DIY Law School: Learn the Law Without Law School
July 30, 2014 1:00 PM   Subscribe

"'Attorneys trained in this way will be able to be average people,' Ms. Orsi said, 'not just because they don’t have debt, but because law school tells us that we’re really special.'” [NYT]

"Reading law" or "legal apprenticeship" had been the most common way to become a lawyer in the US until the late nineteenth century. Abraham Lincoln, like many of his contemporaries, became a lawyer without formal legal education (more on the history of legal education and apprenticeship [pdf]).

With the ongoing concern over the state of American legal education ("US legal bubble can't pop soon enough" "The Law School Bubble Is Bursting" "The Law School Bubble Has Burst") [previously 1, 2, 3] and the persistently bleak job prospects for law school graduates, aspiring lawyers may want to consider the traditional method.

It is still possible to gain a law license without going to law school in a few states: Studying Law in a Law Office or Judge's Chambers in California, 4 Year Law Office Study in Vermont, Law Reader Program in Virginia, and Law Clerk Program in Washington.

Or to mix legal education with legal apprenticeship: 2 years of law school + 1 year of "study of law in the law office of an attorney" [pdf] in Maine, "Study of Law in Law Office," which must include at least one year of law school in New York, and at least one year of law school + "studying law at least two years in the office of a member of the bar" in Wyoming.

So how to do this?

How to Pass the California State Bar Exam Without Law School

How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School

LikeLincoln.org's Resources & Sample Curriculum for Legal Apprentices

Redesigning the Bar Study Experience (not specific to legal apprentices)

Thoughts from lawyers who have gone through this process:

The Path Rarely Taken: Through California’s Law Office Study Program, veteran practitioners help aspiring lawyers join the bar

Reflections on the Vermont Bar Exam

Six Months Turned into Decades

Apprentices Take Law Into Their Own Hands
posted by Sparkling Natural Mineral Water (33 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Right, so long as you're sure that you won't ever move to another state, because there's no way you're getting bar reciprocity without a law degree.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


Interesting that it's not just the bar in all 50 states. I assume there's some sort of accreditation program for schools...
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2014


there's no way you're getting bar reciprocity without a law degree

At least if you manage this you've already been employed for a few years. And I guess if you have the contacts to talk someone into supervising you for this, you're probably pretty well set in the local economy, right?
posted by asperity at 1:22 PM on July 30, 2014


This is really interesting. I'm a scientist who left the lab to work in regulatory policy, and I still wonder about how best to integrate more formal knowledge of the law into my daily work. This is good to know about.

Right, so long as you're sure that you won't ever move to another state, because there's no way you're getting bar reciprocity without a law degree.

In other words, like a lot of other places and situations? The list of conditions on the states with some form of reciprocity is hilarious in its unevenness. Don't many states rely more often on the amount of time you've practiced than the way you got to begin practicing?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I assume there's some sort of accreditation program for schools...

Yes.
posted by rtha at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2014


In theory I think it's great. Ultimately there wasn't a whole lot about black-letter law that I couldn't have learned by reading stuff on my own. There was also the more intangible "learn to think like a lawyer" and socratic interrogation stuff, but the further out from law school I get the more abstract that seems. There's no question that the outrageous price of tuition these days doesn't match the educational value you're getting.

In practice I'd be terrified to take this route. You might be set in the short term if your apprenticeship gets you some connections, but you have to understand. Even those of us with law review credentials from top schools have wound up fighting tooth and nail for gainful employment. At least I have. When even the surefire paths to success have opened up under our feet since 2008, do you really want to be one of those 60 lawyers-to-be that are so below the typical markers of legal value that most aren't even aware you're allowed to practice law?
posted by naju at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


Don't many states rely more often on the amount of time you've practiced than the way you got to begin practicing?

No, usually they rely on both.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2014


Doing this would've been far more valuable than the 3 years I wasted in law school reading irrelevant cases and listening to the fevered mumblings of old bats who hadn't practiced in an actual courtroom for 40years, or worse the HYS-to-biglaw wizkids who wrote internal memos on one corporate case for 6 years under 9 different levels of partners, then decided to take a "pretigious" (read: cushy) tenure track law professor gig instead of hold out for 4 more years of 100 work weeks to make partner. The only worthwhile classes I had in 3 years were the two pretrial and trial practice courses, taught by practicing adjuncts. Everything else covered in the core and theory classes was either (a) easily learned in bar review study or (b) completely irrelevant to the practice of law, or life in general.

Related: No one reads Law Reviews. No one. Not even the Chief Justice.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:32 PM on July 30, 2014 [17 favorites]


This is really interesting. I'm a scientist who left the lab to work in regulatory policy, and I still wonder about how best to integrate more formal knowledge of the law into my daily work. This is good to know about.

