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California Lawyer Professional Licensing Guide

1. How the Profession Is Organized in California
2. Eligibility for Licensing
3. Tests
4. Time and Costs
5. Other Careers and Credentials
6. Beyond Licensing
7. Important Links
8. Tips

1. How the Profession Is Organized in California


Attorneys and the practice of the legal profession are regulated at the state level and generally not by the federal government. The State Bar of California (CalBar) has the power to license attorneys to practice law in California and to carry out disciplinary action against them through the State Bar Court. Once you receive a license to practice law in California you will need to renew it every year by registering with CalBar and paying fees.

The California Board of Admissions to the Bar ("the Board") administers the California Bar Exam. This is the set of three exams any lawyer must pass before being eligible to practice law in California. You must receive the California Board of Admissions' permission to take the California Bar Exam. 
The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops three of the tests that make up the California Bar:

  • Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE), a multiple-choice exam containing fundamental and federal legal content
  • Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE), an essay exam with content similar to the MBE
  • Multi-State Performance Test (MPT), a written exam simulating a real-life legal scenario

NCBE develops one more exam required for licensure and administers it directly in a separate testing session. This exam is usually taken by law school students before graduation, but you can sit for it after receiving special approval:

  • Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE), a professional conduct exam

The American Bar Association (ABA) is another important organization that influences the practice of law in California and nationally. It is a professional association which accredits U.S. law schools and provides continuing legal education, among other activities.

Licensing options for foreign-educated attorneys

This guide assumes that you:

  • Are a graduate of a foreign law school or degree program
  • Already have professional experience as a lawyer in your country of origin
  • Do not already have a license to practice law in any U.S. jurisdiction
  • Wish to pass the California Bar so that you can practice law in the state of California

You have three options to take the California Bar:

1. Earn a Juris Doctor (JD) degree or an LL.M. from a law school approved by the American Bar Association (ABA)

The JD is the basic three-year degree that students in the US earn after completing a minimum of a Bachelor's degree. A few law schools have accelerated JD programs that can allow foreign degree holders to receive partial credit and complete a JD in two years of full-time study. Earning a JD is usually very expensive and can easily reach $100,000 for 3 years, not including living expenses.

If you have a foreign equivalent of a JD and prefer to earn an LL.M. (master of laws) degree as the basis for licensing eligibility, you will need to find a year-long LL.M. program at a law school approved by the Committee of Board examiners.

As a permanent resident, refugee or asylee, you may qualify for financial aid grants and loans.

2. Study law through the California State Bar Law Office Study Program

This program allows California residents to become attorneys in California without graduating from law school. The Bar candidate you will have to study under a judge or lawyer for four years and you must also pass the Baby Bar within the first three attempts after becoming eligible to take the exam. However, this is not the recommended course of study by the ABA.

3. Be a licensed attorney in a foreign country

Foreign attorney applicants do not have to comply with the requirements above, but you should check with the State Bar to make sure that you have met the prerequisites for admission. You should also read Admission to Practice Law in California by Attorneys Admitted in Jurisdictions Outside the United States, a publication available on the CalBar website.

After completing either option 1, 2, or 3 you will still need to apply for and pass examination and other licensing requirements before you become licensed to practice law in California.

Important note:

There are many differences in legal requirements for Bar examination and law practice from state to state. You may want to research if other states consider foreign law degrees sufficient to sit for their Bar, or if a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree from an ABA-approved school without a JD can make you eligible. New York, Alabama, California, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Virginia all allow some form of foreign degree recognition. You will need to do your own research to see if you qualify under their processes; also, if earning a license in these states can be the basis for applying to practice law in other states (this is not always allowed).


Job competition in the legal field can be very high, and lawyers also often work long hours. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 37% of full time lawyers work 50 hours a week or more. This is especially true for traditional large law firms where Associates may work very long hours for several years in pursuit of being named partner, part-owner of a firm.

