Here’s a fun fact: Abraham Lincoln didn’t go to law school. He independently studied the law, registered with the Sangamon County Court in Illinois and passed an oral examination by a panel of attorneys. He was then given his license to practice law.
In five states, you can still take this non-law school route to becoming a lawyer. Vermont, Washington, California, Virginia and Wyoming all allow people to become lawyers by “reading the law,” which, simply put, means studying and apprenticing in the office of a practicing attorney or judge.
There are a number of reasons why this option is important: it makes becoming a lawyer more accessible to a wider demographic of people; it frees new lawyers from the shackles of law school debt; it allows lawyers to study in the communities they want to serve rather than leaving the area for law school; and more.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) is taking the lead in educating people about legal apprenticeships. LikeLincoln, a website SELC created, offers a big picture glimpse into the legal apprenticeship movement with information, resources, advice and first-hand accounts from both supervising attorneys and apprentices.
Using information found on SELC’s website and LikeLincoln, as well as interviews with legal apprentices and SELC’s co-founder Janelle Orsi, Shareable created the following how-to for becoming a lawyer without going to law school. Rules and requirements vary from state to state so check your local law, but here are some practical tips, best practices and virtual cheers of encouragement.
Why Do It
There are numerous benefits to taking the legal apprenticeship route to becoming a lawyer. They include gaining years of legal practice prior to becoming a lawyer; avoiding law school debt which can run hundreds of thousands of dollars; learning at a pace and style that works for you; studying in the area you want to practice law in; and building a network of future clients, mentors, colleagues and legal professionals.
Receiving a license to practice law, without crushing debt, also allows one to take on legal work that is centered on building and strengthening community rather than making lots of money to pay off loans. This is a truly radical aspect of the legal apprenticeship program.
As Chris Tittle, Director of Organizational Resilience at SELC, writes, “Laws protect those who write and defend them. So, in a country where over 88 percent of lawyers are white, 70 percent are men, and 75 percent are over the age of 40, is it surprising that our legal system repeatedly fails to serve the interests of youth, women, communities of color, and other unrepresented groups?”
SELC's Chris Tittle and legal apprentices Yassi Eskandari-Qajar and Christina Oatfield
The Nuts and Bolts
The requirements for legal apprenticeships vary by state. In California, for example, apprentices are required to work and study with a practicing attorney 18 hours per week for four years. Supervising attorneys must also give monthly exams and bi-annual progress reports. Apprentices also take a law students exam after the first year. At the end of their apprenticeship, they’re eligible to take the bar exam.
The fees associated with the apprenticeship route are a tiny fraction of law school tuition. Christina Oatfield, who apprentices with SELC co-founder Jenny Kassan, breaks down the costs in California:
- Initial registration fee: $150
- Fee paid to the California Bar every six months: $30
- First Year Law Students Exam: $500-$900 (The pass rate is around 20% so many students take the exam more than once.)
- Bar exam at the end of the four years: $1000
- Books and other study materials: This can run up to $1000.
The total cost can be as low as a few thousand dollars. As Oatfield says, “Not bad compared to law school tuition.”
Find a Supervising Attorney
The first thing you need to do is to find an attorney you can apprentice with. This may prove to be a challenge.
“This has been a stumbling block for some people who hope to participate in the Law Office Study Program,” says Oatfield, “as some attorneys are wary of taking on the responsibility of supervising an apprentice.”
In California, the supervising attorney needs to have been practicing law in the state for at least five years and they need to spend at least five hours per week directly supervising you. Oatfield advises finding a supervising attorney who is practicing in areas of law that you want to learn about and eventually practice in yourself.
Supervising an apprentice requires a long-term commitment of time and energy as the attorney needs to administer and review exams, provide guidance, offer feedback on essays, and more. But there are benefits to doing so. These include improved skill at explaining complex legal topics; the opportunity to revisit legal questions and topics; bringing new skills, as well linguistic or cultural competencies, into a practice via an apprentice; the potential to learn and grow in response to feedback from apprentices; and the joy and satisfaction that comes with collaborating on a meaningful project.
Orsi notes that people who already work in legal organizations and law offices are probably the best positioned to find supervising attorneys and start apprenticing. Oatfield, as well as Yassi Eskandari-Qajar, another SELC legal apprentice, both volunteered for SELC before they decided to pursue legal apprenticeships.
“[W]e had already built relationships with the attorneys who are supervising us now and developed some very basic familiarity with their areas of specialty,” Oatfield says. “I think a potential supervising attorney wants reassurance that the prospective apprentice is really committed to the study of law and their particular area of expertise because it can take many months or even years of apprenticeship before the apprentice has the potential to contribute back to the attorney's practice.”
Once you’ve found an attorney, there are some simple forms that both of you must fill out. Check with your state to see what paperwork you’ll need.
Work While Apprenticing
Yes, it is possible to work another job while apprenticing. Or, better yet, find a paid position within the legal system. That way, you’re furthering your hands-on experience while learning the law. The additional exposure, says Eskandari-Qajar, who is in her first year, also helps to contextualize one’s studies.
