The MPRE: my experience sitting the American legal ethics exam as an English lawyer

The Multi-state Professional Responsibility Exam, or “ethics exam” (MRPE) is one of three exams required in order to practice law in an American state (more on that here). Having just taken the exam, here are my thoughts as an English-trained solicitor currently practicing in London. 

🌟 UPDATE: I passed the exam! I exceeded the score I needed for California.

For more information on how the United States and English legal systems compare, read my post “Lawyering in America and England”. 

Introduction to the MPRE

The MPRE tests a prospective lawyer’s understanding of professional ethics regulation in the United States. The questions are based on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC). The MPRE is a 60-item (50 scored questions and 10 non-scored questions), two-hour multiple-choice examination administered three times each year at established test centers across the country. You must pass the MPRE before you can be admitted to practice in the United States, but you can take it anytime after completing their first year of law school (including after sitting the bar exam itself).

I chose to sit the exam in New York City because: 1) it’s easiest to get to from London and 2) my husband works for a NY headquartered company, so he was able to meet up with colleagues while we were there. My score will be sent to my jurisdiction of choice, which happens to be California.

One Pace Plaza
I took the exam at Pace University in Manhattan. My only complaint was that the individual desks were really tiny, but other than that, it was a good test day experience. 

Test day

On the morning of the exam, I woke up at about 5AM: this was due to still being on “London time” and somewhat jet-lagged! I bought some coffee and brought it back to the hotel room, and spent about an hour doing some last minute cursory revision.

At 8AM, I walked the three blocks to the testing centre at Pace University. The reporting time was at 8:15, and there was already a massive queue of students and prospective lawyers outside. We were held in the queue for about 30 minutes, and I enjoyed chatting to a few people about our various career stages. I even spoke to a young guy who was resitting the exam after failing it previously. It’s important to maintain some perspective: failing isn’t the end of the world!

At 8:45AM we began to stream into the building, where people were turned away for having backpacks (the rules clearly state NO BAGS). At one point a test invigilator said, “if you have cellphones, don’t tell me about them! Just make sure they’re turned off and hidden away!” Phones, like bags, are also forbidden – but I suppose there was a slightly more lenient approach to having them on this occasion.

We then went through the process of having our admission tickets checked against our ID, and sent into our testing rooms. At Pace, we sat in small classrooms with about 20 people per room: there wasn’t any assigned seating, it was simply done on a first-come, first-seated basis.

By 9AM, everyone in my room was seated and the door was closed. The invigilator read instructions about the exam, and we had a few minutes to fill out the various bubbles with our names and other bits of information. At 9:10AM we were permitted to break open the seal of our papers and begin.

study
The day before the exam, I spent a few hours studying in the famous Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library

Preparation

I probably invested about 50 hours in studying for the MPRE over the course of two months. That time also includes “passive studying,” such as listening to MPRE lectures while on the tube, for example.

  • I first familiarised myself with the subject matter breakdown of the exam itself, available here on the NCBE website.
  • I listened to and read the BarMax lectures, which are free for the MPRE.
  • I did a lot of practice questions, using BarMax as well as AmeriBar.
  • I read through the MRPCs on the ABA website.
  • I identified which questions were tripping me up and what Rule they related to. I then read the explanatory comments for those particular rules, also available on the ABA website.
  • I read through all of the test day instructions at least one week prior to the exam itself, so I knew exactly where to go and what to bring (for example, a passport photo in addition to ID!)

Final thoughts and tips

  • Do focus your energies on practice questions when studying! This exam is not about understanding the theory or philosophy of professional ethics. You will not be writing essays about the merits of client confidentiality!
  • Do review the commentary for rules that you want more clarity on. The commentary is far less vague than the rules, and often includes practical examples.
  • Do not underestimate this exam. Especially as a foreign lawyer, I found some of the rules a bit counter intuitive. Don’t be tempted to cram the night before: I strongly recommend dedicating 20 hours to studying for this exam if you’re an American law student, and more if you’re a foreign lawyer.
  • Do feel free to contact LSAC ahead of time at MPREinfo@LSAC.org if you have questions, including questions about test center assignments. I originally registered to take the exam in Seattle but then changed my mind. LSAC staff were very helpful and the change only took one email to initiate.
  • Do not bother trying to memorise the rules!
  • Do not worry about drinking too much coffee on the morning of the exam. You will have plenty of opportunities to use the toilet – at least I did at my centre!
  • Do manage your time. You will have two minutes per question. Some questions only took me 20 seconds to answer. My advice? Go through the exam answering everything you can on a first pass. If you come across anything that requires a bit of contemplation, write the question number down on the test booklet, and return to it later. When you go through the exam for a second time, cross off the difficult questions from your earlier list.
  • Do not be afraid to guess, if for whatever reason you can’t come up with the answer. There are no penalties for wrong answers, so just give it your best shot!

Image result for mpre

California Bar Exam; introduction

California Bar Exam; introduction

I’ve decided to sit the California bar next year! I thought it might be a good idea to keep a written record of my experiences, thoughts, predictions, and study strategy: these posts will be marked by the “California Bar Exam” category tag.

