for each essay answer. Each essay was essentially restricted to one subject. Then, the number of essays was reduced to six, with “cross-overs” – or multiple subjects eligible to be tested in a single essay question. With this reduction, the performance test was added – replacing the 6 essay questions lost – with each of the two PT’s limited to a single session of three hours. The three new sections of the bar were weighted differently – with the writing component – essays and PT’s – valued at about two-thirds of an applicant’s score; the MBE section the remaining one-third. “Scaling” became an operative factor in rating or scoring an applicant – effectively causing the performance of all applicants on an exam to be a key factor in the scoring matrix. Additional subjects were added to the bar – legal ethics, business associations, and California Civil Procedure, Evidence, and Professional Responsibility. Federal Civil Procedure was also added to the MBE section of the exam. And so it has gone.

Through all of this – although the results from the most recent exam featuring Federal Civil Procedure on the MBE have not been released – the overall bar pass rates have not significantly deviated.

The greater lesson to be learned, then, is this: Don’t delay your individual preparation. Do not take comfort in the reduction of time to sit for the exam – take a cue from the historical facts and get a jump on your preparation and competition – and regardless if you will be a candidate for the July 2017 bar or one before.

Fundamentally, one of the key reasons for continuing to take the bar even more seriously is this: Through all the changes, the single most important common denominator that remains in effect is that the test is still a “problem-solving speed examination.” Although the overall time to take the test has changed, you must still learn how to solve each of the sections of the test under strict, timed conditions. Think of it this way: If the Examiners wanted more applicants to pass the bar, they would send it home with you – to be returned in a week. This would make it a “power” test – like a term paper due at the end of a college semester – with more people getting a higher grade. Other articles on this website address this aspect of passing the test in greater detail.

Although both of the writing sections of the bar – and the MBE – will be weighted equally, be sure to give yourself enough preparation time to implement the host of exercises that will train you to take each section under time. A generic response – just working hard (here and there writing some essays, practicing an arbitrary number of MBE’s per day, spending an inordinate amount of time with substantive review, etc.) – is often not the trick because alone, non-specific hard work is only a part of the equation for passing. Put another way, if you want to climb Mount Everest, not a lesser peak, you will need to learn what it takes – the host of different and effective exercises – that will give you the best chance to reach that summit.

In short, have a sense of urgency in adapting to the new bar format come July 2017. Or, really, whenever you take the exam. And the very best in putting it behind you!

Paul Pfau © 2015 All Rights Reserved

Paul Pfau is a retired Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and the owner of Cal Bar Tutorial Review, which has been customizing bar review programs for 40 years. For more information about Cal Bar Tutorial Review, call (800) 348-2401 or (800) 783-6168. Web site: