How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School

How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School


This weekend, thousands of young prospective lawyers across the nation will receive the results of the July 2015 bar exam. Those who pass will be one step closer to practicing law in their state; those who fail must retreat from society once again, hit the books, and wallow in the depths of misery until the next exam in February.

Nearly all those who await results have followed the traditional route to lawyerdom: They`ve toiled through three years of rigorous study at an American Bar Association-approved law school. They`ve taken $5,000+ bar exam prep courses. They`ve spent summers fetching coffee for district attorneys and corporate lawyers.

A select few, however, have completely bypassed these steps. Several U.S. states offer a little-known alternative path to the bar exam room: "reading the law" - or serving as an apprentice in the office of a practicing attorney or judge.

Last year, out of 83,963 bar exam takers, only 60 were apprentices. A mere 17 succeeded in passing the bar exam and becoming eligible to practice law. It is a long, difficult road, requiring four years of mentorship and thousands of hours of self-led work, but when completed, it can save a prospective lawyer hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school debt.

So, just how does one go about doing this?

How Lawyers Skip Law School Today

Today, only four states - California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington - allow aspiring lawyers to take the bar exam without going to law school. Instead, they are given the option to apprentice with a practicing attorney or judge. (New York, Maine and Wyoming offer an apprenticeship alternative as well, but also require some law school.)

In California, this option is called the "Law Office Study Program" (rule 4.29 under the state bar`s legal code). All lawyers seeking to forego law school must meet the following stipulations:

  • - Sit in a practicing attorney`s office for 18 hours per week for a period of four continuous years
  • - Passage of the First-Year Law Students` Examination
  • - A positive moral character determination
  • - Passage of the Multi-state Professional Responsibility Examination
  • - Passage of the California Bar Examination

The first major challenge faced by a law apprentice is finding an attorney willing to take on the task. None of the states that offer the apprenticeship alternative offer any assistance in finding a supervising lawyer: “Finding one willing to take on the responsibility of educating a new lawyer,” writes The New York Times, “can be difficult.”

Even assuming an apprentice settles this dilemma, fulfills four years of independent study, and passes all precursory exams, the bar exam is not in his or her favor. A crawl through historical exam data (1996 to 2014) via the National Conference of Bar Examiners reveals a wide variance in pass rates from state to state:

America`s Hardest Bar Exams

America`s Hardest Bar Exams

But these numbers represent the results for all test-takers, most of whom are law school graduates. The numbers for those who take the apprenticeship route are much more dismal.

Of the 60 apprentices who took the bar exam last year, only 17 (28%) passed, gauged with an average pass rate of 73% for students who attended ABA-approved universities. Going back historically, the passage rates for apprentices are slightly better, but still among the worst of any education type:

Bar Exam Pass Rates By Education Type

Bar Exam Pass Rates By Education Type

Since 1996, 1,142 apprentices have taken the bar exam; only 305 have passed. Likely, this can be attributed to the nature of an apprenticeship: in a law office study, an apprentice is working under one lawyer, who usually has a specific focus, while law school covers a much wider breadth of topics.

Breaking down these passage rates by state does, however, reveal a glimmer of hope.

The Slim Odds of Passing the Bar Exam Without a Law Degree

The Slim Odds of Passing the Bar Exam Without a Law Degree

While bar exam pass rates in other states range from 18% to 33%, Washington state has a surprisingly high pass rate, at 56%. Washington’s state bar, more than any other state’s, provides extensive support for students who choose to apprentice, including a volunteer network who sets study standards and monitor progress. Last year, these resources resulted in 67% of Washington apprentices passing the bar exam, nearly as high as those who graduated from ABA-accredited schools.

California’s state bar, on the other hand, seems to discourage apprenticeships.

After graduating from Berkeley with a Bachelor’s Degree, Christina Oatfield decided to apprentice under California's Law Office Study Program rather than go to law school. But it wasn’t until after she graduated that she became aware of this option. “The state bar doesn’t advertise this program really well,” she says. “There is info on their website, but you really have to search for it to find it.”

She is now about halfway through her four-year apprenticeship with an attorney at the Sustainable Law Economies Center, a local non-profit.

“I don’t think apprenticeships are for everyone,” she admits. “Law school comes with structure — tests, deadlines, a classroom environment — and some people need that. But at the same time, I don’t think law school prepares you to actually practice law, and I’m getting hands-on experience every day.”

Apprenticing in lieu of law school also comes with obvious financial benefits. While most law school graduates wallow in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and have to take “soul-sucking” corporate jobs to recoup losses, apprentices can enter the profession debt-free, and retain the option to take on more humanitarian causes.

“There is very little that would entice me to go $100,000 or more into debt for a credential,” one law apprentice jokes. Many of his colleagues share this opinion.

Apprenticesheep vs Law School Costs

Apprenticesheep vs Law School Costs

Of course, added to these costs (both for law school students and apprentices) are bar exam test prep courses, which can run anywhere from $1,400 to $15,000, and the cost of the bar exam itself (which ranges by state, from $250 to $860).

But even when law apprentices successfully pass the bar exam, and find themselves officially equipped to practice law, they must face the degree-obsessed nature of their industry. Most of America’s prestigious law firms only recruit from top-tier law schools, putting the best positions out of reach for apprentices.

After reading law for three years and passing the Virginia bar exam, Ivan Fehrenbach has learned this the hard way. “I have some clients who look up on my wall and say, ‘Where did you go to law school?’ and aren’t too happy with the answer,” he told The New York Times. Today, he is a “country lawyer” who helps clients navigate through things like speeding tickets and divorces.

In many respects, the American Bar Association and other overseeing law bodies don’t take apprenticeships seriously, and do everything they can to corral students into three-year, accredited law schools.

Robert E. Glenn, president of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, has made his stance on the matter quite clear: “[Apprenticeships] are a cruel hoax,” he has said. “It’s such a waste of time for someone to spend three years in this program but not have anything at the end.”

But despite apprentices’ lower bar exam pass rates and increased hardship in finding employment, perhaps the program should be given more credence. It not only eliminates law student debt, but provides an alternative, more vocational path.

“I wanted to get my hands dirty instead of being cooped up in a classroom,” an ex-apprentice who now defends farm workers told California Lawyer. “And the training I got prepared me for the work I do today.”