Most attorneys are employed in legal services, in business, or in government. In 2011, average salaries for these sectors are as follows: Management of companies and enterprises, $161,570; legal services, $137,170; federal government, $129,430; local government, $93,070; state government $81,960.

Nationally, 27% percent of lawyers are self-employed in their legal practice (this includes partners of corporate law firms). It is common for trained lawyers to work in other fields as well, such as adjunct or other teaching jobs or politics, not necessarily practicing law. Additionally, keep in mind that some firms hire attorneys with foreign language skills on a temporary basis.

Normal job growth is expected in law, with the following areas generating an increase in demand: health care, intellectual property, venture capital, energy, elder law, antitrust, and environmental law.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is another trend that is expected to grow over time and influence the legal profession. Lawyers and others trained in ADR use mediation and arbitration instead of lawsuits to settle conflicts that might otherwise go to court. The process is used increasingly in divorce and other proceedings that may need a lawyer but can be resolved more efficiently, cheaply, and amicably through ADR.


2. Eligibility for Licensing

This section will look at the steps that a foreign-educated lawyer needs to take to become licensed to practice law in California.

The steps to licensing are as follows:


I. Receive authorization to sit for the California Bar through the Committee of Bar Examiners

This process is managed by the California Board of Admissions to the Bar. If you have the foreign equivalent of a JD or LL.M. you must submit an Application for Evaluation of Law Study Completed and Contemplated by Law Students Outside the United States with a fee of $30, which is available on the CalBar website. This is a part of the process that determines if a foreign applicant's education is fulfills the requirements to the California State Bar.

You must also provide a course breakdown of your post-secondary education by a credential evaluating agency approved by the Committee of Bar examiners. This should be sent directly to the State Bar's Office of Admissions along with a certified transcript of all legal studies completed.

The Board will consider all of your documentation and will either accept or deny your request to sit for the Bar. When evaluating a foreign education, the Board of Admission considers a number of factors, including jurisprudence of your country, the curriculum and coursework you completed, the accreditation of your law school, and other legal education or practice issues. The Board will advise you on whether returning for a JD is your only option.

II. Apply for and pass the three exams of the California Bar, the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination, and the Moral Character Fitness Exam

Once you receive Board approval, you must take and pass the California Bar and its three exams: Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE), Multi-State Performance Test (MPT), and the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE). In addition you must pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) and Moral Character Fitness. All of these exams are discussed in more detail in the section Tests.

III. Receive certification and license to practice law in California

Your scores will be forwarded to the California State Bar Office of Admissions if you selected this option when registering for your exams. If you forgot to do this, you can pay a fee to have the scores forwarded to the Board.

Once the Board receives your passing scores, it certifies these scores and your case to the California Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court awards you a license as a lawyer and swears you in as a member of the California Bar.

You must then register as a lawyer in California through the Membership Services of the California State Bar which you can do online. You must renew your registration annually. For more information refer to the section Beyond Licensing.


3. Tests

The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) develops all of the tests required for California legal practice with the exception of three California-specific essay items featured in the California Bar. The Bar is a three-day examination administered by the California Board of Admissions to the Bar. It consists of four exams: California Essays; the Multi-State Performance Test (MPT); the Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE); and the Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE).

In addition to the Bar you must also pass the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This is a professional conduct and ethics exam that most law students take while still in their JD program. It is offered separate from the Bar and with greater frequency.

The California Bar - Administration

The three-day Bar is offered only twice a year, the last Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in February and July each year.

