7 Family Matters, Finances, and What the Heck is The Bar?

I. Exams Required for Licensure

In addition to graduating from law school, in order to get your license and start practicing law, you’ll have to take two other exams—a state bar exam and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE).

a. The Bar Exam

Almost every state1 requires that to be licensed to practice law, you must pass that state’s bar exam. Currently, as of 2022, the bar exam is a two-day exam consisting of essays and multiple-choice questions. However, there is a chance that the format might be changing soon. For any up-to-date information about the bar exam, deadlines, applications, and so forth, please see your jurisdiction’s website2 or visit the NCBE’s website.

Each state chooses how to license its attorneys, and most use a “bar exam” to do so. Each state gets to decide what this exam looks like, as well as how to grade it. However, for every state, the bar exam takes place in the last week of February and July. This means that if you graduate in May, you will likely take the bar exam two months later in July. If you do not pass, your next chance to take the exam will be the February of the next year. Most states have a two-day exam, and most use both multiple-choice and essay questions. In fact, many states currently use the “Uniform Bar Exam.”

“I had never thought about actually becoming a lawyer. I just knew I wanted to go to law school. My friends in law school had to tell me that if I wanted to be a lawyer, I had to take the bar exam, and I had to apply to take it. I spent my 3L spring scrambling to fill out the application and figure out how to afford a bar review course.”

-Rebekah C, Class of 1995

b. More on the UBE

The Uniform Bar Exam, or UBE, is currently the most common bar exam. Over 40 jurisdictions have adopted the UBE,3 meaning that those jurisdictions are all using the exact same test with the exact same questions. The UBE is administered on the final Tuesday and Wednesday in July and the final Tuesday and Wednesday in February. On Tuesday, the test consists of two “multistate performance tests,” where the examiners give you a task and a “file” and ask you to draft a legal document in the morning, and six essay questions in the afternoon. On Wednesday, the test consists of 100 multiple-choice questions in the morning, and 100 multiple-choice questions in the afternoon.

Each state gets to determine its passing score, as well as its grading.4 Each jurisdiction also gets to decide requirements for who gets to sit for the bar exam.

A feature of the UBE and its widespread adoption is the transference of scores; for example, if you take the bar exam in Illinois, you can transfer that score to other states without taking the bar exam again. This is great news if you aren’t sure where you want to practice right away! Of course, your score must meet the definition of “passing” in the transferee jurisdiction for it to permit you to practice there. (Remember, different jurisdictions set different passing scores.) However, “UBE jurisdictions will accept transferred scores that meet their own passing standards whether or not the score met the passing standard in the testing jurisdiction, assuming all other admission requirements of the jurisdiction are met.”5 It should also be noted that each state has a different “expiration date” on the scores they will accept, meaning this portability only lasts a few years, not forever.

Whether you are taking the bar exam in a UBE district or a non-UBE district, you are likely going to have many questions about cost, timing, how to study, when to apply, and so forth. It is likely that your school will help you answer these questions, especially as you get closer to graduation, but I will try to cover some common questions below.

Does the bar exam cost money?

You bet it does! It varies from state to state, but on average, the cost is about $1,000 to sit for the bar exam. Some states might also divide the fees up in various ways, and I encourage you to check your jurisdiction’s website early to plan for this fee. In addition, look for deadlines, including early deadlines. For example, in Illinois, if you submit your application in full for the July bar exam by February 15th, the cost is $950. However, if you wait until May, the final deadline, the price goes up to $1450. In my opinion, this is a significant increase, so you want to be aware of whether your jurisdiction has these types of deadlines.

It is also likely that your jurisdiction will have technology or laptop fees. These can add up, and you don’t want to be surprised!

What are bar review companies? Do I need one?

There are commercial bar review companies that help you study for the bar. If you are anything like me, you are thinking “But wait, I’m going to law school, surely I don’t need a separate company to help me prep for the exam?” This is understandable thinking. However, it has been my experience that you DO need a commercial company to help you prepare. Some students do pass without them, but that is rare.

The companies can be costly: often $2,000 to $3,000. This is obviously not insignificant. My advice would be to look at various payment plans that the companies offer and check to see whether your school has a plan in place with one of the companies. Some schools get discounts or can help you with payment plans. Additionally, signing up early can sometimes help you save money. The downside is that it locks you in, so to speak, earlier than you might like.

