Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

The Bar Exam: Past, Present, and NextGen

May 17, 2024
| Spring 2024 Vol. 68 #2

by Marilyn J. Wellington

The practice of law is always evolving, and the evaluation of candidates for admission to the bar is evolving with it. The bar exam is an essential tool for ensuring that candidates seeking legal licensure have the appropriate level of knowledge and skills necessary to perform the activities typically required of an entry-level lawyer. The next evolution of the bar exam launches in July 2026 with the NextGen bar exam, ensuring that our profession’s most effective tool for assessing readiness to practice retains its relevance to legal practice in a rapidly changing legal landscape.

The bar exam has been an essential tool used by jurisdictions to assess candidates’ practice readiness since the beginning of standard legal licensure practices and continues to be a key part of the bar admission process in virtually every U.S. jurisdiction. Massachusetts led this effort, administering the first written bar exam in the country in 1855 and making it a requirement for attorney licensure beginning in 1876. The 1972 introduction by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (“NCBE”) of the Multistate Bar Exam (“MBE”), the 200-question multiple-choice exam still used today in 54 jurisdictions, MBE Bar Exam | Multi State Bar Exam | NCBE (, provided a consistent tool to be used alongside a written exam specific to the laws and procedures of each jurisdiction.

The Uniform Bar Exam (the “UBE”) was launched in 2010 and is currently administered in 41 jurisdictions, including Massachusetts. The UBE provides candidates with a portable score that can be used to seek admission in any of the 41 jurisdictions administering the exam. These broad changes to the bar exam, as well as more focused changes to knowledge areas tested, describe an exam that has evolved over time.

To ensure that newly licensed lawyers are familiar with local law in the licensure jurisdiction, many UBE jurisdictions require an additional step to licensure. In Massachusetts, which first administered the UBE in July 2018, “petitioners for admission must successfully complete an online multiple-choice test, based on substantive materials provided online, on key distinctions and essential highlights of Massachusetts law and procedure.” Additional Pre- or Post-Admission Requirements and Continuing Legal Education – NCBE Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (

In 2018, the NCBE Board of Trustees established a Testing Task Force “to undertake a comprehensive three-year study to ensure that the bar examination continues to test the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed for competent entry-level legal practice in a changing profession.” Research, leading to the development of the NextGen exam, was conducted in three phases, beginning with a series of listening sessions with key stakeholders, followed by a comprehensive nationwide practice analysis, and concluding with expert analysis and evaluation of the data compiled in the first two phases and the development of final recommendations. See Final Report – NextGen Bar Exam ( Stakeholders participating in listening sessions provided feedback and input on the content, format, timing, and delivery method of the bar exam. See Phase 1 Report – NextGen Bar Exam ( The listening sessions were followed by a practice analysis, conducted in the second phase of this study, with these phases of research providing the basis for establishing the foundational knowledge and skills to be tested on the next evolution of the bar exam.

For the practice analysis conducted by the Testing Task Force, 14,846 lawyers from all 56 US jurisdictions and more than 35 areas of practice participated in a survey to provide empirical data on the job activities of newly licensed lawyers and the knowledge and skills needed to conduct these job activities. Of those surveyed, 21% were newly licensed lawyers, defined as lawyers in practice for three or fewer years, and the remaining 79% were lawyers with direct experience working with or supervising newly licensed lawyers. See Phase 2 Report – NextGen Bar Exam ( Analysis and evaluation of the data and commentary retrieved through this research resulted in recommendations as to the structure, format, and content of the bar exam of the future. In the development of the new exam, the Testing Task Force directed that all decisions be guided by the prevailing views expressed by stakeholders that:

  • The bar exam should test fewer subjects and should test less broadly and deeply within the subjects covered.
  • Greater emphasis should be placed on assessment of lawyering skills.
  • The exam content and delivery should remain affordable.
  • Fairness and accessibility for all candidates should continue to be ensured.
  • Score portability as provided by the UBE should be maintained.

See Final Report – NextGen Bar Exam (

Based on this extensive research and maintaining fidelity to these guiding principles, NCBE began the development of the NextGen exam in 2021, with the first jurisdiction administration of the exam scheduled for July 2026.

The NextGen exam features an integrated format, testing knowledge and skills together in questions and question sets that replicate the actual practice of law for entry-level practitioners, defined as those within three years of initial licensure. These questions and questions sets are built on the types of realistic practice scenarios that new attorneys are likely to encounter, and each includes several foundational knowledge areas coupled with essential lawyering skills. Each question, whether multiple-choice or constructed response (writing task, short essay, or short answer), requires candidates to employ knowledge of the law and lawyering skills to demonstrate their ability to assess and respond to a situation that they may see in practice. Readers can view sample NextGen questions at NextGen Bar Exam Sample Questions – NextGen Bar Exam (

The current UBE and the NextGen exam share similarities in content relative to doctrinal knowledge: the topics tested on the NextGen exam will include those currently tested on the MBE component of the UBE (civil procedure, contract law, evidence, torts, constitutional law, and criminal law), plus family law and business associations. Additionally, the NextGen exam will test foundational lawyering skills including legal research, legal writing, issue spotting and analysis, investigation and evaluation, client counseling and advising, negotiation and dispute resolution, and client relationship and management. By design, the NextGen exam will require candidates to demonstrate more legal skill and rely less on memorization.

Throughout the development of the NextGen exam, and consistent with best practices in high-stakes examinations, NCBE is conducting research testing in three phases: Pilot Testing, Field Testing, and Prototype Testing. Each phase of this research provides qualitative and quantitative data and information to help ensure the next generation of the bar exam tests what it is meant to test and does so in a way that is fair, equitable, and accessible to all candidates. NCBE has conducted the first two phases of research testing, with more than 6,000 law students, including students from six Massachusetts law schools, and newly licensed lawyers nationwide participating to date in research testing. The wealth of data and information collected through research testing informs NCBE’s development of the NextGen exam.

Development of a new bar exam is not an easy task, and the participation of hundreds of practicing attorneys, law faculty, justices and judges, and admissions boards and staff has been essential to this endeavor.

Marilyn Wellington was appointed Executive Director of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in September of 2010 and served in that position until her appointment as Chief Strategy and Operations Officer for NCBE in June of 2022. As Chief Strategy and Operations Officer she oversees NCBE operations, including the development and implementation of the NextGen bar exam, and guides organizational strategic initiatives and priorities.