It’s a surprising question but one that I’ve heard more than once: ‘Is it possible to take the Bar Exam without attending law school?’ In the Untied States, the vast majority of aspiring attorneys go down the path of four years of undergraduate studies, the LSAT exam, three years in law school, and then, finally, the Bar Exam. Completing this journey leaves many graduates with seven years of higher education under their belt and very likely over $100,000 in student debt.
At first, the notion of bypassing law school to take the Bar Exam seemed absolutely wild to me. I assumed there must be some legislation mandating law school completion as a prerequisite for taking the Bar. Intrigued, I delved into researching the subject and decided to share my findings in this article.
However, let me clarify upfront: this article doesn’t offer a secret shortcut to avoiding law school while still becoming a certified lawyer. Most Bar Exam takers are indeed graduates of ABA-approved law schools, and the overwhelming majority of states require a law degree for Bar Exam eligibility. Apprenticeships, while an intriguing alternative, are not a practical option for most aspiring lawyers.
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Why do some states even leave the option open?
Interestingly enough, law school was not always the institution of choice for many attorneys. The oldest law school in the U.S was founded in the 1770’s, although law school attendance did not become the standard until many years later. During the colonial period, our system of education was based on the English Barrister system which operated as an apprenticeship for attorneys. This apprenticeship system was common in the U.S, and you may be surprised at the staggering number of famous attorneys who never stepped foot in a law school.
Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow: Famous Attorneys Who Skipped Law School
One of the most famous and influential attorney’s and president’s, this man never once stepped foot in a law school. Even more amazing was that Lincoln was never formally educated, he was entirely self-taught. He practiced law for seventeen years in the state of Illinois and was widely regarded as one of the most sought after attorneys in the state.
The famous attorney from the Scopes-Monkey Trial, among others, Darrow dropped out of law school within a year. He felt that it would be more cost-effective to work and study in an actual law firm.
The tendency to apprentice before law school didn’t really begin to change until the American Bar Association was formed in the 1870s. The A.B.A lobbied states tirelessly until nearly all of them created law school as a requirement to become an attorney.
States That Permit Legal Apprenticeships: California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington
Nowadays there are a few remaining states that allow students to opt out of law school and take on the apprenticeship track. California, Vermont, Virginia & Washington all allow students to take the apprenticeship track instead of law school. The requirements vary to some degree between the states, but they all require you to apprentice under an attorney for a period of at least four years. Typically, you are also required to send progress reports to the Bar.
Challenges of Legal Apprenticeships
The challenges for those that seek the apprenticeship track are very difficult. First and foremost you would have to find an attorney that’s actually willing to take you on as an apprentice. It’s a lot of work for the supervising attorney as well, not just for the student. Once you have completed the years of apprenticeship you then have to take the Bar.
The Bar Exam is an extremely difficult test that no law student likes to think about until they absolutely have to. It’s also expensive, many students spend thousands of dollars on Bar Exam preparation. The Bar Exam passage rate varies tremendously depending on the state and the school you attended.
For example, California is universally known in the U.S for having the most difficult bar exam in the country. The 2018 February Bar Passage numbers came out in May and they were horrendous. It was the lowest passage rate California has ever seen since it first started recording the numbers in 1951. How bad was it? 27.3 percent of soon to be attorneys passed the exam, 27.3 percent! For those that went through an apprenticeship program, the numbers are even more abysmal.
California is certainly not the standard, but it does signify how difficult the Bar is. Apprenticeships have a far reduced chance of passing the bar versus students that graduated from an A.B.A approved law school. A lot of time and money goes into an apprenticeship, and it would suck to discover that you can’t pass the bar.
Employment Prospects for Legal Apprentices vs. Law School Graduates
Hopefully anyone that is attending law school or even going through an apprenticeship is doing so with the goal of getting a good job. This is difficult enough for many law students, as they discover upon graduation that the legal market is well saturated. Many big employers want students who performed well in school, and many lower salaried positions make it difficult to pay back loans.
The difficulty in finding a good job is multiplied several times for apprenticeships. The legal industry is pedigree-obsessed, and its hard to overcome an employers pre-conceived notions when they ask what law school you attended, and you have to give that awkward “I didn’t attend a law school” response.
The Financial Considerations of Apprenticeships vs. Law School
As we have explored the pathways to taking the Bar Exam, including the unconventional apprenticeship route, it’s important to consider the financial implications that accompany each option. Law school is undeniably expensive. With tuition fees, books, and living expenses, it’s easy to accumulate well over $100,000 in debt by the time you graduate. This financial burden often impacts early career choices, forcing many young attorneys to opt for higher-paying corporate law positions (me) to repay loans.
On the other hand, apprenticeships present an alternative that is ostensibly less expensive. Without the need to pay steep tuition fees, one could argue that this path offers financial freedom. However, this viewpoint might be overly simplistic. While you may save on tuition, the apprenticeship path comes with its own set of financial challenges. First, not all supervising attorneys will pay apprentices, which means you might have to balance a part-time job along with your rigorous apprenticeship responsibilities. Secondly, the opportunity cost of spending four years as an apprentice needs to be considered, especially when compared to law school graduates who may be climbing the career ladder during that same period. Finally, the lower pass rates for apprenticeship candidates in the Bar Exam means that you might be stuck taking the Bar Exam multiple times. That means additional costs associated with Bar Exam preparation, exam fees and additional time invested.
While apprenticeships may look like a cost-saving method on the surface, they come with hidden expenses and opportunity costs that are essential to consider. Given the legal industry’s focus on credentials, and the risks associated with not passing the Bar Exam as an apprentice, one needs to weigh the pros and cons carefully. Whether you choose to go to law school or follow the apprenticeship route, it’s essential to be fully aware of the financial commitments and challenges you’ll face on your journey to becoming a practicing attorney.
The Importance of Networking and Mentorship
Regardless of the path you choose—traditional law school or apprenticeship—networking and mentorship play a significant role in your career trajectory. Networking can provide not only job opportunities but also valuable advice and emotional support, both of which are essential in the high-pressure environment of legal practice. For law school graduates, opportunities for networking are more structured, often beginning with career fairs, alumni events, and connections made during internships. These formal settings offer chances to meet professionals in the field, ask for advice, and even secure job offers.
For apprentices, however, the networking landscape is different and often more challenging. Without the framework of a law school to guide them, apprentices must be proactive in seeking out relationships within the legal community. This may involve attending bar association meetings, seeking out online communities of legal professionals, or asking their supervising attorney to introduce them to other professionals in the field. Mentorship becomes all the more crucial for apprentices, as they are learning on the job rather than in a classroom setting. A good mentor can offer apprentices not only the practical skills needed to pass the Bar Exam but also insights into the culture and norms of the legal profession.
In both paths, having a strong network can significantly affect your career. Regardless of your educational background, don’t underestimate the power of building strong professional relationships. Be it through your law school alumni network or the local bar association, take the initiative to make connections that will help you throughout your career.
Personally, I don’t have a dog in the fight over apprenticeships. I certainly wouldn’t do it, but there is a very small segment of the legal community that still makes it into the Bar through apprenticeships. I certainly don’t see how it would make someone a worse attorney than one out of law school. In all reality students trained through an apprenticeship probably have a leg-up against there law school trained peers in terms of practical knowledge. That being said, an apprenticeship is a relic of the past. It appears to be a riskier career move than sacrificing three year of your life in law school.