Why become dual-qualified? And why California? Although I’ve lived in London for nearly seven years and am licensed to practice law in England, I’m still an American citizen. I earned my Bachelors’ degree in the USA, and after studying law and politics fully intended to go to law school in the States. My original plans to spend one year in London to do a Masters degree changed when I met my now-husband!

It consider it something special to be qualified to practice law in your “home” jurisdiction. The American Constitution is very much a part of my professional and personal DNA: as I’ve become more and more involved in English and European law (especially in matters concerning media, expression, and privacy) the more interested I am in American jurisprudence.

Maybe it’s the academic in me, but I’m genuinely passionate and curious about legal theory and the practice of law. I also think being dual-qualified will make me a better lawyer, not least because the majority of my clients have some sort of international aspects which routinely touch on US law.

Currently, only a few states allow foreign-qualified lawyers to bypass American law school and sit the bar as “attorney applicants” – New York and California are two of the most popular. For boring administrative reasons* I’m not eligible to sit the bar in New York without doing an LL.M. in the States. California on the other hand only cares about the fact that I’m currently a lawyer in good standing in my home jurisdiction. So California it is!

Even if I was eligible to sit the NY bar, I do honestly think that I’d prefer to do it in California. My practice is focused on media, internet companies, telecoms, creative content, defamation, publicity, and privacy: so many interesting cases on those matters come out of California. Furthermore, I come across contracts subject to Californian law on a weekly basis. It would be great to be able to advise on those contracts, and not need to defer to US counsel! Plus, as a girl originally from the West Coast of the US, I’ve always believed known West Coast, Best Coast. 

There are three key components of the exam process:

1.  The Multi-state Professional Responsibility Exam, or “ethics exam” (MRPE). This exam can be taken in any one of 300 test centers around the USA, and is offered three times each year. I’m taking the exam in November, in New York City. My test results will be “uploaded” to California.

In July 2019, I’ll be off to Los Angeles to sit the California Bar Exam, which occurs over a two-day period:

2.  The California Bar Exam. Day 1 consists of five separate one-hour essays on a variety of legal topics, and one 90-minute practice test in which candidates are expected to work through a series of documents and produce some sort of memorandum or client letter. I’m still trying to figure out which points of California law specifically will be testable.

3.  The Multi-State Bar Exam. Day 2 is the MBE, which consists of 200 multiple-choice questions on seven subjects, based upon principles of common law and Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code (covering sales of goods). The questions are not broken down into sections and the seven topics are distributed more or less evenly throughout the exam. Candidates receive three hours during the morning session to complete the first 100 questions, and another three hours during the afternoon session to complete the second 100 questions.

The topics covered are:
• Business Associations
• Civil Procedure – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Community Property
• Constitutional Law – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Contracts – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Criminal Law and Procedure – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Evidence – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Professional Responsibility
• Real Property – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Remedies
• Torts – topic on both Day 1 and Day 2
• Trusts
• Wills and Succession

 

*Why not New York? According to Section 520.6 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law, foreign lawyers must satisfy certain requirements to be admitted to the New York bar. In addition to passing the bar exam itself, applicants must have a “qualifying degree” that satisfies the educational requirements to practice law in a foreign country.

The normal route in England for aspiring lawyers is to do an undergraduate degree in law: the LL.B. They then do a year of law school (LPC) and two years of clerking (the training contract).

For students who don’t do the LL.B (for example. if they do history or chemistry and later decide to go into law) they can do a one-year “conversion” course known as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) before doing the LPC. This was the route I chose, as – like many others – I did not do an undergraduate degree in law.

Unfortunately, despite being a qualified solicitor in England, the New York State Bar does not recognise the GDL as being a full “qualifying degree.” I can “cure” this by completing a 2-year LL.M. (a Masters’ degree in law) in the USA, but… nah. That’s not happening.

Lawyering in America and England

Lawyering in America and England

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” As an American who chose to pursue my legal career in London, I really enjoy considering legal issues from both an American and an English perspective, as I’ve done with Taylor Swift and defamation lawsuits, or the concept of celebrity “publicity rights”. But what about the differences in the legal system itself, or the education and training needed to become a lawyer? I’ve answered a few common questions below…

England and the United States are both “common law” jurisdictions. What does that mean and why does it matter?

Most legal systems are based on either Civil Code or Common Law. The system in which a lawyer practices can tell you a lot about their approach to their job, or legal philosophy more generally.

There are four main legal systems, including Civil (shown in blue) and Common Law (shown in pink). The other two systems are Religious law (Muslim, Jewish, etc) and Customary (indigenous, tribal, etc).

In Civil Law jurisdictions, which are also known as “Napoleonic” or “Roman” systems, the core principles are codified into a written collection of laws and procedures set out in the civil code. Lawyers are inquisitorial rather than adversarial, and it is the judge (or judges), who ask questions and demand evidence. In a civil law system, lawyers present arguments based on the evidence the court finds. The judge’s role is to establish the facts of the case and to apply the provisions of the applicable code.

