Can You Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School?

Thousands of new lawyers passed their state’s bar exam in 2020, and most of them are now practicing law.  Thousands more will be will be admitted to practice in 2021. More than 99.9 of those lawyers took the American Bar Association (ABA) approved path to becoming a lawyer. In short, that consists of obtaining an undergraduate degree, scoring well on the Law School Admission Test, graduating from an ABA accredited law school and passing the bar exam in the state that the law school graduate intends to practice in. Getting to that point is an incredibly time consuming and expensive endeavor.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

Out of the 99.9%, who completed the ABA path to becoming a lawyer, perhaps .001% have circumvented the ABA roadmap and still sat for the bar exam. That’s because a handful of states have their own little-known alternate route to be eligible to take the bar exam. After a candidate has served an apprenticeship with a licensed and practicing attorney or judge, it’s possible that he or she can become a licensed attorney without ever having set foot in a law school.

The Option is Limited by Geography

Only California, Washington, Virginia and Vermont offer the option of taking the bar exam without ever having set foot in a law school class. Wyoming, New York and Maine also consider apprenticeships, but they do require at least some law school classwork. What comes to issue on an apprenticeship is the difficulty involved in finding a practicing attorney or judge who will take a green an untrained apprentice under their wing. The supervisory responsibilities are significant with a fresh new lawyer who was just sworn in and starting out in a law firm. Those responsibilities are exponentially increased by bringing in an apprentice with little or no legal background at all. That’s because they have yet to be taught how to think and articulate like lawyers.

Passing the Bar Exam

After satisfying the apprenticeship requirements for one of the above states, an individual must still pass the bar exam and get sworn in before he or she can put Esq. after their name. More than 38,000 individuals sat for the bar exam last fall. For those who took the conventional route to becoming an attorney, the national pass rate was about 71% of all test takers. The numbers for apprentices who sat for the exam were abysmal. About 75% of them failed. For apprentices who did pass, most jobs were out of reach. Nearly all law firm and governmental entities hire ABA accredited law school graduates. Even if you apprenticed and start your own law firm and work for yourself, potential clients might be apprehensive about retaining you if they learn that you never attended law school. After all, would you allow somebody to remove your tonsils who never went to medical school?

If you really dream of becoming a lawyer, you might want to think about the best compromise. You can work full-time and attend classes at night. Sure, it’s likely to take a bit longer to complete your studies, but thousands of others who were in the same economic situation that you are in have successfully graduated from ABA accredited part-time law school programs. Passing the bar exam in the state that you want to practice in is your objective anyway. Graduating from an ABA accredited law school is going to give you the best chance of doing that.

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