The word “bar” in bar exam or bar association refers to the community of lawyers admitted to practice law. It derives from the physical rail or bar that divides the gallery from the part of the courtroom where the lawyers, parties, judge, and jury sit. Thus, lawyers must literally “pass the bar” to enter a courtroom.

The tradition of calling the legal community the “bar” goes back to British usage before America was founded. The British word “barrister” for lawyers who appear in court derives from the same “bar” that divides British courtrooms.

Here is some information about the word “bar” in the U.S. and the role the bar plays.

The Role of the Bar

Many voluntary legal organizations call themselves a “bar association.” These groups exist for the educational and professional development of their members. They often focus on a particular group of lawyers, such as the Women’s Bar Association of New York.

But each state also requires membership in the state bar to practice law. The state bar is either part of the state’s court system or has authority delegated to it by the state court system. 

This mandatory state bar association regulates:

  • Admission of new lawyers
  • Practice of law in the state

New York has an unusual system because it splits these duties between two different entities rather than having just one entity for both. The New York State Board of Law Examiners administers the bar examination for all applicants who want to practice law in New York. The Appellate Divisions of New York State Supreme Court regulates lawyers and handles grievances.

New York is also unusual because its state bar is part of the court system. Many other states have a state bar association, such as The Florida Bar or The State Bar of California. The courts in these states delegate authority to regulate and discipline lawyers to their official state bar associations. 

In New York, the courts retained this authority and, as a result, the New York bar is part of the courts, rather than a separate association.

Becoming a Member of the Bar

The state has three broad requirements for admission to the New York bar:

Education or Training

Most states require candidates to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. New York has more flexible education or training requirements. 

In New York, you can take the bar examination if you:

  • Graduated from an ABA-accredited law school
  • Attended an ABA-accredited law school and studied in a law office
  • Graduated from an unaccredited law school and practiced law in another state for five years
  • Graduated from a foreign law school program equivalent to a U.S. law school

Most applicants to the New York bar graduate from an ABA-accredited law school.

New York State Bar Examination

The New York State Bar Examination tests general areas of law that all lawyers should know, including:

  • Contract law
  • Property law
  • Civil procedure
  • Criminal law
  • U.S. and New York constitutional law
  • Commercial law
  • Tort law (the basis of personal injury, premises liability, and other negligence claims)

In July of 2021, 63% of candidates passed.

Proof of Moral Character

Applicants to the New York bar must have a relatively clean background. New York can use any evidence of poor moral character to reject a candidate for admission to the bar, including:

  • Unpaid child support
  • Criminal convictions
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Academic discipline
  • Professional misconduct

For example, an applicant who was disciplined by a contractor’s board for recklessness in a construction accident might get rejected.

Bar Resources for Clients

New York provides many resources for clients. You can check a lawyer’s license online or by phone. You can also call the courts to see if a lawyer has a disciplinary history.

If you have a complaint against a lawyer, you can contact the Attorney Grievance Committee appointed by the New York Appellate Divisions. A grievance will trigger an investigation and could result in disbarment.