Common Law, by contrast, puts great weight on court decisions, which are considered “law” with the same force of law as statutes. As such, common law courts have the authority to make law where no legislative statute exists, and statutes mean simply what courts interpret them to mean. In most scenarios, the two sides of a dispute argue before a neutral judge, who then makes a decision.

The United States, like most Commonwealth countries and former colonies, is an heir to the common law legal tradition of English law. Of course, certain practices traditionally allowed under English common law have been expressly outlawed by the American Constitution, such as bills of attainder and general search warrants. Practically speaking however, most Americans and Brits will have the same understanding of the roles of lawyers, trials, contracts, and much more.

Fun Fact: “Common law” derives its name from being common to all the King’s courts across England following the Norman Conquest of 1066. 

Continue reading “Lawyering in America and England”

Legal Careers: Applying for Training Contracts & Vacation Schemes

Legal Careers: Applying for Training Contracts & Vacation Schemes

It was a little over four years ago that I secured my training contract. Now that I’ve successfully been through the process myself, here are a few tips on applying for training contracts and vacation schemes that I hope you might find helpful.

It goes without saying that one of the most important skills any solicitor can have is the ability to organise and prioritise. One of the most helpful systems I implemented during my year-long search for a training contract was an extensive spread sheet.

To begin, I listed out the main information of 100 or so firms with offices in London. This was a dispassionate research task: I tried to separate any emotion I felt regarding rankings or website design.

My research considered:

  • what the application process entailed (verbal reasoning test? cover letter? assessment centre? presentation? panel interview?)
  • their big clients and main practice areas
  • the deadline for their application
  • the number of vacancies

I also looked at their salaries, which in retrospect only served as a distraction. If I had to do it all over again, I’d ignore the financial aspect and simply concentrate on recent deals and commercial awareness in relation to the firm’s core industries.

Conducting this preliminary research forced me to spend about 10-15 minutes acquainting myself with just how many firms are out there. I strongly encourage this approach at the outset, because I promise that there are fantastic firms beyond the magic circle, silver circle, and big-name US firms.

Narrowing down the application list was really difficult for me, and my ideas as to which firms to apply to changed often. Some suggestions I have for going from a seemingly endless list of firms to those you’ll actually be applying to are:

  • Group similar applications together. If you have a “mega-list” and a “maybe” list, take a look at your “maybe list” and compare the application forms. If a firm is only asking for a cover letter and a handful of standard questions (“why solicitor?” “why commercial law?” “what are the biggest challenges facing the legal sector today?”) it likely won’t take quite as long to complete when compared to a very bespoke application.
  • It might be better to complete several applications to firms that you’re not super-crazy about, versus spending your time hunting for THE ONE PERFECT FIRM FOR YOU. Spoiler alert: There probably isn’t one perfect firm for you. And even if there is, you might not be offered a place there. My heart breaks every time someone tells me, mid-July, that they’ve “only applied to one or two firms,” because they “just wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
  • Look beyond the numbers! I thought I’d have a better chance getting in with a firm that had 100+ vacancies, as opposed to a smaller firm. But the firm that finally offered me a contract actually only took 5 trainees per intake! Likewise, I wouldn’t worry too much about firm statistics such as PPP/profits per partner. Of course you want to be part of a business that’s doing well, but a lot can (and will!) change over the course of the next few years in the legal sector. A firm that’s doing marvelously today may struggle in a year’s time, and vice versa. Furthermore, indicators such as PPP don’t really tell the whole story. When you’re at the onset of your career, I’d suggest focusing on the things that will matter most to you, personally – things like time spent being mentored by senior associates or partners, your exposure to clients, opportunities for secondments or overseas seats, and the work/life balance you can expect to have.
  • Take things with a pinch of salt. It’s practically impossible to outsmart “the system,” because there really is no coherent system! Sometimes it just boils down to timing, luck, or some aspect of personality you cannot predict. I worked at a particular firm for 8 months, and did very well on the vacation scheme. I thought I stood a very strong chance to secure a training contract, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t have the right “vibe” for the two partners that led my final interview. Although it hurt to be rejected, I knew that I couldn’t take it (too) personally. What works brilliantly for some might not work for you.
  • If a firm looks good to you, APPLY. If a firm doesn’t look good to you (despite being the firm “everyone else applies to,”) DON’T APPLY. Just move on to something else. Don’t waste time agonising over the decision – you can always go back and submit an application later (before the deadline, of course) if you change your mind.
  • This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that applying to at least 10 firms is the best approach. In total, between applying for training contracts and vacation schemes in 2013 and 2014, I sent out over 60 separate applications. If you’ve done well at university and have already secured a vacation scheme (or even an interview for one) then the likelihood is that the quality of your applications is already there. It then becomes a numbers game. Once you’re confident in your answers (and have had someone else proof-read for grammar/spelling mistakes!) send the application off, and then send off another one. And another one. And another one. When I was applying for vacation schemes in December 2013, the very last application I made (the day before the deadline!) ended up landing me a week-long placement at a big international firm.

 

Good luck!