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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, July 31, 2014

NY Times: The Lawyer’s Apprentice: How to Learn the Law Without Law School

New York Times, The Lawyer’s Apprentice: How to Learn the Law Without Law School:

LawyerWhen Chris Tittle meets new people and the topic turns to his work, he sometimes fishes in his pockets and produces a business card that reads “Abraham Lincoln.” Below the 16th president’s name in smaller type the card reads, “Just kidding, but I hope to follow in some of his footsteps.”

Mr. Tittle, who sports the kind of full beard more often associated with folk-rock bands than future junior partners, is working toward becoming a lawyer under an obscure California rule that allows people to “read law” much as Lincoln did, studying at the elbow of a seasoned lawyer. “There is very little that would entice me to go $100,000 or more into debt for a credential,” said Mr. Tittle, who is in his first year of a four-year program of practical study.

California is one of a handful of states that allow apprenticeships like Mr. Tittle’s 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. ...

Before the prevalence of law schools in the 1870s, apprenticeships were the primary way to become a lawyer. “Stop and think of some of the great lawyers in American history,” said Daniel R. Coquillette, a law professor at Boston College who teaches and writes in the areas of legal history and professional responsibility. “John Adams, Chief Justice Marshall, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson. They didn’t go to law school at all.” ...

[T]here are obstacles. 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.

“The ABA takes the position that the most appropriate process for becoming a lawyer should include obtaining a J.D. degree from a law school approved by the ABA and passing a bar examination,” said Barry A. Currier, managing director of accreditation and legal education for the group.

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.”

One former apprentice, speaking on the condition of anonymity, dropped out after her third year of study. The stumbling block, she said, was the first-year exam, the so-called baby bar required of all those in California who study outside of A.B.A.-accredited law schools. ...

The lack of a J.D. can also be cause for concern to clients. “I do have some clients who look up on my wall and say, ‘Where did you go to law school?’ and aren’t too happy with the answer,” said Ivan Fehrenbach, who recently passed the Virginia bar after three years of reading law. Unburdened by school loan debt, he said, he has been able to become “a country lawyer,” taking on work like speeding tickets, divorce and wills.

Matt Leichter, The Law Apprenticeship Scam:

[T]he article appears to tacitly accept the ABA’s position that we can’t have good lawyers without many years of law school (and probably college too). The elephant in this room is selection bias. The reason people go to law school rather than these apprenticeship programs is that law schools broker jobs to people who already do well on standardized tests, to wit, the LSAT. Certainly in the age of PAYE, someone who can crush the LSAT has much better odds of finding a good law job by going to law school than trying to find a lawyer who will train him or her. If anything, law school is a more reliable path to qualifying for the bar exam. Indeed, the article acknowledges that “the lack of class rankings put clerkships with judges and plum gigs at big firms out of reach” for law readers.

If you’re wondering why people who don’t do well on the LSAT go to law school instead of these programs, I give three responses. One, they aren’t widely known and have no advertising. Two, many law students still buy into the versatile JD myth. Three, the largest proportion of people opting out of law school are people who don’t do amazingly on the LSAT anyway. So there. (The Times says these programs are “underpopulated,” but given the effort the would-be apprentices must go through to get established, one might think the problem is that there really isn’t much demand for new lawyers.)

I acknowledge that many of the apprentices interviewed in the article are sincere in their desire to avoid debt and only want to do small practice work. If anything, bar authorities should make it easier for people to choose that route. Instead they offer a post hoc rationalization for credentialism in legal education.

Legal Education | Permalink


There are about 75 law schools worth paying some amount of money to attend. There are about 5 worth going to at full price.

These fellas just are stating the obvious. Law school is too expensive, and too soft for any sort of positive ROI.

Posted by: LincolnsLawyer | Jul 31, 2014 11:38:18 AM

I think this is a step in the right direction, especially if combined with other solutions. In conjunction with eliminating a degree requirement to write for the bar, I would:

1) Make the Bar Exam more difficult. I would require about the same degree of difficulty as it takes to score 160 on the LSAT.

2) Make the bar exam more relevant to practice.

3) Encourage undergrad institutions to offer courses or a major in law.

4) Alter the majority of law schools so that students enroll in individual courses rather than degree programs.

