In the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, how does DiCaprio's character Frank Abagnale Jr. pass the Bar Exam with only two weeks of study?

Was he that smart, or is this just adaptation to the script?

Knowing this movie is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if this actually happened or if it was made up for the movie.

In the US, the Bar Exam is arguably one of the hardest tests to pass (second only to the CPA exam, I'd bet). Almost all budding lawyers must study for several years to pass this ambitious test.

So, is this the true story or is it just film adaptation?

5 Answers 5


This is covered in Frank Abagnale's Wikipedia article:

While he was posing as Pan Am First Officer "Robert Black", Abagnale forged a Harvard University law transcript, passed the Louisiana Bar exam, and got a job at the Louisiana State Attorney General's office at the age of nineteen. He told a stewardess he had briefly dated that he was also a Harvard Law School student, and she introduced him to a lawyer friend. Abagnale was told the Bar needed more lawyers and was offered a chance to apply. After making a fake transcript from Harvard, he prepared himself for the compulsory exam. Despite failing twice, he claims to have passed the bar exam legitimately on the third try after eight weeks of study, because "Louisiana at the time allowed you to take the Bar over and over as many times as you needed. It was really a matter of eliminating what you got wrong."

In his biography, he described the premise of his legal job as a "gopher boy" who simply fetched coffee and books for his boss. However, a real Harvard graduate also worked for that attorney general, and he hounded Abagnale with questions about his tenure at Harvard. Naturally, Abagnale could not answer questions about a university he had never attended. Eight months later he resigned after learning the man was making inquiries into his background.

Above the Law is a site for lawyers and it took a look at the film's claim as well (with some good references):

For many lawyers, this was an anticlimactic end to a running joke in the movie. With all due respect to people who can’t pass the Louisiana bar, passing the Louisiana bar is not particularly hard (despite the test’s unusual length and civil-law components). I don’t know if you can do it in two weeks. But in a month? In six weeks? Even without going to law school, I’m not sure there is a bar exam in the country that is so hard that a reasonably intelligent person couldn’t pass it with intense study over a few months. Again, they’re not really teaching you what you need to do as a lawyer in law school, they’re just messing with how you think.

It turns out that the real life Frank Abagnale Jr. passed the LA Bar on his third try. But there wasn’t any deception involved, he eventually just passed the test. Once he earned the credentials, Abagnale says that pretending to be a lawyer was one of the easiest things to fake.

  • The current state of information is that the real Frank Abagnale never passed the Louisana bar and there are no records of him ever practicing law. All of the other claims he has made are also in doubt. The real con was his claim to have performed so many cons.
    – Brady Gilg
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 16:56

I believe that it is slightly exaggerated. He took the exam 3 times and passed on the third. Overall ISTR he studied for about 2 months.

The reason he passed it was that you were allowed to resit the exam as many times as you want and they also told you why you had failed. It was just a matter of eliminating what he previously did wrong until he got a good enough mark.

Also, according to here:


The pass rate is:

In 2011, the Committee on Bar Admissions developed and administered examinations to 382 applicants in February, resulting in a 54.2% pass rate, and 750 applicants in July, resulting in a 72.4% pass rate. A total of 750 new attorneys were admitted to the Louisiana Bar in April and October ceremonies.

With a pass rate of 54.2 and 72.4% it does not sound that difficult.


According to this article:

Frank studied law books for weeks before he felt confident enough to take the test. Once he felt he knew a sufficient amount to pass, he registered with the examiner's office, supplying them with his fake transcripts. Eventually he was summoned to the office to take the exam. It was no surprise that he flunked, since he had never attended law school in his life.

Frank later stated in an interview with Faraci that "Louisiana at the time allowed you to (take) the Bar over and over as many times as you needed. It was really a matter of eliminating what you got wrong", which was exactly what he did. Surprisingly, after his third try Frank passed and received a license to practice law.


At the time he took the exam in the 1960s, the exam may have consisted entirely of essay questions. With an outline of each area of the law memorized, and some practice in writing essay answers in the style required, it may not have been that difficult to pass the exam if the exam at that time had a 50 to 75% pass rate. He was obviously a very intelligent man and he was very observant. He undoubtedly had a great memory. These days, the multistate portion of the bar exam would make it more difficult to bulls*** your way through the exam.

A big portion of succeeding at the bar exam is time management, and another big portion is raw intelligence. You don't have to demonstrate Perry Mason type mastery of the material, because there just isn't time. The essay format separates those who know too little from those who know "enough". The multiple choice questions that are on a modern day exam do a better job of identifying those who simply haven't studied enough.

Some state bar exams are a lot tougher than others. The Louisiana bar exam was probably fairly easy to pass back in those days. When the bar exam is only offered twice per year, you are under tremendous pressure to pass on the first try. If you know that you can re-take the exam over and over until you pass you just aren't going to be as motivated to study day and night. So Frank's competition might not have been so stiff back in those days.

What I wondered was WHAT Frank studied to prepare for the bar exam. Were there review books available back then??? He must have gotten some advice from somebody on what he needed to memorize, etc.


He bribed his way into it. He's just lying about studing for several weeks. He was a thief, and a liar and considering his intelligence, with enough dedication, he could have become an actual lawyer.

  • 2
    what is source for this ?
    – Panther
    Commented Mar 16, 2017 at 12:29

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