It's good that you want to learn, but I'd caution you against developing a false sense of expertise. A little knowledge in this area is a dangerous thing.

I'm an attorney who works with tech start-ups and a dismaying amount of my time with clients is spent disabusing them of notions about the law that they've absorbed from the Internet/TV/movies/rumors and just know to be correct.

I can only imagine that the law surrounding scientific lab work is extremely technical and complex, so while familiarity would be helpful you should still always consult an attorney with experience in the field.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I looked into this several years ago, after helping a person in a Pro Per case. Law School is inordinately expensive, and has become somewhat of a racket. Also, law school graduates - unless they are coming out of the very best schools - are having a very difficult time making sustainable practices. There is a glut of attorneys. Add to that that many legal functions are, and will continue to be, automated via software application.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Naju has it right. As a person who spent over eight years as a lay member of a Bar Association Discipline and Grievance Committee the points made by Naju speak to the market and practice realities of law.
posted by rmhsinc at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2014


up next, DIY brain surgeon...
What could go wrong?
posted by caddis at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2014


up next, DIY brain surgeon...
What could go wrong?


There are a lot of complex professions that people pick up with little or no formal training. In fact the number of professions that are so locked down that you can't work without belonging to the official club is fairly small.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is really interesting. I'm a scientist who left the lab to work in regulatory policy, and I still wonder about how best to integrate more formal knowledge of the law into my daily work. This is good to know about.

Slight derail, but if you're talking FDA-related policy, there's a specific professionals organization called RAPS that runs its own courses and certification exams and such. There are also a few regulatory affairs masters programs and courses out there, but no MOOCs that I know of, since as Sangermaine points out, a moderate amount of knowledge can be misleading in this area. That said, I find FDA regulatory policy to be actually straightforward enough to figure out, since it's not like you're searching through multiple jurisdictions to find out a bunch of local laws and/or legal precedents*: go read the Code of Federal Regulations where it applies to your area of inquiry, and then go search their website for any warning letters that might be relevant to your situation, and if that doesn't answer your question, then consult an expert. The situation's a little different in a clinical laboratory setting, where the College of American Pathologists often inspects labs to see that they comply with state & local regulations, so they're a good org to start with in that setting, although I don't think they run as many study programs.

*as always, ymmv by state, especially in California
posted by deludingmyself at 2:00 PM on July 30, 2014


up next, DIY brain surgeon...
What could go wrong?


It's not really DIY at all, these programs usually require the supervision of an experienced attorney, Virginia requires supervising attorneys to have been a full time practitioner for 12 years. Most of these programs are designed more like a formal apprenticship or mentoring environment than just, hey, go read FindLaw for 3 years and you can call yourself a lawyer.

And there's a live issue as to whether the socratic method for training lawyers is the best way of producing a capable advocate. Who would you rather have defending your 3rd drunk driving charge with a year of mandatory jail time at stake, a 24yr old from Fancy Private Law School who took CrimLaw as a 1L and got a 168 on his LSAT, or the guy who watched his former boss defend 100 identical cases over the last 3 years and has read every state appellate court case on drunk driving in the same period? Seems like an open question to me.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:00 PM on July 30, 2014 [6 favorites]


And the question of what is the best way to produce a capable lawyer is a very different issue than whether the legal market has enough lawyer positions to go around. You can see this even at the top of the fancy law school market, where schools are now competing with each other to offer the most, or most 'prestigious' clinical programs. A good development in my opinion, as at least some of those students with $200k in loans will come away with some level of pracitcal skills to show for it.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:03 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


When even the surefire paths to success have opened up under our feet since 2008, do you really want to be one of those 60 lawyers-to-be that are so below the typical markers of legal value that most aren't even aware you're allowed to practice law?

Boy, I would address that concern with every potential client/employer in exchange for my $150,000 in debt. At a certain point your work will speak for itself, but the debt will never pay for itself.

Also, none of these people are leaving behind HYS. They were probably going to be jumping into the margins of the profession anyway. I don't think there's any more risk to this than attending a law school that isn't either the top school in your state or one of the very elite schools in the country. You probably weren't getting a good job after graduation anyway.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 2:14 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I stopped practicing law for five years and it changed the way I thought about the value of law school.

In the first five years that I practiced it felt like the connection between law school and the reality of what I did on a day to day basis was so thin as to be almost meaningless. Law school taught me next to nothing, it seemed, about what I did each day (at that time, mostly trial work doing criminal law). I even tried, during law school, to get the practical classes and experiences that might help mitigate this possibility: an externship with the United States Attorney's Office, a practicum with a low income legal clinic, trial advocacy classes, moot court, and anything else I thought might one day be useful.