Posted by: JM | Jul 31, 2014 12:39:33 PM

More debate on importance of apprenticeships, law school costs, and law school reform. As Glenn Frey sang, the heat is on law schools for change.

Posted by: Rick Rubin Carter | Jul 31, 2014 12:54:10 PM

JM, I don't think they need to make the bar exam more difficult or arbitrary than it already is. What needs to be done is that most of the "weeding out" is done BEFORE people spend three years of their lives and the associated tuition costs to attend law school.

Med schools are actually hard to get into, so most of the weeding-out is pre-built into the system. Law schools need to emulate this. That would require closure of dozens of law schools, so it is unlikely to happen.

Having just taken the July bar and seen what an absolute mess and joke the MBE portion of it was, I would appreciate a more relevant bar exam and less tricks, obscure law, and fact patterns reminiscent of bored law professors.

Posted by: antiro | Jul 31, 2014 4:33:31 PM


Where did I say "more arbitrary"? I actually said they should make it "more relevant" to practice.

And, the bar exam is way too easy. There is effectively no "weeding out" at schools like New England Law, yet 80% or so pass the bar on their first try. What a joke. Those kids have an LSAT mean of 149 or so.

I agree with your point that th LSAT should be more concrete and should test knowledge that attorneys will be required to use on a day to day basis.

Posted by: JM | Aug 1, 2014 5:50:18 AM

Just to clarify, in the last paragraph, I meant to say Bar Exam, not LSAT.

Posted by: JM | Aug 1, 2014 5:51:20 AM

You LSAT score is irrelevant in predicting your success as an attorney. Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer to help you become a better attorney for your clients or employer. So the LSAT is irrelevant to properly weed out applicants for law school. But it remains a popular tool used improperly.

Furthermore, if the LSAT score is so universally accepted to show your competence--and not just your possible IQ--then list your top score on your resume. See once-prospective employers and would-have-been clients laugh.

Posted by: Mark P. Yablon | Aug 1, 2014 3:50:21 PM


Those were a lot of conclusory statements, and I think it is possible that all of them are wrong. Let’s go down the list.

“You LSAT score is irrelevant in predicting your success as an attorney.”

LSAT is the single most important factor to getting into a good law school, and getting into a good law schools is the single most important factor of getting a full time, bar passage required legal job. So, not only is the LSAT not “irrelevant” to success, it is absolutely critical.

Perhaps you really mean that it shouldn’t be, and perhaps you are correct, but to say that it is irrelevant to success is just flat wrong.

“Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer to help you become a better attorney for your clients or employer. “

There is no such thing as thinking like a lawyer. There is just a process of logic that is common to all rigorous disciplines, (i.e. science, medicine, business, law). To the extent a 1L has not been exposed to this before, then law school introduces the individual to the process of thinking logically period. The phrase “thinking like a lawyer” is nothing more than marketing material put out by law schools.

Law school does teach you substantive law, which helps you become a better attorney for your clients or employer.

“So the LSAT is irrelevant to properly weed out applicants for law school.”

That’s a strong statement to make given that every law school uses it as the predominant criterion for admission, and almost exclusively of late. Employers validate this choice by continuing to hire from the schools that have students with the highest LSATs.

Of course, you could be right and they could be wrong. But what is objectionable about the content of the LSAT. It presents informative passages about science, literature, history, etc, asks a question, and requests the test taker to select the answer that is most correct. Are you saying that the questions and answers are not correct, or that they are unrelated to the practice of law? If the former, then please show us more than 2 questions from a test in the last 10 years that is wrong; if the latter, then please explain why an exam that tests primarily for reading comprehension and logical thinking is unrelated to excelling in law, and inform us what would be better to test for.

“Furthermore, if the LSAT score is so universally accepted to show your competence--and not just your possible IQ--then list your top score on your resume. See once-prospective employers and would-have-been clients laugh.”

I’ve never seen anyone argue that the LSAT is a test for competency rather than I.Q. It is a test for speed and accuracy of thinking, i.e. IQ.

Furthermore, prospective employers may laugh at the applicant’s failure to abide by social conventions, but at the same time employers across numerous industries (law included) make a huge priority of knowing an applicant’s IQ (through one proxy or another), and schools serve as a basic sorting mechanism on this dimension which is why they will never give it up.

Posted by: JM | Aug 4, 2014 7:12:09 AM