State By State Requirements to Become a Lawyer

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

If you are considering becoming a lawyer, you might be dreading the thought of spending three to four years (or more) in law school, then sitting (possibly multiple times) for the challenging bar examination, in order to be able to practice law. These years of law school add up, and can cost from $84,792 to $148,644 or more (per U.S. News and World Report). Added to the cost of getting a bachelor’s degree before that, which can cost between $30,000 and $55,000, in total, many law school graduates have loans between $100,000 and $200,000 or more to repay. It is not a welcoming prospect to look forward to paying off huge college and law school loans as graduates are beginning their careers as attorneys. On top of that, one must also pay to take the bar examination, sometimes multiple times, if it is not passed on the first try. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that the average median salary for lawyers for 2020 is $126,930, most lawyers don’t begin their law careers making that amount.

All of this begs the question, can you take the bar exam and become a lawyer without going to law school? The answer to this question is yes – in some cases, and in some states, this can be accomplished. In fact, there have been some famous lawyers throughout history who did not attend law school. We will now delve into the process of becoming a lawyer through “reading the law” rather than going to law school.

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Famous Lawyers Who Did Not Attend Law School

Apprenticeship law has been used in the United States as a valid way to become a lawyer for many years. One of the most famous lawyers who benefited from apprenticeship law is President Abraham Lincoln. He independently studied law and passed the Illinois bar examination on his own before becoming president. Others who didn’t go to law school yet still became famous lawyers include:

  • John Marshall (Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) – he attended six weeks of law classes at William & Mary University before deciding to apprentice in law instead
  • John Adams – our second president was also a law apprentice
  • Daniel Webster - the renowned senator studied law in a friend’s law office
  • Clarence Darrow- the famous lawyer dropped out of law school and opted for independent study in a law office
  • Thomas Jefferson – the celebrated politician and author of the “Declaration of Independence” was a law apprentice

States Which Allow Taking of Bar Exam Without Going to Law School

There are just a few states that allow people to take the bar exam without going to law school. Instead, these bar exam applicants have studied the law with the assistance of a lawyer, doing something called “reading the law.” Four states currently allow this:

California

The State Bar of California’s Rule 4.29 allows a person who has completed at least two years of college to fulfill the remainder of their legal education in a law office or judges’ chambers. They must have studied law in a law office or judges’ chambers for 18 hours each week for at least 48 weeks to receive credit for one year of study in law school; or for 18 hours each week for 24 weeks to receive credit for a half-year of study in law school. The attorney or judge supervising the applicant must have been an active California bar member for at least five years, and must personally supervise the applicant for at least five hours each week. They must examine the applicant at least once each month during study time, and report to the Bar Committee every six months how many hours the applicant has studied each week, how many hours they were supervised, and include specific information on what materials were studied. Additionally, an attorney or judge may not supervise more than two applicants at one time. After completion, the applicant may sit for the California bar exam and, if they pass, they will become a lawyer in California.

Vermont

The Vermont Supreme Court offers a law office study program in lieu of law school. An applicant must first have a bachelor’s degree. They must study law for 25 hours a week for four years under the supervision of a lawyer or judge. (The Board has the discretion to award an applicant partial credit for up to two years of the four-year term, based on the applicant’s prior legal study). Every six months, the supervising lawyer or judge must submit a report certifying that the applicant has completed requirements during that period, including the number of weeks studied, the content studied, and the outline for the next six-month reporting period. After completing four years of study, the applicant must submit a Completion Notice to the Board. When approved, they may sit for the bar examination in Vermont.

Virginia

The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners has approved a Law Reader Program as an alternative to attending law school. Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and be supervised by an attorney or retired circuit court judge. A law reader must study for three years, 40 weeks each year, 25 hours of study each week. The supervising attorney must personally supervise the reader for at least three hours each week. The supervising attorney must prepare and submit quarterly certificates of the number of hours the reader studied each week and the progress being made. At the end of the three years, the applicant must pass an examination prepared, administered and graded by the supervising attorney. The applicant who passes that exam may then sit for the Virginia Bar Exam.

Washington

The Washington State Bar Association’s Law Clerk Program is an alternative to attending law school that is authorized under the Washington Supreme Court’s Admission and Practice Rule 6. Applicants to the program must first have a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job with a Washington lawyer or judge with at least 10 years of experience. That person will serve as the primary tutor of the applicant in the Law Clerk Program. The applicant must work at least 32 hours per week, with three hours of personal supervision each week, and must pay $2000 per year while in the program. Each year of study must consist of six courses completed in 12 months. The prescribed course of study is equivalent to four years of law school. Monthly examinations must be given by tutors, and certificates submitted monthly. At the end of the course, the applicant may sit for the Washington state bar exam.

States Allowing Taking of Bar Exam With Some Time in Law School Combined With Study in Law Office

Another alternative offered by three states is a combination of studying in a law office and spending some time (not three years) in law school. They are:

Maine

Maine requires a minimum of two years of study in law school, followed by one year of study in a law office, in order to become a lawyer via the apprenticeship route. Under the Maine Bar Admission Rules, any attorney who supervises an applicant who studies in their law office must provide the bar with a certificate verifying the dates of study and the successful completion of that course of study. Only after completing two years of law school and one year apprenticeship is a person eligible to sit for Maine’s bar exam.

New York

Under New York Bar Admission Rules Section 520.4, an applicant may complete one year of study in law school and three years of study in a law office in New York, under the supervision of a licensed attorney, in lieu of spending three to four years in law school. After completion of four years of study combined, that person may sit for the New York bar exam.

West Virginia

West Virginia Judiciary’s Rules for Admission to the Practice of Law are a bit tricky on this point, but it is possible to study at a law school and complete study in a law office in the state. If you have attended three years of law school at a non-ABA-accredited law school, in a state where attendance at that law school would make you eligible to take that state’s bar exam, you may become eligible to take West Virginia’s bar exam by completing three years of study in a West Virginia law office.

Can I Still Pass the Bar Exam Without a Law Degree?

If you are contemplating becoming a law apprentice in lieu of attending law school and getting a degree, you might wonder if you still have a good chance of passing your state’s bar examination. The answer is, it depends upon the state. If you study law in an office in Washington, their state bar provides much support for students choosing to apprentice. As a result, in 2014, 67 percent of apprentices who took Washington’s bar exam passed it. California’s state bar exam, on the other hand, is considered to be among the hardest in the country to pass, and accordingly, pass rates for apprentices are quite low. In general, the bar exam pas rate of an apprentice is about half that of a student who graduates from an ABA-approved law school – overall, it is about 27 percent. 

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