My second piece of advice is to start budgeting for the bar exam in your first year. I know it’s hard, but it’s easier to start three years in advance than worry about coming up with the money in your final semester.

My last piece of advice here is to seek out opportunities to become a student representative for a bar review company in your first year. Typically, these companies “table” at law schools, meaning they set up in your law school’s lobby or other common areas and try to sell you on their company. While being a student representative for a bar review company does require some work, including spending time at their tables and recruiting your classmates, it often means you get a bar review course for free in return. This is the path I took because I really didn’t have the $2,000 to spend!

How long do I need to prepare for the bar exam?

I usually recommend that students spend about 10 weeks studying for the bar exam. However, this assumes that you can spend about 50 hours a week studying. If you work full time or have family obligations, this isn’t realistic. If that is the case, you need to think about studying earlier. You also know yourself and how your brain works. If you are someone that needs more breaks, does better taking weekends off, or has other obligations that summer, starting a bit earlier will give you room to do all of that. For example, I often get migraines. This means that on a migraine day, I will not get anything accomplished. So, if I were planning out my study schedule, I’d start a bit early to account for the fact that I’m likely to get at least two to three migraines in those 10 weeks and lose valuable study time. Plan ahead so you can tailor the schedule to fit your needs.

My school has a weekend JD program, and those students work full time and often have families. For those graduating in May, I start them on a study plan in January, while they are still taking classes. This just helps give them a head start. Even if you aren’t working full time, if you start studying a bit earlier, you are giving yourself more time to take breaks closer to the exam.

In your second year of law school, I’d seek out your administrator or professor that is in charge of academic support or bar preparation and see when they suggest you begin your studying. If you work full time, I’d also reach out to the bar companies and see which one has the best format for your work schedule.

What is Character and Fitness?

Each state requires you to submit a character and fitness application with your bar exam application. This is essentially a background check. They will ask you for all past addresses, employment, driving records, and more!

Keep in mind that it is always better to disclose than to not disclose. When in doubt, let them know! Each state’s application is slightly different, but they are all looking for candor in the application. Even though you are just starting out, and applications aren’t likely due until the spring of your final year, there is no harm in downloading a copy of the application now and being prepared.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to disclose, as the act of ignoring or misleading bar examiners is worse than the actual act you didn’t want to disclose. Many schools will also discuss your concerns with you, sometimes even before admissions, and discuss ways to handle things that you might be concerned about.

A note about deadlines:

Each jurisdiction will have its own deadlines, and these deadlines are firm and without exceptions. Some states require you to start the application process in your second year of law school.

If you know where you want to be licensed, go to that website now and note the applicable deadlines.

c. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE)

There is yet one more exam that most states6 require for licensure: the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), or ethics exam. The MPRE is currently 60 multiple-choice questions that test the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. This covers things like duties to clients, how lawyers are required to handle client money, our duty of confidentiality to clients, our duties to the profession, and so much more.

Some states require that you take this exam prior to sitting for the bar exam, though most only require that you take it before you are sworn in. It’s important to check these deadlines as early as your 2L year so you can plan accordingly.

The MPRE is offered in March, August, and November. I usually suggest that my students take the exam in the summer prior to their final year of law school, though it completely depends on your schedule.

Exploration Exercise: The Bar Exam

II. Family Matters

If you are the first in your family to go to college, you might find it difficult to find people in your family that can help you navigate higher education. This is especially true for law school. That’s why I wrote this book, to help you with that navigation. However, something that doesn’t get discussed as much as how to read and brief cases, or how to network, is how to talk to your family about what you are going through.

For example, my mother is very kind and very supportive. She has always been my biggest cheerleader. In fact, I’ve been licensed for 15 years and she still writes “Melissa, Esq.” on things like birthday cards and packages. She’s just that excited for me. This is often the case with first-generation families.

However, once upon a time, she didn’t know what Esq.7 meant or what the bar exam was—or anything related to law school. This often meant that, although she wanted to support me, it was difficult for her to do so as she didn’t know what I was going through. She couldn’t understand why I had to study for a bar exam after studying for three years of law school, and why I couldn’t work as a lawyer as soon as I had graduated. My mother also didn’t understand why on earth I couldn’t work and study, because after all, I had done that in the past. My mother and grandmother also kept saying “You’ll do fine, you always do fine” which means their heart was in the right place, but it wasn’t at all useful.

