California administers what is widely considered one of the nation's most difficult bar examinations twice each year, in February and July. The California Bar Examination consists of 18 hours of examination time, spread out over three days. The only state with a longer exam is Louisiana, at 21 hours. California's exam is administered in the following manner:
- 1st day (Tuesday): 3 essay questions (9 am – 12 pm); 1 performance test (2 pm – 5 pm)
- 2nd day (Wednesday): 100 Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) questions (9 am – 12 pm); 100 MBE questions (2 pm – 5 pm)
- 3rd day (Thursday): 3 essay questions (9 am – 12 pm); 1 performance test (2 pm – 5 pm)
The exam currently tests 17 different subject areas:
- Constitutional Law (Federal)
- Contracts (Common Law and Uniform Commercial Code)
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Evidence (Federal Rules of Evidence and the California Evidence Code)
- Real Property
- Wills (California law)
- Civil Procedure (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the California Code of Civil Procedure)
- Community Property (California law)
- Professional Responsibility (California law and the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct)
- Business Associations (Corporations, Agency, all forms of Partnerships, and Limited Liability Entities)
The essay section of the exam accounts for 39 percent of the total score. Applicants sitting for the California Bar Examination do not know which of the 17 subjects will be tested on the essay portion of the examination. In recent years, it has become common for the exam to feature one or more "crossover" questions, which test applicants in multiple subjects. Examples of past-tested essays with sample answers are available on the California State Bar’s website at http://admissions.calbar.ca.gov/Examinations/PastExams.aspx.
California-specific legal knowledge is required only for Evidence, Civil Procedure, Wills, Community Property, and Professional Responsibility; for the other topics, either general common law ("bar exam law") or the federal laws apply. Beginning in July 2007, applicants may be tested on the California Evidence Code and the California Code of Civil Procedure in the essay portion of the exam in addition to the Federal Rules of Evidence and Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Applicants traditionally wrote essay responses with using pen and paper or typed them on a typewriter. However, since 2000, applicants have had the option of using SofTest software to type those portions on a laptop computers.
The Multistate Bar Examination (MBE) portion of the exam is a nationally-administered, 200-question multiple-choice exam. As of February 2007, only 190 questions are scored, and the other 10 are unscored experimental questions used to gauge their appropriateness for future exams. The MBE covers only the topics of contracts (including sales of goods under Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code), real property, torts, constitutional law, criminal law and procedure, and the Federal Rules of Evidence. While the essay section of the exam may test one or more of these areas as well, the MBE section is dedicated to these subjects. The MBE counts for 35 percent of the total score in California.
The performance test portion of the exam is designed to test practical lawyering skills by presenting applicants with simulations of actual legal tasks. This section counts for 26 percent of the total score. The performance exam is a "closed universe" setting, meaning that the only substantive information the applicant needs to know is provided during the exam. Even if cases and statutes are provided, they are often different from the real law in the area at issue, so that applicants who studied that area of law in law school will have no special advantage. Each performance test is worth as many points as two regular essays.