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