First of all, communicate with them. Below, I’ve written a letter to any parent or family member of your choosing. Revise as you see fit and then give it to whoever you think might need to read it. Second, share with them what is happening and take advantage of opportunities for them to learn more about your situation. Most law schools have family night events or an equivalent. Invite them if they are able to go! Most of your professors and administrators are happy to meet with them. I host a family night on Zoom for my first-generation students, and I invite my mother. The idea is to allow the parents, spouses, kids, or other supporters to ask questions of both me, and my mother! We also invite other school professors and administrators so that they can chime in as well. The more your family knows, the better they can understand and support you. If they can’t get to your school for events, I fully understand. My mother was halfway across the country from my law school, so she wouldn’t have been able to attend events or orientations for family. But I often shared experiences, concerns, and even the ins and outs of my day with her, and this helped her figure out how to support me.

Finally, don’t be afraid to set boundaries. As I’ve mentioned before, tradition and a support system can be key to your well-being. You should not stop communicating with or seeing everyone you care about—you need them! However, I encourage you to let your family know that you might need to decline events or might not be able to talk as much as you used to. Before law school, I called my grandmother daily. Probably twice daily if I’m being honest. This was a habit that started as soon as I could dial a phone and continued through college, no matter what was going on in my life. Even on vacation, I’d find time to check in. So, when I started law school, I had to say “Honey (we called my grandma ‘Honey’) I am going to be very busy and won’t be able to call you every day, so don’t worry about me. I’ll still call you when I can, I promise!” Turns out, I called her more than I thought I would, close to every day, but telling her that she shouldn’t expect a daily phone call was incredibly important for setting expectations for both of us. You might also still have family events or holidays that come up, and it’s not practical to attend or participate the way you used to. I missed family Thanksgiving all through law school. My parents and grandparents were bummed, but I just couldn’t afford (nor could my parents) to travel at Thanksgiving, Christmas, AND spring break. So, I picked Christmas, and that was my yearly trip home, for the most part. It also meant missing things like birthdays and other family gatherings. It was hard at times, but setting expectations helped everyone come to an understanding. It also meant that family knew not to push when I said no. They may have the temptation to say “but you are good at time management” or “surely you don’t need to study even MORE, you are so smart”—these are things family members often say! However, if you explain that this is different from before, they are less likely to push you when you say no.

As I mentioned earlier, to help, I’ve written a little letter for you to share that you can modify to fit your needs:

Sample Letter to Your Family

Dear First-Generation Family,

Hello! I was a first-generation law student, and am now a first-generation lawyer and professor. I just want to tell you some things I wish my parents and grandparents had known as I was starting law school.

First, I know you are so proud of your family member as they enter law school. You’ve also likely seen them accomplish so much over their life. However, please understand that law school can feel like an entirely different world where everything is new. This means that your high-achieving and successful family member might stumble a bit from time to time, and that’s okay. Please refrain from saying things like “you’ll be fine” or “you always do well on exams” and other things that are similar. You mean well, and you want to be encouraging. My mother and grandmother, on a regular basis, used to say “but you’ve never ever failed anything, so you’ll be fine.” It was meant to reassure me, but instead, it put added pressure on an already stressful and anxious situation. Instead, tell them that you understand this is new and maybe even terrifying, but you know that they will do their best and that you will love them no matter what. It might seem obvious, and you might not think you need to reassure them in that way, but it will probably do wonders!

Now, the issue of work. It’s fairly common for first-generation students to work through high school and college, so it’s tempting to work through law school as well. In fact, it might be necessary. I have students that work and go to school, and they make it work. However, if I’m being completely honest with you, it makes things so much more difficult. In fact, the American Bar Association strongly advises against working during a student’s first year. Studies show that students who work often don’t do as well, especially in their first year. This is difficult if your family is like mine. I’m not going to tell your family member to not work, I’m just being honest about the reality. In addition, there are often opportunities to do unpaid internships or externships that become time-consuming, but can provide invaluable experience and networking and can often lead to jobs after law school.

Next, the bar exam. Your family member will have to take a licensing exam roughly two months after graduation. They are not a lawyer until they pass this exam, and are sworn in. Though the timeline may differ slightly, typically students graduate in May, take the exam in July, find out they passed anywhere between late September and early December, and get sworn in from the end of November until the end of December.

