Can You Take the Bar Exam Without Going to Law School?


Wow isn’t that a crazy idea?! The typical route for any new attorney in the United States is a four year undergraduate degree, LSAT Exam, three years of law school, and yes finally the Bar Exam. By the time you’ve made it to the Bar you’ve spent seven years of your life in college and there’s a good chance that your more than $100,000 in debt.

I’ve gotten this question several times recently from a few friends. “Do you really have to attend law school to take the Bar Exam.” I had never thought of this before, and I immediately assumed that the idea of attempting this would be ludicrous. I concluded that there had to be a law on the books somewhere that required law school graduation as a condition to Bar admittance.

Later on I decided to do some research into the issue, and I’ve decided to make an article based off of that research.

First off this article isn’t going to give you advice on a magical route to skipping law school, and passing the bar exam. The VAST majority of bar exam takers are graduates from ABA Approved law schools. The VAST majority of states also require that you graduate from a law school, so an apprenticeship isn’t even an option for most students.

Why do some states even leave the option open?

can you take the bar exam without going to law school?

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

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.

Clarence Darrow

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 Do Allow Apprenticeships

do you have to go to law school to take the bar exam?

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

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.

Getting A Job

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.

Conclusion

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 does 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.

Stephen Metellus

I am a 3L law student in Washington D.C and owner of theartoflawschool.com! I started law school with a lot of hopes and expectations, and it has certainly been a wild ride from the start! My goal is writing articles that help you in navigating through law school.

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