Getting into and graduating from law school is a monumental task in and of itself. But the process doesn’t end the day you walk across the stage and receive your Juris Doctorate; to practice, you still have to get admitted to the state bar. California has a notoriously difficult bar exam, but that’s not the only thing that causes confusion in the process. California also requires you to jump through a series of hoops—in addition to the bar exam—to gain admittance. This post explores steps you can take to ensure that your California bar admission process is as timely and smooth as possible.
Step One: Meet the Legal Education Requirements
The legal education requirements to be admitted in California are less stringent than in other states. Attending an ABA-accredited or State Bar of California accredited law school are the most typical ways to meet this requirement, but you can also apply after four years of study at an unaccredited distance-learning law school or after four years of study under a judge or attorney.
If you’re not a U.S.-educated attorney, you can still be admitted to practice law in California. The process requires extra steps, so factor in additional time. Most notably, applicants for admission are required to have a social security number. If you don’t have a social security number, you must request and prepare the form from the State Bar to request an exemption when you register with the State Bar of California.
Step Two: Register with the State Bar of California as an Attorney Applicant
To complete the process, you must register as an attorney applicant with the State Bar of California. Thankfully, the registration process itself is not time-consuming, and can be done online here. The online website allows you to track the status of your application and your eligibility.
Step Three: The Testing Requirements
Of all the things in the admission process, applicants tend to focus most on the testing requirements. By now, you won’t be a stranger to the fact that you have to take and pass the California bar exam to be admitted. Take the California bar seriously. The pass rates are the lowest in the country, and there is no workaround to studying hard and preparing wisely.
With the emphasis on the bar, don’t overlook the need to take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE). Although easier than the bar exam, you still need to have a solid grasp on the underlying rules to pass. Don’t put off the MPRE until the last minute; get it out of the way as soon as you can and check that item off of the list of things you need to get admitted. If you fail the MPRE the first time, you want to have given yourself ample time before the bar exam to take it again.
Step Four: The Moral Character Determination
To be admitted to the California bar, all applicants have to go through a background check and receive a positive moral character determination. One of the most important things to note about the moral character process is that it takes a long time.
The State Bar of California warns that the process typically takes a minimum of six months to complete. Because of that, anyone who wants to be admitted in California should start the process no later than their last year of law school. If you are coming to practice in California after practicing in another state, start the moral character process as soon as you learn that you’ll be moving. Your employer will be thankful for your diligence, and you’ll be glad that you can start appearing in court and filing motions at the earliest possible date.
The moral character process is involved. After registering as an attorney applicant on the State Bar of California website, you must complete the online moral character application. From there, State Bar staff review your history. The review includes references from past employers, fingerprints, criminal convictions, drug and alcohol abuse, review of debt, and any violation of school honor codes. And yes—I mentioned fingerprinting. Be sure to make time to review where you can have your fingerprints done locally so that can these be included with your application.
If you’re not sure where you are in the moral character determination process, you can always check your State Bar online account for a status update. If you want to know even more, call the State Bar. If you’re in Southern California, call the LA office at 213-765-1500. If you’re in Northern California, call the SF office at 415-538-2300.
Step Five: Completing Enrollment
Once you’ve completed all of the requirements, you will receive an admission packet in the mail. In it will be a membership enrollment (or “oath” card). An individual authorized to administer oaths must fill out and sign the card. If you want (although you don’t have to), you can attend one of the admissions ceremonies coordinated by the State Bar. Your admission packet will include a list of ceremony locations and dates. Once your return the membership enrollment card, you can start practicing in California.
The key takeaway for ensuring a smooth admission process to the State Bar of California is to start early. Do not make the mistake of assuming that the process can be completed quickly. By being aware of the admission requirements and understanding the timeline, you can ensure that you’ll be admitted to practice in California as soon as possible after passing the bar exam.