This means that even though they have graduated in May, it can be another six months before they are licensed and can call themselves an attorney. This also can mean six months without a job, which is scary. While some firms and organizations hire prior to this, not all do. I point this out because my mother didn’t believe me when I told her I couldn’t actually practice law upon graduation.

It should also be noted that the bar exam typically requires about 500 hours of study over 10 weeks. That’s a full-time job! It’s an incredibly intense and difficult two-day exam. Students will take a commercial prep course to study, even though they have been studying for three years. Again, something my mother couldn’t quite believe. But I promise you that in order to succeed on the bar exam, a commercial course and 500 hours of study are normal and highly recommended. In addition, both the bar exam and the commercial course can cost a considerable amount of money.

One last thing about the bar exam: it’s especially important that you don’t tell your family members things like “of course you will pass” or “it’s only a test.” So much hangs in the balance, and smart, studious, hardworking students have failed and have to take it again. This can be heartbreaking, but does not mean they won’t be a good lawyer!

Finally, be understanding if they don’t have as much time to spend with friends or family, or they have to decline family events. Law school is intense and time-consuming, and the best thing you can do for your family member is to just listen when they want to talk, and understand when they can’t.

Professor Melissa Hale

Finally, when I say “family,” I’m aware that can look very different, depending on the person. So I give you these words of encouragement:

“I started my college journey 14 years after most people. Not only was I already in my thirties, I had only completed a sixth-grade education. To say I was scared of failing was an understatement of the century. I was a foster child, and with no parents to tell me how important getting my education was, I slowly slipped through the cracks and lost all sight of my dreams. Finally, I made a decision to stop letting fear control my life. I was tired of just surviving, I was set to thrive. I had to prove to my son that no matter where we came from or what challenges we had to overcome, hard work and determination ruled the day. Before I could even begin the journey, I had to get my GED so I could get financial aid. I remember the day I took all four tests and passed. I remember the joy and pride that filled my soul as I got one test score back between each exam. That same day, with tears in my eyes, I walked into Tulsa Community College, applied for admission, enrolled in classes, filed my financial aid application, and started the process to join the TRIO program. My challenges did not magically stop because I was in college. I had to find a way to be a mother, wife, employee, and full-time student. Six months in, I found myself struggling with imposter syndrome. I was alone, even when surrounded by people who were cheering me on. Add on the coursework, the lack of hours in a day to get everything done, missing my son’s baseball games for class, and the monetary cost of being a college student. It all became too much for me and I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, by the grace of God, I survived and found a support system that was able to teach me coping skills for when life got hard again. In May 2021, three years after the attempt on my own life, I graduated from Northeastern State University with a 4.0 GPA. I had obtained an Associates in Business and a Bachelors in Psychology. The same month, I was accepted into five of the six law schools I applied to, including the University of Montana. While I still struggle with imposter syndrome and trying to find my place amongst generational college students, I know when I succeed, I am setting the precedent for other low-income, first-generation students to do it too. I am using my time at UM to advocate for First-Generation support, specifically at the graduate school level. All students should know they belong in higher education.”

-Bethany Niman

III. Finances

I’m not a financial advisor, and I don’t even play one on tv. So, my best advice will always be to consult with your financial aid advisor. Having said that, below are a few things to keep in mind.

Law School is Expensive

I am very much in favor of people going to law school, and will always encourage people to do so. However, the fact remains that tuition is expensive, and most of us have to take out loans to pay for that cost. When taking out loans, really pay attention to repayment options and how the interest will add up. Also, look for scholarships. I chose my law school because they offered me a full scholarship, which is a completely legitimate reason to choose a particular law school. Also, look at job prospects. Don’t assume you will be making a large amount of money right after graduation. Look at the average attorney salary in the area, and especially concentrate on what graduates of your law school or your planned law school do for work and how much they make. Salaries will vary greatly from geographic region to geographic region, and they also vary between areas of practice (type of firm, type of law, private versus government attorney, public interest, and so forth). Also, note that different cities have different costs of living, so don’t forget to factor that in.

Finally, working and completing a full-time program is difficult. It’s incredibly difficult. My loans are simply because of the cost of living in a major US city. Don’t overlook weekend and evening programs. I won’t lie, it’s incredibly difficult to work full time and go to law school at all, but weekend and evening programs will provide greater flexibility and allow you to work.

