Hidden Hurdles: The True Cost of the Bar Exam

By: Kayleigh McNiel

For every law student, the bar exam is the pinnacle of academic challenges. As the final hurdle at the end of a grueling 3-year obstacle course, hidden costs throughout the process of preparing for the exam and applying for admission to the bar present additional barriers. The impact of which disproportionately affects first-generation and BIPOC law students who are less likely to have the financial resources to purchase commercial bar prep courses or study full-time without having to work. Racial disparities in first-time bar passage rates have led some to argue that the bar exam is a test of students’ resources, not their actual skill or competence on legal issues. 

Discriminatory Design

The “key ingredient” to passing the bar is having the ability to dedicate an extensive amount of time to prepare for it. This is according to researchers at AccessLex Institute who examined factors such as bar preparation practices, financial resources, household income, and family support for more than 5,000 first-time test-takers of the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) between July 2016 and February 2018. In fact, candidates who studied the recommended 40 hours per week for at least two months before the exam were significantly more likely to pass. Unsurprisingly, success rates were substantially higher for candidates with higher household incomes, those who received financial support from their family during law school, and those who purchased commercial bar prep courses.

These factors contribute to the stark racial disparities in bar exam passage rates. According to the American Bar Association, last year just 57% of Black candidates, 60% of Native American candidates, 69% of Latinx candidates, and 75% of Asian candidates passed the bar exam on their first try. While 83% of White candidates succeeded in doing so. The racial gap in passing rates has continued to grow over the last three years, likely due to the greater economic losses communities of color experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Structure of the Exam(s)

To become licensed to practice law in Washington State, candidates must pass three separate exams: (1) the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) which is a two-day exam consisting of three parts, (2) the Multistage Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), a two-hour exam that can be taken within three years of the UBE, and (3) the Washington Law Component (WLC), a four-hour multiple choice test which can be taken within three years of the UBE.

So How Much Does It Really Cost? Hidden fees and surprise price tags 

Understanding the cost of taking the bar exam (in Washington State) is key to setting yourself up for success. Unfortunately, this information is not always readily available as there are additional fees and costs associated with each part of the application and testing process. The individual circumstances of each applicant further dictate how much they are charged.

Registration fees: $585 – $885.

Most first-time test takers will pay $585 to register for the UBE in Washington State. However, a hefty $300 late fee attaches to all applicants who register after the deadline. So plan ahead! Additionally, those who pay with a debit or credit card will pay an additional 2.5% transaction fee bringing the total to $599.625, or $907.13 with a late fee. While there is no fee to pay by electronic funds transfer or check, these methods can take an additional 7 days to process your payment. 

Bar Review Course: $1,695 – $4,199. 

While not required, commercial bar prep programs have become essential to passing the exam and can cost thousands of dollars. Companies offer a variety of resources, study aids, and courses. While the most well-known bar prep review providers offer discounts and some scholarships, most students will pay close to these base prices: $1,695-$2,695 (Themis), $1,999-$4,199 (Babri), or $1,699-$3,999 (Kaplan).

Exam Software: $120. 

To be able to use a laptop during the essay portion of the exam, candidates are required to download ILG Exam360 software. Candidates are responsible for providing their own laptops and are not given any additional time on the exam if they suffer from technical difficulties. 

Laptop Fee: $100. 

While it appears that Washington State no longer charges a separate laptop fee since the pandemic, most states do.

Travel, Lodging and food: $340 – $500

A hidden cost that most people fail to consider is the cost of travel, lodging, and food for those who have to travel to the testing center. Washington State alternates between testing centers in Seattle and Yakima. For JD candidates living in Seattle, this year they must make the 2.5 hour drive (or 3.5 hour bus ride) to the Yakima Convention Center and fork out the cost of a hotel for the two-day exam. Gas, travel time, food, and shelter for this trip averages several hundred of dollars. Some hotels near the testing center offer booking discounts for those taking the bar exam.

Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE): $150. 

This separate, two-hour multiple-choice exam can be taken anytime within three years of passing the UBE. The MPRE is required in all but two States. 

Character and Fitness Investigation Fee: $120 – $450. 

Another mandatory, hidden charge is the “investigation fee” paid to the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) to conduct background checks into candidates’ character and moral fitness. ALL applicants in Washington are required to pay this investigation fee but are not charged when they submit their initial application. Only after the WSBA has reviewed their application will they receive payment and authorization forms from the NCBE. These fees vary depending on the level of investigation required. 

As part of this investigation, candidates may have to provide additional third-party documents related to criminal or employment records. Most states charge between $50-$90 for certified criminal records and additional fees of up to $3.50 per page of court filings.

Lost wages during bar prep: $9,833 – $16,666

The American Bar Association recommends studying 40 hours a week for a minimum of 8-10 weeks to adequately prepare for the Bar exam. Most applicants are unable to work during this time, which means they will miss out on at least two months of income. This estimate is based on the average annual income of first-year University of Washington Law School graduates which varies between $59,000 and $100,000 annually depending on their field of practice. 

Additionally, applicants continue to incur cost of living expenses while preparing for the bar exam — rent, food, gas for your car, phone bill, and additional financial obligations.

Law School tuition: $125,064 – $160,362

Undeniably, the largest expense of bar exam preparation is three years of law school tuition. While Washington State is one of the few jurisdictions that does not require a law degree to take the bar exam and practice law, the vast majority of applicants do. While the cost of law school tuition for each student varies substantially based on which law school they attend and their scholarship grants, most students at UW Law school pay $41,688 annually for in-state tuition and $53,454 if they are out-of-state. 

How to Pay for the Bar? The problem with bar exam loans

Most law students survive on federal student loans throughout their education but do not qualify for student loans while studying for the bar because they are no longer enrolled as students. Bar exam loans are another option but have serious drawbacks. So much so, that Forbes even cautions applicants to consider cheaper alternatives. 

Bar exam loans are personal loans specifically to cover expenses during bar exam preparation. While many lenders offer bar exam loans with low-interest rates, JD candidates without any income often need a cosigner to qualify.  Additionally, lenders do not provide an interest rate estimate before completing a full application, thereby limiting JD candidates’ ability to shop around.

In short, the exorbitant cost of becoming a lawyer continues to be the biggest barrier to advancing diversity in the legal profession. Scholarships are available to offset the cost of preparing for the bar, but much more needs to be done by Universities to support JD candidates in achieving success.

Bar exam scholarship opportunities:

Bar review scholarships

  • Women of WSAJ Bar Preparation Scholarship – provides women law school graduates and APR 6 law clerk graduates with scholarships to help defray the costs of bar review courses.
  • Barbri Public Interest Scholarship – substantially lowers the cost of a bar prep course for applicants committed to be employed in the public interest sector with an annual salary less than $75,000.

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