Day one:

  • Morning session: Essay questions 1, 2, 3
  • Afternoon session: Performance Test A

Day two:

  • Morning and afternoon sessions: Multi-State Bar Exam (MBE)

Day three:

  • Morning session:  Essay questions 4, 5, 6
  • Afternoon sessions: Performance Test B

Registration and fees

Registration and fees cover all parts of the Bar exam. Filing deadlines and fees are:

For the July 2012 exam:

  • Regular Registration: April 2 and $614 (General Applicants) or $892 (Attorney Applicants)
  • Late Registration: April 30 and $50
  • Last Registration: June 15 and $250
  • Laptop Fee $139
  • Late Laptop Fee $15


The California Board combines the scores from each part of the Bar and gives them different weights:

  • Multi-State Bar Examination: 35%
  • Multi-State Essay Examination: 39%
  • Multi-State Performance Test: 26%

Actual test scores are compared against earlier tests and "scaled" to adjust your score based on whether the exam was easier or more difficult than earlier versions. Only your scaled score will determine if you pass the Bar. The minimum scaled score accepted in California is 140.

It takes approximately 2 months for scores to come out. Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the California Board or you will have to order extra reports.

A note on test preparation: The Bar exam is very difficult. US law students often dedicate months to full-time test preparation. The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has Information Booklets for each of its tests with extensive lists of content areas and practice questions. NCBE also offers an online practice test available for purchase through its online store. However, you may also want to seriously consider paying for a Bar exam preparation class for additional and structured study. While 67% of first time candidates passed the California Bar in 2011, it does not reflect the experience of most foreign-educated lawyers, as graduates of non-ABA schools pass at a rate of 17%. The one state which reported foreign-educated lawyer passage rates separately and in large numbers was New York. It passed only 33% of over 4,400 foreign-educated candidates in 2011. Since it shares the MBE, MPT, and MPRE with California this can serve as one predictor of performance and should highlight the need for intense preparation. See the Important Links section for test preparation resources.

The California Bar - Exam Content

Multi-State Performance Test (MPT)

Also in the morning session of Day One, the Multistate Performance Test (MPT) consists of just one 90 minute question. The MPT simulates a real-life legal scenario using multiple information sources: it has a file with a variety of case documents as well as a library of case law. Both sources have some irrelevant and conflicting information. The evaluation will look at your ability to analyze this information, pick out what is important, perform a lawyering task and present the results according to specific instructions.

Multi-State Essay Examination (MEE)

The afternoon of Day One offers nine 30-minute Multistate Essay Examination (MEE) questions. Its legal topics are similar to those of the Multi-State Bar Exam, but the MEE specifically evaluates the written skills of candidates.

Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE)

The MBE is a six-hour long exam that consists of 200 multiple-choice questions (only 190 are scored). The exam is taken in one day with a morning and afternoon session.

The 2012 exam content is distributed into six major subjects with the following subdivisions:

Contracts: 33 questions

Formation of contracts; consideration; third-party beneficiary contracts; assignment of rights and delegation of duties; statutes of frauds; parole evidence and interpretation; conditions; remedies; impossibility of performance and frustration of purpose; discharge of contractual duties

Criminal Law and Procedure: 31 questions

Homicide; other crimes; inchoate crimes - parties; general principles; constitutional protection of accused persons

Torts: 33 questions

Intentional torts; negligence; strict liability; products liability; other torts

Evidence: 31 questions

Presentation of evidence; relevancy and reasons for excluding relevant evidence; privileges and other policy exclusions; writings, recordings, and photographs; hearsay and circumstances of its admissibility

Constitutional Law: 31 questions

The nature of judicial review; the separation of powers; the relation of nation and states in a federal system; individual rights

Real Property: 31 questions

Ownership; rights in land; contracts; mortgages/security devices; titles

Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination

The state of California requires applicants to take the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in addition to the regular bar examination. The MPRE is an ethics exam that tests the candidate on established standards for a lawyer's professional conduct.

