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The legal profession is one of the noblest in the world. It is indeed one of the pillars of the modern world. Without lawyers, we may not have a comprehensive system of international laws, interstate relations, civil rights, labor rights, commerce, law enforcement, and other important aspects of the society. That being said, one does not simply become a member of the legal profession. One has to spend years in pre-law and law school to obtain the necessary skill, training, and knowledge to become a lawyer. And after that, in most countries, they would have to take the dreaded bar exam.
Unlike any other exams, the bar exams has to rank as one of the toughest test of wits. The toughness varies from country to country. In my research though, the following are the toughest bar exams aspiring lawyers from all over the world would have to hurdle. They are NOT ranked in any particular order:
The South Korea Bar Exam
Passing Rate: 5%
The passing rate alone will convince anyone that this must be a really tough bar exam to hurdle. And it really is, apart from the written exams, bar candidates must also take an oral examination. Imagine that! It is already nerve-wracking to recite in class, how much more would it be to take an oral exam before a bar examiner! Rumor has it that the South Korean Bar Exam is so tough that Korean lawyers have little respect to foreign lawyers.
Their written exam is also a test of memory and application of legal doctrines. But it also includes other stuff which are no longer within the legal academe such as questions pertaining to Korean history and literature. In other words, it is a test to make sure that not only is the bar candidate knowledgeable about Korean laws, he’s also a Korean patriot.
The harder part would be the oral exams which is not only a test of oral skills but also a test of oral wits, the candidate’s quickness to respond, the propriety of the response, appearance, persuasiveness, confidence, and logical reasoning. This is the part where most candidates are disqualified by simply saying the wrong terminology or not being persuasive enough in their arguments.
But there is an ongoing transition to revamp the Korean bar exams. The transition is ultimately geared to “Americanize” their bar exam. The transition is expected to be completed by the end of 2013.
The Japanese Bar Exam
Passing Rate: 2% but after 2006 it’s at 33%
Before 2006, there are three stages in the Japanese Bar Exams covering six law subjects. The first stage is a multiple choice question exam, the second is an essay questions exam, and the last is an oral examination. The national passing rate was so low that reforms were introduced in 2006 where one significant change was the removal of the oral examination stage. Since then, the passing rate was at 33% but in 2010, the passing rate dipped to 25%, the lowest since the reforms were made.
It is said that the toughest part of the exams is the multiple choice test stage. It is so tough it is almost unfair. By the end of the first stage, a lot of bar examinees are already eliminated. One criticism provided by observers is that the first stage of the exams may have been unfairly weeding out examinees who could be good lawyers.
The New York State Bar Exam
Passing Rate: 70-75%, 78% in 2013
The New York State Bar Exam is notoriously known as the toughest state bar in the USA. Compared to the other bar exams mentioned in this article, this actually has the highest passing rate. But it is still arguably one of the toughest because of the methodology employed. There are no oral exams but it still has the dreaded MCQ (multiple choice questions) portion. And of course the essay part.
What gives the NY State Bar Exam a relatively high passing rate (again as compared to the others mentioned here, in the US the NY Bar Exam has the lowest passing rate average) , is the fact that that it admits quality educated applicants. This is not to take away anything from the other bar exams mentioned here or the legal education employed in their respective jurisdictions. The quality of legal education in New York is so high every bar applicant is expected to pass. This distinction can be observed by the fact that foreign-educated law students who take the NY bar exams have an average passing rate (since 2005) of about 33% only.
In countries like the Philippines and South Korea where there is a huge difference between coastal law schools and law schools in major cities, a low passing rate can be expected. Needless to say, the overall quality of law schools within a jurisdiction does affect the national passing rate of a bar exam in a certain jurisdiction.
The Philippine Bar Exam
Passing Rate: Between 20 to 30% but in 2012 it dipped to 17.76% (2nd lowest all time)
The Philippine Bar Exam is especially tough. It is a centralized examination held only in Manila, Philippines. It covers 8 bar subjects and the exams are scheduled on four Sundays usually in the month of September (recently it has been held in the month of November).
The exams themselves are tough but add in other factors and they become tougher. These other factors include the fact that it covers 8 bar subjects. In other jurisdictions, bar exams only cover 6 or less subjects. The examination is also centralized and so bar applicants have to travel cross-country to Manila (the capital) just to take the exams. Students from far flung provinces, which constitute a huge chunk of the bar takers, would usually have to adjust to their new environment during the month of the exam.
The Philippine Bar Exam has no oral examinations. Traditionally, it consists mainly of essay writing but just recently, the multiple choice question (MCQ) portion was introduced. It consists 60% of the exam (per subject) and the other 40% constitutes the essay writing portion (opinion writing and memorandum writing). This was first introduced in 2011 where a relatively high 31.95% passed. But the following year, with the same format, only 17.76% passed, this was the second lowest all time.
The bar exam is rightfully tough. It is a standardized test as to who is fit to be a lawyer. After all, a lawyer should be independent, competent, and effective - such is needed for the administration of justice and for the welfare of the public at large. Nevertheless, the bar exam should not be so tough so as to unfairly weed out potentially good lawyers but it should not be so easy that anyone can just take it and pass it.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is merely a hypothetical take as to what are the toughest bar exams in the world. The author is still a law student and has not taken any of the above bar exams. If you think there are other bar exams out there which should be included in the list, please fill out the comment section below.