She experienced a “serious learning curve” as she was getting up to speed with legal terminology. This meant that she had to slow her pace and devote more outside time as she was building a foundational understanding of the law and legal terms.
“[N]ew apprentices should play it by ear and be prepared to give more time and energy toward the beginning...if they are like me and new to the field.” She continues, “I imagine that when I am preparing for the first year law students exam, I will have to really ramp up the time I give to the apprenticeship, and do so again prior to taking the bar exam. If you can strike an arrangement with your employer that is flexible around those times, that would be ideal.”
Orsi points out that apprenticing only requires 18 hours per week of work and/or study, and the idea is that the apprentice should not be required to study beyond that. But if the apprentice spends the 18 hours doing legal work that doesn't prepare them well for the bar exam, they should make extra time to study the bar exam topics.
The inspiration for LikeLincoln. Photo by Ron Cogswell (CC)
For Eskandari-Qajar, one of the most important tips she can offer is to make time. “Even if you have a job in the field of law, there will be things that aren’t covered by either the apprenticeship or work,” she says. “For those, you have to hit the books.”
Orsi advises that apprentices, especially those with weak writing skills, do a lot of writing as two-thirds of the bar exam is essay writing. In law school, most exams involve essays so students get a lot of practice.
“[A] key skill for passing the bar exam, and for practicing law,” Orsi says, “is the ability to write well and organize information clearly. Apprentices with strong writing skills will have a significant edge, and will be able to spend more time doing practical work, and less time writing practice exams.”
Studying and Test Taking
The bar exam is very stressful because it's three solid days of intense test-taking. Orsi offers advice to those preparing for it:
“My theory is that it's good to develop positive associations with test taking, if possible,” she says. “So each time I give a monthly exam to the apprentices, I try to do something fun or silly, before, during, or after. Last month, I brought a massage chair to the office on exam day.”
She says that she’s not sure if these things will “ultimately reduce the torture of the three days of bar exam,” but figures there's no harm in doing fun or silly things, so it's worth a try.
When Orsi was studying for the bar exam, she had audio courses that she listened to while hiking and biking. She also wrote dozens of songs that outlined the 12 bar exam topics to the tune of 12 different karaoke tracks, including "I Will Survive" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." In the final weeks before the exam, she got up and sang the songs every day.
“I did everything possible to make it enjoyable,” she says. “I did not do what most people do, which is pay $3000-$5000 for an intensive bar exam prep course. However,” she continues, “I might actually recommend that apprentices do take such a course, because they may benefit from re-learning the material in a classroom context and from receiving significant input on their practice exams.”
One of the benefits of law school is being surrounded by other law students. Having a peer circle is a good way to gauge your progress and find support during challenging and stressful times. There’s not yet a central way to find and connect with other legal apprentices but Orsi says that SELC will likely continue to build upon the LikeLincoln blog and potentially add another resource page where apprentices may network with one another and share resources. They are currently seeking funding to support their efforts to grow the resources and create a network.
Eskandari-Qajar points to an online network for lawyers, legal workers, law students, and legal apprentices that SELC is creating called the Sharing Economy Attorney Network (SEAN). The network, which will be invitation-only for the first six months, then open to the public, is for anyone involved in cutting edge new economy or sharing economy law.
According to Eskandari-Qajar, the nation-wide forum will allow members to network, share ideas and resources, showcase knowledge, ask and answer questions, refer clients, attend online legal education programs and webinars, and build relationships and connections that will advance both the movement for more just, resilient economies and the legal professionals who will help get us there.
“There's nothing else like this out there,” she says, “and it is especially unique in that it is the first such network for legal apprentices. SEAN will be a way for current and prospective apprentices to create profiles where they can list interests and experience, form valuable local and regional connections, and find alignment with compatible attorneys.”
She adds that SEAN would also be a way for legal apprentices to form cohorts with nearby peers, and for current apprentices to diversify their legal experience by identifying additional attorney mentors with whom they can study on rotation. She suggests signing up for SELC’s newsletter to stay in the loop of SEAN developments.
For as many benefits as it offers, LikeLincoln advises that the apprenticeship route isn’t for everyone. Since the apprenticeship option is not offered nor recognized by all states, there are geographic concerns. Law school libraries also offer a host of resources that apprentices can’t access, and some big law firms may be more inclined to hire lawyers who have gone to law school.
You’ll also need to determine if you’re the kind of person who would do better in law school than as a legal apprentice. LikeLincoln advises law school if you: need a structured curriculum and learn well by listening to lectures; enjoy the social aspects of school and the academic side of law school, with its highly intellectual arguments; want the prestige of a law degree; or want to work in a big law firm or teach in a law school.
The Big Picture
For self-starters who want to jump right into legal work, becoming a legal apprentice is an attractive alternative to law school. But as Eskandari-Qajar reminds us, this is a big commitment not to be take lightly.
“Even though you are not dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars on this educational path, you are investing four years of your time to become a lawyer,” she says. “Remember to keep your eye on the prize and don't forget why you chose to take this path instead of taking other paths.”
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