The MPRE is an exam that lasts just over two hours. It contains 60 multiple choice questions (only 50 are scored). These are spread over the following 12 content areas as described in the 2012 MPRE information booklet:

  1. Regulation of the Legal Profession (6-12%)
  2. The Client-Lawyer Relationship (10-16%)
  3. Client Confidentiality (6-12%)
  4. Conflicts of Interest (12-18%)
  5. Competence, Legal Malpractice and Other Civil Liability (6-12%)
  6. Litigation and Other Forms of Advocacy (10-16%)
  7. Transactions and Communications with Persons Other than Clients (2-8%)
  8. Different Roles of the Lawyer (4-10%)
  9. Safekeeping Funds and Other Property (2-8%)
  10. Communications About Legal Services (4-10%)
  11. Lawyers' Duties to the Public and the Legal System (2-4%)
  12. Judicial Conduct (2-8%)

Registration and fees

You can register online directly with National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE).

The Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) is offered in March, August and November of each year at 10 sites in California. It is available in more places than the Bar because law school students are allowed to take the exam before graduation.

The regular filing deadline is about five weeks before the exam and costs $70; late registration is open for approximately two weeks more and costs $140. Payment should be made to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.


A scaled score of 80 is the minimum passing score for the Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) in California.

Do not forget to request that your scores be sent to the California Board. One copy will be sent to you and one to the Board; you will have to pay extra to have reports sent to other jurisdictions.

Test preparation: the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has an online practice test available on its website which costs $35 for one year of access.


4. Time and Costs

The time and costs involved in becoming licensed as a lawyer in California depend on a number of factors, including

  • Acceptance or rejection of your request to sit for the Bar based on your qualifications. If you have to return for a JD it is not uncommon to spend at least $100,000 for an in-state degree.
  • The completeness of your educational and professional records (the more documentation, the better)
  • Your performance on both the Multi-State Bar Examination (MBE) and Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE)
  • Your free time and expendable income, and whether or not you choose to pay for a test preparation course or materials

We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become lawyers in California. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Your experience will vary.

StepMore Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
Qualify for Admission to the California State Bar
  • You come from a country whose legal system is similar to the U.S, and your advanced degree and established practice help you qualify for admission over a period of 6 months
  • $300 + 6 months
  • You come from a country whose legal system is similar to the U.S, but your qualification is delayed by problems with your documents which take 9 months and to resolve, including paying $400 in your home country
  • $700 + 9 months
Apply for and pass California Bar and MPRE
  • You register for the regular deadline for the California Bar Exam
  • You buy inexpensive test preparation materials and join a free study group while you wait for your test date
  • You pass the Bar on the first try 7 months later
  • You register for your Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) and study as you wait for your Bar scores to arrive
  • You pass the MPRE two months later
  • MBE: $850 + 7 months
  • MPRE: $100 + 2 months
  • You pay the last registration fee (the highest) for the next available Bar Exam date. Because of your insufficient preparation, you fail it
  • You take an expensive test prep course for $1,000 the second time, but register close to the next deadline again. This time, you pass
  • You register for your Multi-State Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) and study as you wait for your Bar scores to arrive
  • You pass the MPRE two months later
  • MBE: $2,000 + 7 months
  • MPRE: $100 + 2 months
Receive certification and license to practice law in California
  • You are certified to the board, sworn in and receive your license five months later
  • $200 + 5 months
  • You are certified to the board, sworn in and receive your license five months later
  • $200 + 5 months
More Efficient Total
About $1,450 and 1 1/2 years
Less Efficient Total
About $4,450 and 2 years

5. Other Careers and Credentials

Other careers related to law

Considering the high costs of a legal education, some foreign-educated lawyers choose to work in the legal field without becoming an California lawyer. You will be able to utilize the skills you gained practicing law in your home country, and your foreign experience as a lawyer may give you a competitive advantage when looking for a job. You can read more about some of these positions in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, available online.

  • Paralegal
  • Legal Secretary/ Assistant
  • Legal Work at a Legal Related Non-Profit
  • Law Related Work at a Business
  • Interpreter for Courts
  • Law Clerks
  • Claim Adjusters


Paralegals work in many different types of organizations, but they are most commonly found in law firms. Their main task is to assist lawyers in preparation for court; however, they perform a number of other functions, such as drafting contracts and mortgages and maintaining financial records.