Hidden Costs

These costs aren’t hidden so much as things that you will be unaware of if you haven’t had much interaction in the legal community. First: books. They are typically very expensive. You can find used ones, but even they can be costly. Also, you’ll want to factor in supplements. While the school library can be a great resource for free or low-cost books and supplements, that’s not always the case. You might also want to look to see whether your law school has a book exchange program, often organized by the SBA. Finally, sometimes you can find a way to rent books, which can still be costly, but it is less than if you have to buy them outright.

As mentioned above, the bar exam is also costly. There will be a cost to register for the exam (roughly $1,000 depending on the jurisdiction), the cost of a commercial preparation course (roughly $3,0008), the cost of studying itself as you can’t work, or can’t work as many hours, and things like laptop fees. Again, for commercial bar prep courses, in your first year you may have the option of becoming a student representative for the company. Take that opportunity! It can mean a free course for yourself, so jump on that if you can! Sometimes firms will pay for your bar review if you are hired in your third year. This is a great opportunity, but doesn’t happen with every legal job. Also, there are often scholarships provided by the bar companies from time to time if you do public interest work.

Speaking of hidden costs, be aware of the costs of technology. You likely will need a laptop for law school as well as the bar exam. If your current laptop is older, make sure it’s compatible with things like the exam software your school will be using. You can always check with your school’s IT department. Also, some schools have programs that allow you to rent various things like laptops, internet hot spots, and so on. This isn’t always the case, but it’s worth looking into!

Finally, don’t forget about things like clothing and professional cleaning for that clothing. You will need professional clothing, specifically suits, for internships, clinics, externships, and job interviews. These can be shockingly costly and add up quickly. My advice would be to first check with your law school affinity groups and SBA. Sometimes they have programs where professors and alumni donate suits to those groups, who then distribute them to members. Sort of a law school closet, if you will. Don’t discount things like Goodwill and outlet shops, which can have great options at low costs. Finally, it sounds obvious, but look at stores like Ann Taylor, or similar, and keep an eye on clearance and sales. I say this because at least once a year Ann Taylor has a great suit sale! Your career services office can also give you advice on what is appropriate to wear to interviews, as well as to any jobs. What is appropriate professional wear changes from industry to industry, and sometimes even within the industry from city to city and from job to job. For example, I’ve been in the legal community in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. While the differences aren’t shockingly different, the norm for professional dress does vary slightly. Moreover, what I typically wear on a daily basis to teach at a law school would likely be considered too casual for court or a large firm. This is why asking career services for advice will not be seen as out of place.

Finally, for all things financial, AccessLex has a variety of good programs focused on financing law school, repaying student loans, and budgeting for law school. They also have a scholarship databank that you should look into!

1 Wisconsin allows for diploma privilege, which means that if you graduate from a WI law school, you don’t have to take a bar exam in order to be a lawyer in WI.
2 Each state has its own licensing website. The NCBE provides a directory of all state’s websites, at https://reports.ncbex.org/comp-guide/directory/.
3 For a complete list of UBE jurisdictions, go here: https://ncbex.org/exams/ube/list-ube-jurisdictions.
4 For a list of minimum scores, go to: https://ncbex.org/exams/ube/score-portability/minimum-scores/
5 “UBE Score Portability.” Uniform Bar Examination. National Conference of Bar Examiners. Accessed May 18, 2022. https://www.ncbex.org/exams/ube/score-portability/.
6 Not every state requires you to take the MPRE to be licensed, and not every state requires the same score. Currently neither Wisconsin nor Puerto Rico require the MPRE. For most up-to-date information on which jurisdictions require the MPRE, please go here: https://ncbex.org/exams/mpre/.
7 Esq. is short for “Esquire.” Esquire typically means you have passed the bar exam, and are licensed to practice law. In short, it’s another way of saying “Attorney at Law.” In the United Kingdom, esquire is a title of respect given to men, and historically means “next to Knighthood,” and was often given to landed gentry. So you can imagine how my husband’s English family reacts when I use Esq. after my name!
8 The companies tend to be BarBri (https://www.barbri.com/), Themis (www.Themisbar.com), Kaplan (kaptest.com) and AccessLex Helix Bar Review (https://www.accesslex.org/helix-bar-review?f[0]=areas_of_focus_tools:15).