Who has the hardest bar exams?
“No associate of this firm has ever failed the Bar exam.”—John Grisham’s The Firm
Who has the most difficult Bar or Law Society admission exam?
In Canada I would say that the answer is without a doubt Quebec. After graduating from law school one must attend either a four month Bar School or an eight month version of Bar School which includes a four month prep course. This means that you have to go back to school even after graduating from law school. Of course, civil law schools tend to allow students to apply for admission straight out of CEGEP so you can be as young as 21 or 22 when you graduate from law school. Thus, if one fails the bar exam at least they are still young enough to do something else with their life.
Unfortunately, if you fail the Bar exam and do not pass the immediate re-take in Quebec you have to do a mandatory eight month course over another year. Therefore, some students end up trapped in Bar School for up to two years of their lives. Not pleasant. I never wrote the Quebec Bar exam but I certainly recall all the horror stories as described by other students at McGill. All in all it appears that the fail rate for the Quebec Bar is around 19 percent. This is definitely a difficult bar exam (see Barreau du Québec c. Khan  QCCA 792 for more info on the Quebec Bar).
California and the District of Columbia:
In the United States many claim that California has the toughest bar exam. The District of Columbia Bar exam also seems to have a fairly low pass rate and Hillary Clinton is famous for having flunked the test (while passing in Arkansas). It is not clear to me why anyone would choose to write the DC Bar exam rather than to write the Virginia or Maryland Bar exams and then simply waive in to the District as DC offers reciprocity throughout the United States. Virginia and Maryland border on DC and in fact many people live in those states and commute to the District. In fact, it seems that very few students write the DC Bar exam but I digress. Some stats on the DC pass rate are found here.
The California exam is taken over three days. There are many law schools in California that are not even accredited and therefore some students also have to take what is known as “the Baby Bar” before they write the California exam.
As for the real Bar exam, it is said to be so difficult that even the former Dean of Stanford Law actually failed it the first time in 2005 but passed on her second try in 2006. Further, a lawyer named Maxy Filer was notable for flunking the California Bar the first 47 times before finally passing on his 48th try.
Mr. Filer first wrote the exam in 1966 and finally passed it in 1991. By then his two sons had grown up, graduated from law school, and been admitted to the Bar themselves all while their father was still studying for the exam. In any event, persistence certainly pays off and Maxy Filer finally became a proud member of the profession in 1991.
The hardest bar exam in the world has to be Japan. I must qualify that statement. While it is still the hardest exam, it is actually easier now than it used to be. Until 2006 the Japan Bar had a mere 3 percent pass rate.
Today, Japan has lowered the bar so to speak and the pass rate has climbed to 25 percent. However, it appears that those who actually attend law school have a slightly better chance of passing the exam. Under the old system one could sit for the bar exam indefinitely but now a student is limited to three tries. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, some students will study for up to two years before daring attempt to write the exam.
While I’ve always felt that the barrier to the legal profession should be at the law school admissions stage, with only a few casualties along the way in either law school or on the bar exam, it is interesting to get lost on occasion in one of the many You Tube videos related to these exams. Bar prep courses are certainly a major industry in the United States. So too are You Tube instructional videos on how to handle the stress of studying and writing the bar exam. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the Ontario Bar exam is a walk in the park. But I am glad that it is no Japan or California either.