There are two common ways of becoming a paralegal. The first is to earn an associate degree from a community college in paralegal studies. These programs usually last two years. The second method is to earn a certificate in paralegal studies. Certification takes varying amounts of time to complete; some can be completed in less than a year.

Some people are hired as paralegals without any sort of certification, and simply receive on-the-job training. If you can demonstrate that you have practiced law in your home country, have good knowledge of legal issues, and maintain excellent writing and research skills, then you should be a good candidate for a paralegal position.

Legal Secretary/Assistant

The work of a legal assistant is similar to that of a paralegal, except that it often involves more administrative work than substantive work. A legal secretary is more than simply a typist. A legal secretary may be asked to compile complex documents or complete court filings. The experience required to become a legal secretary is similar to that of paralegal.

Although most employers do not require certification for a position as paralegal or legal assistant, having a certificate makes you look more attractive in the labor market. Apart from schools and universities, associations offer paths to certification. For example, the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA) has established a set of standards, and if you pass their test you can use Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) or Certified Paralegal (CP) credential. The American Alliance of Paralegals and the National Federation of Paralegal Associates both offer their own verification.


6. Beyond Licensing

Maintaining licensure

Registration: once you have been accepted to the California Bar you will need to register annually to maintain your license. In November of every year you should receive notice to register for the coming year. Your registration and payment must be received before the first of February every year. Not paying on time means that you are not authorized to practice law until you are re-registered and pay fines.

Registration includes reporting other information such as:

  • Malpractice insurance
  • Pro bono services offered
  • Trust accounts (holding of assets of clients or others involved in a legal case)

You can register online or by mail.

Continuing Legal Education: you will also need to have Continuing Legal Education (CLE). The hours vary from between 20 and 30 hours per two-year period and depend on how long it has been since you were accepted to the Bar. Other requirements apply; the California State Bar Association helps you by offering an online learning portal called FastCLE.

Joining a professional association

State and national associations are resources for working lawyers, paralegal, and legal secretaries and provide opportunities for professional development and networking with others in your field. Many of them offer different types of certification, but they do not help with the job search. They also provide Continuing Education to their members.


  • California State Bar Association


  • American Bar Association

Beyond these two associations spanning general legal practice, there are a large variety of professional associations for lawyers that emphasize areas of practice, workplace type, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

Licensing mobility (reciprocity)

Once you have received your license to practice law in California, you may find that your career brings you opportunities to work in other states. At this point you will need to learn more about reciprocity. Reciprocity is when two or more states agree to accept the credentials or license of each other's residents. California has reciprocity with 30 other states for practicing lawyers, but you may still have to meet several conditions, including having a JD from an accredited law school.


7. Important Links

Common Words used in this article


Professional Associations:


The State Bar of California's Future Lawyer's page has many important pages to visit, including:

The National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) has a page for each exam used in the California Bar and in licensure which includes Information Booklets with content outlines and practice questions:




Invest in test preparation

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the Bar exam and consider investing early in test preparation: the money you spend here might save you from paying for a retake. Also, get your applications in early: the late fees are very high and completely avoidable

Get a thorough degree evaluation

World Education Services is one of the foreign degree evaluation services accepted by the Board if you request permission to take the Bar. It is a recommended as a nonprofit service with a reputation for thorough evaluations

Provide complete documents

All documents you submit either on paper or online are official: take your time to fill them out carefully. If you accidentally or purposefully put incorrect information on these documents it can create unnecessary complications and maybe even rejection of your applications. You should make copies of all documents that you submit


If you are flexible in where you live and practice law, you may want to carefully study the National Conference of Bar Examiners' Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (see Important Links). It has side-by-side comparisons of state regulations for Bar passage across the US, including standards of acceptance of foreign legal degrees

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