New bar exam is on track for 2026 debut, licensing officials say

REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
  • The National Conference of Bar Examiners gave an update on the redesigned test
  • Conference officials plan to develop prototype questions this year for an exam that emphasizes legal skills alongside legal knowledge

(Reuters) - A five-year overhaul of the bar exam is gaining momentum, with officials close to detailing the legal knowledge and skills that the new attorney licensing test will assess.

That information is due to be released within the first quarter of 2022, officials with the National Conference of Bar Examiners said Thursday during the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting. The organization plans to develop prototype questions this year and begin pilot testing what it has dubbed the “Next Gen Bar Exam” in 2026.

The National Conference formally launched the development of the new test early last year and said it will place more emphasis on legal skills and rely less on the memorization of doctrinal law. Officials said they would do away with the current exam’s three separate components—the Multistate Bar Exam, the Multistate Essay Exam, and the Multistate Performance Test—in favor of an exam that better integrates knowledge and skills.

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The revamped test won’t include questions on family law; estates and trusts, the Uniform Commercial Code; and conflict of laws. It will test aspiring attorneys in seven skills areas, including client counseling and advising; client relationships and management; legal research; legal writing; and negotiations.

But the National Conference is still in the process of determining how to assess examinees on those legal skills. They previously said simulating a client counseling session isn’t feasible when testing thousands of new lawyers at once. The bar exam will remain a one-time test given after law school, though National Conference president Judith Gundersen said it’s not yet clear whether it will be two days long.

The new exam might provide test takers with foundational material about a deal and then ask them to identify the points they would stress during a negotiation, said exam redesign volunteer Deborah Jones Merritt at Thursday's meeting. Or it could provide a transcript of a client counseling session and ask examinees to assess the lawyer's performance, she said.

The new exam will also better balance litigation and transactional skills and recognize that lawyers often use reference materials rather than rely on memorized doctrinal law, said Merritt, a retired Ohio State law professor.

“I hope that the NextGen exam will be part of a larger movement away from memorization in legal education,” she said.

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at