The Chaos of Changing the Bar Examination in the US

The U.S. Bar Exam is a high-stakes gamble for would-be lawyers, and a school’s pass rate is a rather high-stakes marker of a law school’s success in creating lawyers. In the next three or four years, the bar exam will be changing in most U.S. jurisdictions, and this creates a number of opportunities for innovation and opportunities for chaos.

Why is the exam changing? The National Conference of Bar Examiners puts it this way: “Set to debut in July 2026, the NextGen bar exam will test a broad range of foundational lawyering skills, utilizing a focused set of clearly identified fundamental legal concepts and principles needed in today’s practice of law. Designed to balance the skills and knowledge needed in litigation and transactional legal practice, the exam will reflect many of the key changes that law schools are making today, building on the successes of clinical legal education programs, alternative dispute resolution programs, and legal writing and analysis programs.”

These changes, including testing legal research for the first time, have librarians and legal writing professors abuzz. There’s great potential here: law schools may increase the scope and importance of clinical, writing, and research programs in response to the bar exam changes.

So where is the chaos? Well, first, each jurisdiction gets to choose whether it wants to adopt the new exam in July 2026, February 2027, or July 2027. If each lawyer were only interested in being admitted in one jurisdiction, this would be acceptable, though a little bit haphazard. But because many lawyers intend to practice in multiple jurisdictions, they depend upon their scores being reciprocally accepted for admission in multiple states. If different jurisdictions are using different exams, will they be willing to apply reciprocal admission policies as before? No jurisdiction has yet declared their intentions.

Secondly, because jurisdictions may make different choices about when to adopt the examination, students may forum-shop, and choose to take the bar exam in a jurisdiction using the format that best suits their testing strengths. While I believe that the new bar examination will be an improvement, some students may prefer the predictable nature of the old exam. Furthermore, some bar exam preparation companies may not adjust in time, leaving test-takers in early-adoption jurisdictions with fewer or lower-quality options for commercial bar preparation products.

Here are three hypothetical scenarios (just like on the bar exam!) which may demonstrate the potential chaos:

  • Tom wants to be a lawyer in New York and New Jersey. If he’d graduated in 2025, Tom could have passed the bar exam in New York and also transferred his passing uniform bar examination score to New Jersey to become licensed to practice law in both states. But New Jersey adopted the NextGen Bar in 2026 and New York did not. Tom passed the “old” bar exam in New York in July of 2026, but New Jersey, doubling down on their decision to innovate by using the new exam, refused to allow Tom to transfer his score. Tom now has to do the whole process over again in New Jersey in February, and he has to spend another $5000 on bar prep since his old software is for the old exam. Meanwhile Tom is working full-time as a lawyer and can barely find time to study. Tom is displeased. [Note: no one is really predicting that New York and New Jersey will adopt the new exam on different dates, but they could.]
  • Bert was a part-time first-year law student in Michigan in spring of 2023. During Bert’s four years in law school he received no legal research training. When Bert spoke to his advisor about class selection, she suggested that Bert take Family Law, Trusts and Estates, and Secured Transactions because those subjects would be on the bar exam. However, Michigan adopted the new bar exam in July of 2026, and at graduation Bert’s only path to practice law in Michigan required him to pass the new NextGen Bar exam. He finds that Family Law, Trusts and Estates, and Secured Transactions are no longer on the exam, but Legal Research is. Bert is confused and unprepared.
  • William graduated from a D.C. law school in the spring of 2026. DC did not adopt the NextGen bar in 2026, so William took the old bar exam in July of 2026. Unfortunately, he failed. Then, he discovered that D.C. was adopting the NextGen bar exam in February of 2027, so William next took the bar in February 2027 in New Mexico, which was not adopting the NextGen bar exam until July. William failed the bar in New Mexico as well. William then found that all uniform bar exam jurisdictions had moved to the new NextGen bar exam by July of 2027, so in order to pass the exam he’d have to learn a new test format. William does not take the exam again.

Perhaps these scenarios are overly complicated. Perhaps neighboring jurisdictions will coordinate their timing in a way that leaves most lawyers able to find reciprocal admission in neighboring jurisdictions. Perhaps law schools will adapt to offer sufficient seats in all classes covering the subjects taught on the exam, and advise students accordingly. Perhaps students who fail the bar exam on the first try will be encouraged to learn a new test format and will pass the improved bar exam. I hope that as the new NextGen bar exam is implemented, jurisdictions and schools will find ways to minimize the chaos.

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