I didn't feel as if my time in law school had been wasted. I went to a public law school at a time when you could do so without incurring back breaking debt, I had a wide option of job choices upon graduation, I made great friends.

But nevertheless, as I started to learn what it meant to really practice law, first for the government and then in the private sector, I felt like hardly anything I learned in my three years of law school was useful. I didn'tfeel liked I did much "thinking like a lawyer." What I did was a lot more practical, it felt like. I was acting like a lawyer, I guess you could say, instead of thinking like one. (One exception was Evidence, which I leaned on heavily during the years that I practiced as a trial lawyer).

Then I stopped practicing law and a little more than five years passed, and I unexpectedly found myself back in private practice again. People said, "Oh, you'll just pick it up again, this is no big deal" when I wondered how this would work, but no one who said that had ever quit practicing and returned. I remember when I agreed to return to work that I thought at any moment one of the partners would come into my office and say, "Yeah, this was a stupid idea. Sorry. This experiment is over."

But what I found was that it was surprisingly easy--just as people had told me--to slip right back into practice. And what was most surprising about it was that I hardly remembered anything meaningful from my first tour at the firm. I essentially had to re-learn everything that I did. It was not a bit like all of this knowledge flooded back.

What I realized was that I had retained the capacity to make sense of and interpret whatever was thrown at me: I could still read cases, statutes, and regulations and make perfect sense of them, I could spot issues, I could interpret the arguments made in opposing briefs and motions and I knew how to effectively respond, and I could relatively easily find out how to figure out a rule myself if I didn't know what it was or couldn't understand it in context.

I thank my law school education for that--because this "thinking like a lawyer" type of thing wasn't anything that I learned much about during my first, somewhat long ago five years of legal practice. This was a skill that I learned in law school, I think, and I had vastly underappreciated how useful this skill was when I first started practicing law. Maybe I was so frequently confronted by all the things law school didn't teach me that I lost sight of what it did.

This isn't an ode to law school, or a statement that law school is worth the money or the time. And on further reflection, it's most likely that I got the overwhelming majority of the value from law school in its first three semesters. But my experience has brought me around to the point of view that my law school education was much more valuable to me than I had otherwise thought, and had I not quit practicing for so long I doubt I would have realized this.
posted by MoonOrb at 2:21 PM on July 30, 2014 [26 favorites]


In Canada we generally have to article after completing law school to become licensed as a lawyer. While it is can be a good tool for getting practical experience (you are allowed to represent clients at small claims court, small criminal matters and various civil proceedings) it does create significant barriers to the profession as you will have law school graduates not able to practice law because they aren`t able to secure an articling position. As a result, our law society in Ontario is working on (has introduced?) alternate means of getting this practical experience before getting licensed as a lawyer.

That being said, I passed the NY Bar exam by reading prep materials. And the thought that once I get the rest of my paperwork in order I would be entitled to practice law in New York always surprises me, because bar exam notwithstanding I know next to nothing about either the law or procedures there. (But I am fully competent in Ontario law, do not worry!)
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:49 PM on July 30, 2014


up next, DIY brain surgeon...
What could go wrong?


Actually this is in the main how brain surgery, and, in fact, all surgery is taught: through supervised practice with a practicing surgeon in an actual operating room on real patients.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:12 PM on July 30, 2014 [13 favorites]


OK. You do not need law school. But at present, even those with degrees from law schools are having a very tough time getting jobs, or, they get them and discover that what they make is hardly what used to be the norm..In part, para legals doing the work at much less salary and the charges to the client of course billed at lawyer's fee.
posted by Postroad at 3:15 PM on July 30, 2014


"para legals doing the work at much less salary and the charges to the client of course billed at lawyer's fee.", Occasionally, sometimes, seldom, rarely, often ??? Of course, is, of course, incorrect.
posted by rmhsinc at 3:35 PM on July 30, 2014


From the memoirs of William Tecumseh Sherman:
Hugh and T. E., Jr., offered me an equal copartnership in their law-firm.

(...)

I concluded to accept the proposition of Mr. Ewing, and accordingly the firm of Sherman & Ewing was duly announced, and our services to the public offered as attorneys-at-law.

(...)

Although in the course of my military reading I had studied a few of the ordinary law-books, such as Blackstone, Kent, Starkie, etc., I did not presume to be a lawyer; but our agreement was that Thomas Ewing, Jr., a good and thorough lawyer, should manage all business in the courts, while I gave attention to collections, agencies for houses and lands, and such business as my experience in banking had qualified me for. Yet, as my name was embraced in a law-firm, it seemed to me proper to take out a license. Accordingly, one day when United States Judge Lecompte was in our office, I mentioned the matter to him; he told me to go down to the clerk of his court, and he would give me the license. I inquired what examination I would have to submit to, and he replied, "None at all;" he would admit me on the ground of general intelligence.
posted by Flunkie at 4:13 PM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Unlimited federal government loan and loan guarantee funding, and the massive oversupply of JDs despite inflated tuitions that it produces, are the first, and last, problem that needs to be solved.

