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Friday, August 1, 2014

Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School?

From the New York Times:

California is one of a handful of states that allow apprenticeships . . . in lieu of a law degree as a prerequisite to taking the bar and practicing as a licensed lawyer. In Virginia, Vermont, Washington and California, aspiring lawyers can study for the bar without ever setting foot into or paying a law school. New York, Maine and Wyoming require a combination of law school and apprenticeship. 
The programs remain underpopulated. Of the 83,986 people who took state or multistate bar exams last year, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, only 60 were law office readers (so-called for the practice of reading legal texts as preparation). But at a time when many in legal education — including the president, a former law professor — are questioning the value of three years of law study and the staggering debt that saddles many graduates, proponents see apprenticeships as an alternative that makes legal education available and affordable to a more diverse population and could be a boon to underserved communities.
The problem with this, however, is that people who read law still need to take the bar exam. After sacrificing three days of my life to the California Bar Exam I think that there are still some pretty unpleasant things that people in legal apprenticeships have to undertake in order to practice law.

While I think that the bar exam was a difficult experience, I think that I would have been in a much worse position without a solid foundation of legal knowledge that law schools can provide in a systematic and thorough manner. The realities of legal apprenticeships reflect this:

None of the states help prospective law readers locate a supervising lawyer, and finding one willing to take on the responsibility of educating a new lawyer can be difficult. Bar passage rates for law office students are also dismal. Last year only 17 passed — or 28 percent, compared with 73 percent for students who attended schools approved by the American Bar Association.

. . .

Robert E. Glenn, president of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, was less circumspect. “It’s a cruel hoax,” he said of apprenticeships. “It’s such a waste of time for someone to spend three years in this program but not have anything at the end.”
Those who do manage to pass the bar often do so after taking it several times. And without a law degree, clerkships and jobs in biglaw are tough to land.

While the Times has some anecdotes about people who have passed the bar soon after a legal apprenticeship, and even some people who have managed to make it into big law firms without going to law school, I don't think that the legal apprenticeship route is generally a good one. Most people who take this approach may end up with less debt, but their chances of passing the bar are low, and their chances of becoming practicing lawyers are seriously diminished as a consequence.

And those who are bright enough to pass the bar exam and land traditional jobs without going to law school are probably bright enough to write a strong application that would get them a hefty scholarship at an accredited law school. The scholarship would eliminate most or all of law school's tuition costs and would give students the resources and systematic learning that law schools are designed to provide. The law school may not be the best in the country, but it would give students a much better chance at passing the bar and having more career options.

Legal apprenticeships are an interesting feature of the legal education landscape, and there may be some people who are well-suited for these programs. But for the most part, I think that legal apprenticeships run the risk of being over-romanticized, and the hard realities of the bar exam and the demands of legal employers and clients make reading law a risky option for those considering a a legal career.

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