A Shift Toward Uniformity: the Uniform Bar Exam

David Garner, KLJ Production Editor[1]

New York made waves on May 5th with the decision to become the sixteenth state to adopt the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE), joining Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.[2] Many of these states still require applicants to sit for a state-specific portion.  Similarly, New York will require applicants to complete online courses and sit for a short multiple choice test on state specific law, in addition to completing the UBE.[3]

In 2011, Missouri became the first state to move away from state-specific questions and adopt the UBE.[4] New York announced that the transition will take place in July 2016. This means that only five years after the creation of the UBE, nearly a third of the United States will be using the same exam. New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman also predicts that many other states will follow New York’s lead and adopt the uniform exam.[5]  New York often has a significant impact on lawmaking and reform in other states.[6] It would be no surprise to see a similar momentum boost in licensing reform as well. In fact, there are already articles calling for other states to follow.  For instance, the LA Times posted an article last Monday arguing the merits of California adopting the UBE as well.[7]

There are a number of reasons why a uniform exam is advantageous. First, it is more economical. Instead of a state creating a new exam each year, it can simply adopt a test created by a group of experts.[8] From a national perspective, it is inefficient to have fifty states putting together fifty similar exams.

A second reason to adopt the UBE is an argument of fairness.[9] If the tests are mostly testing federal law, with only slight variations in the exams for the intricacies of particular state law, then it seems unfair for variation in the difficulty of the exams.  The federal law is the same in every state, so why should the exam be more difficult for one lawyer than it is another?  While this argument may have some merit to it, others would argue that simply creating uniform exams is not enough, and that the bar exams method of licensing is outdated and needs further changes.[10] But whether or not radical reforms would be better than a uniform exam, change is generally slow and this argument should not prevent states from adopting the UBE. It is simply one small step towards further reform.

Another reason for the adoption of the UBE is that it creates mobility for lawyers. [11] The difficulty of studying and sitting for multiple bar exams is a deterrent that prevents many lawyers from moving their practice from one state to another. The hope is that the law students at the fifteen various law schools in New York will have a broader market in which to find work. However, critics argue that this does not get to the heart of the problem for new lawyers.[12] The legal market is saturated with lawyers in every state, not just New York, so simply expanding the market this way will not be sufficient.  While this does not fix the entire problem, this change creates mobility for many new lawyers and allows examinees of the New York bar exam to apply for a larger number of legal positions previously unavailable to them.

Other advantages to the UBE are the benefits to law firms and their clients.  With New York’s adoption of the UBE, firms with positions available in any of the sixteen participating states will be able to choose from a pool of lawyers coming from all of those states.  New York will add many capable lawyers to this pool. According to the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, New York has three law schools in the top thirteen, and six more still in the top hundred.[13] As the supply of marketable lawyers increases, so does the level of competition in the market. Competition should breed more marketable lawyers.  This will allow law firms to secure some of the best new lawyers available in the market, and therefore provide access to those lawyers to their clients.


[1] J.D. expected May 2016.

[2] Claire Zillman, One Bar Exam to Rule Them All? NY Jumps on Universal Legal Bar Bandwagon, Forbes (May 6, 2015, 5:06 PM), https://fortune.com/2015/05/06/universal-bar-exam-new-york/.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Natalie Kitroeff, Jack of All States: The Future Lawyer May Take an Entirely Different Bar Exam, BloombergBusiness (May 8, 2015, 5:00 AM), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-08/jack-of-all-states-the….

[7] Erwin Chemerinsky, It’s Time for California to Accept the Uniform Bar Exam, LA Times (May 11, 2015, 5:00 AM), http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0511-chemerinsky-standard-bar….

[8] See Claire Zillman, One Bar Exam to Rule Them All? NY Jumps on Universal Legal Bar Bandwagon, Forbes (May 6, 2015, 5:06 PM), https://fortune.com/2015/05/06/universal-bar-exam-new-york/.

[9] See id.

[10] Natalie Kitroeff, Jack of All States: The Future Lawyer May Take an Entirely Different Bar Exam, BloombergBusiness (May 8, 2015, 5:00 AM), http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-08/jack-of-all-states-the….

[11] Claire Zillman, One Bar Exam to Rule Them All? NY Jumps on Universal Legal Bar Bandwagon, Forbes (May 6, 2015, 5:06 PM), https://fortune.com/2015/05/06/universal-bar-exam-new-york/.

[12] Id.

[13] Best Law Schools, U.S.News (2015), http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/….