How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School
Yes, it is possible to practice without a JD
You might be surprised to learn this, but it’s possible – at least in certain states – to become a practicing lawyer without going to law school! Back in the day, of course, working as an apprentice in a law office was how most people became lawyers in the United States. (The date of the first law school in the US is debated, but was in the late 1700s.) Now most lawyers go to law school, but there are advantages to going the more old-fashioned route: avoiding the high cost of law school and, arguably, getting more on-the-ground experience than you’d get in a law school classroom because you’ll be spending your time shadowing a working lawyer.
Where Can You Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School?
If you want to become a lawyer without going to law school, you’ll have to pick your location carefully. Only four states (California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) allow potential law students to skip law school entirely. Three others (Maine, New York, and Wyoming) require some law school experience, but allow an apprenticeship to substitute for one or two years of law school. (For full details, check out this helpful state-by-state guide to becoming a lawyer without law school.)
What do these states require? It varies widely. In Virginia, for example, a legal apprentice can’t be paid by the supervising attorney. In Washington, they have to be.
Typically, the apprentice is required to work a certain number of hours every week, for a given number of weeks, in a law practice. A more limited number of hours must be spent under the direct supervision of an attorney, and a certain number of “study” hours are required. In all states, the mentoring attorney must meet a minimum level of experience, ranging from three years in Vermont to ten years in Virginia and Washington.
In California, legal apprentices are required to pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, or “Baby Bar,” to continue with their studies and sit for the actual bar exam. This exam is quite difficult and has a very low pass rate, so it can be a formidable obstacle.
What are the Pros and Cons of Becoming a Lawyer Without Going to Law School?
As the useful LikeLincoln.org website on legal apprenticeship explains, there are pros and cons to becoming a lawyer through legal apprentice programs. The most obvious benefit is avoiding the high cost of a traditional legal education, which most students finance with student loans. Of course, some of this cost might be offset via law school scholarships, but the harsh reality is that many law students graduate with more debt than then can comfortably pay back, which severely limits their career options.
Other potential benefits include learning law in the community, instead of going away to school and (perhaps) not coming back. Given that rural areas face a shortage of lawyers, setting up apprentice programs in rural areas could be a good way to keep ambitious local students in the community and working on local legal needs.
Finally, it’s indisputable that the average legal apprentice will have more hands-on experience than most new law school graduates. At most, the average law grad has done one clinic and maybe a few summer jobs, internships, or externships. Most time is taken up by classes, especially in the first two years.
Of course, there are many potential downsides to becoming a lawyer via a legal apprentice program. First, it’s critical to be very certain about where you want to live long term because you probably won’t ever be admitted to practice in any other state. Second, potential clients and employers might be reluctant to hire an attorney who didn’t go to law school, simply because it’s so unusual. Finally, the reality is that it’s quite hard to pass the bar exam without at least some law school experience.
It’s not impossible, as this interesting article points out, but the passage rates are low, so it’s risky to spend years as a legal apprentice if you never manage to pass the bar exam. (In fairness, this is also an issue for non-ABA-accredited law schools and even some ABA-accredited ones.)
If you’re interested in becoming a lawyer without going to law school, definitely check out LikeLincoln.org, which has great information on the process along with first-person accounts from current legal apprentices.