Law schools should be subjected to the same gainful employment rules that are being applied to for-profit vocational schools; schools that can't produce a reasonable minimum of sustained JD-required employment at higher salaries than the student was earning before entering school = no loans or guarantees at all.

Government loans and guarantees should be rolled back to something like $20k a year and limited to increase at the rate of inflation.

Finally, the total number of new loan-eligible JD candidates should probably be capped at 10k a year or so until the percentage of JDs involuntarily working in JD-not-required jobs is lower than the general rate of college graduate unemployment.
posted by MattD at 4:19 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


The "law" of diminishing returns applies to everything.

Including law schools and law degrees.

You can't get around it with a clever argument. This should not be news to anyone, yet it always is.
posted by Repack Rider at 5:17 PM on July 30, 2014


Am I wrong in remember that in a great many more states it used to be that the only requirement was to pass the bar? I definitely remember an acquaintance of my mother's who became an attorney in New Jersey having only passed the bar.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:48 PM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sophists again - I hate these guys
posted by thelonius at 7:05 PM on July 30, 2014


Gee, my cousin's wasting so much money going to law school in Hawaii. Except well, Hawaii.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:08 PM on July 30, 2014


I just look at this and think, a huge chunk of what would have been my graduating class could not find legal employment even with a degree. Many of them are now in solo practice. I would not go to a single one of them, not even the smartest, because I don't believe that they're competent to practice solo without having been supervised. On the one hand, sure, that means that I can totally buy that one could probably learn how to do this better from less classroom study and more working experience.

I also can't possibly envision why someone would want to hire someone who hadn't been to law school, when you can get a graduate for the same price. Yes, whatever the price is, including in some cases free.

If you're that self-motivated, far better idea to do something else.
posted by Sequence at 9:54 PM on July 30, 2014


From the Shareable link:

"When Orsi was studying for the bar exam, she had audio courses that she listened to while hiking and biking. She also wrote dozens of songs that outlined the 12 bar exam topics to the tune of 12 different karaoke tracks, including "I Will Survive" and "Bohemian Rhapsody." In the final weeks before the exam, she got up and sang the songs every day.

“I did everything possible to make it enjoyable,” she says. “I did not do what most people do, which is pay $3000-$5000 for an intensive bar exam prep course. However,” she continues, “I might actually recommend that apprentices do take such a course, because they may benefit from re-learning the material in a classroom context and from receiving significant input on their practice exams.”


Hey, studying for the bar can be fun and wacky!!!
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:00 PM on July 30, 2014


It's always been possible to do this in England. The Inns of Court (where people study to be barristers) are older than most of the universities anyway. With the advent of university fees (quite recent for us - thanks, Blair) a new "legal apprenticeship" scheme has started. The big firms will be ultra snobby about this, but so what - people who can't afford to go to university will become lawyers.
posted by Major Tom at 12:48 AM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


FTFA: 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.

I have to say that I think this is the only kind of work that a non-law-school lawyer is likely to get. Biglaw and the clients they serve are a slow-moving and traditional bunch (hello, we still have Blackberries), and there would have to be a tremendous sea change for high-paying clients to seek legal work from a lawyer with a non-traditional path, or for a big law firm to hire such a lawyer.

There is no question that law school is a racket, and too expensive. I support the push to reduce it to two years and make the last year and apprenticeship. But, student loans aside, I learned a lot in law school that has benefited me in my career. It is almost like learning a new language - law school really does teach you how to think about legal concepts in a way that on-the-job training simply wouldn't.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:19 AM on July 31, 2014


I have to say that I think this is the only kind of work that a non-law-school lawyer is likely to get. Biglaw and the clients they serve are a slow-moving and traditional bunch (hello, we still have Blackberries), and there would have to be a tremendous sea change for high-paying clients to seek legal work from a lawyer with a non-traditional path, or for a big law firm to hire such a lawyer.

Personal injury and products liability, criminal defense, med-mal, insurance defense, Social Security and VA disability, there's a whole world of small-law for real people outside of the Vault 100. Plenty of lawyers make a living doing this work (although to be fair plenty suffer without making a living as well), and the few PI lawyers that hit it big with the million dollar case of a lifetime may significantly out earn even a biglaw partner. Point is all anyone, and espeically all biglaw people, ever talks about is biglaw, but that's really a tiny fraction of the legal world, with an outsized sense of its own importance.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:14 PM on July 31, 2014 [2 favorites]


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