Written by Joanna Hughes

That headline probably caught your attention, didn’t it? After all, when you think about becoming a lawyer someday, going to law school seems like a pretty big piece of the puzzle. But the truth is that there is one way to practice law in the United States without attending law school. Here’s what you need to know about this less-traveled pathway to legal careers known as “reading the law.”

Don’t Have $120,000?

Law school lasts three years with price tags spiking upwards of $40,000 a year at top tier schools. While this route is acceptable for many students, for others it’s a less-than-appealing -- if not impossible -- prospect. If you fall into the latter group, this doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a legal career in your future. Rather, you may be able to “read the law,” AKA do an apprenticeship, to position yourself to practice as a licensed lawyer.

While lawyers have a long history in the United States, law degrees are comparatively new.  In colonial times, most legal professionals earned their credentials through an intensive apprenticeship system. It wasn’t until the early 1800s when law degrees emerged as an alternative, but many successful lawyers -- including everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster to John Marshall and Clarence Darrow -- pursued the apprenticeship route. And it wasn’t until decades later that states began mandating law school by requiring it as a prerequisite for taking the bar exam.

Just how many would-be lawyers take this path? According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, just 60 out 83,963 bar exam-takers were apprentices as opposed to law degree-holders in 2015.

The Ups and Downs of Apprenticeships

Becoming a law apprentice isn't as simple as it sounds. (If it was, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?) Still, thinking outside the classroom (and inside the courtroom) is a smart fit for certain students -- if they’re up for the challenge, that is.

So what’s standing in the way of the rest of them?  For starters, apprenticeships -- which allows aspiring lawyers to learn the law in a practical setting during an apprenticeship with a seasoned lawyer or judge -- are only permitted in a handful of states, including California (where it’s called the “Law Office Study Program”), Virginia, Vermont, Washington and California.  (Three additional states, including New York, Maine and Wyoming, meanwhile, allow an apprenticeship/law school combination.)

And then there’s the fact that apprenticeships may not be widely accepted -- even in states that allow them. Robert E. Glenn, president of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, told the New York Times, “It’s a cruel hoax. It’s such a waste of time for someone to spend three years in this program but not have anything at the end.”

Furthermore, before even endeavoring to meet rigorous stipulations for apprenticeships, law apprentices must first overcome a major barrier: finding a supervising attorney willing to take them on. This may take time, but they’re out there. Said one Virginia lawyer and supervisor of the role, “It does take a lot of time and effort. It’s worth it. We have plenty of lawyers, but not enough good ones.”

Lastly, the data indicates that the bar exam isn't exactly easy on apprentices. According to Priceonomics, just 305 of the 1,142 apprentices who’ve taken the bar exam over the past decade or so have passed. To what can this be attributed? “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.”

Concludes California Law Office Study Program participant Christina Oatfield, “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.”

Echoes Priceonomics, “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.”

Know Your Options

But even if a law apprenticeship isn't the right fit for you doesn't mean conventional law school is in your future, either. Rather, both online and part-time law degree programs are opening up new opportunities to different kinds of students. 

The takeaway for those considering whether or not to go to law school? As with all major life decisions, what’s best for one person may be very different than what’s best for someone else. It all comes down to knowing your options -- and knowing yourself. Are you short on funds, extremely motivated, willing to take the risk, and undaunted by the prospect of a lifetime of answering the question, “Where did you go to law school?” with, “I didn’t”? If so, then “reading the law” may be worth looking into. (Not to mention that if it was good enough for Abe Lincoln, it just may be good enough for you.)

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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