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How to Become a Lawyer Without a Law Degree

You can afford to skip it

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This story originally appeared in Business Insider.

A small minority of the thousands of people who take state bar exams each year to practice law don’t have a law degree and haven’t even stepped foot in a law school, the New York Times pointed out in an article Wednesday.

These lucky few complete legal apprenticeships rather than obtain costly J.D.s.

The apprenticeships, available as an option in only several states, are referred to as law office study and the participants called law readers. Those who choose law office study avoid the debt burdening their counterparts who pay law school tuition to receive law degrees, reports The Times. They also gain valuable experience as members of law offices, where they get to work in courtrooms and with clients rather than studying in classrooms. 


But the few who take that alternative route also face their own difficulties, like searching on their own for a supervisor willing to mentor them and competing for top jobs with those who have graduated from law schools where students are ranked. 

Law office study remains very rare. Law office readers comprised only 60 of the 83,986 people who took state and multi-state bar exams last year, according to the New York Times. They are also less likely to pass those exams. Only 28 percent of the tiny minority of law office readers passed their bar exams last year, compared to 78 percent of students who attended American Bar Association-approved law schools, reports The Times.

In Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and California, aspiring lawyers can complete law apprenticeships, receiving on-the-job training under the guidance of mentors instead of studying law at a university for three years. New York, Maine, and Wyoming require apprenticeships to be combined with law school.


Below are the general rules they have set for these apprenticeships, according to the Sustainable Economies Law Center blog LikeLincoln:


Study in a law office for four years under the supervision of an attorney with at least five years of active law practice in California. The study must involve 18 hours per week, with five hours directly supervised, in addition to monthly exams and bi-annual progress reports submitted to the California State Bar.



Four years of study in a law office under the supervision of an attorney with at least three years of experience.


Law office study for three years, each year consisting of at least 40 weeks, with a minimum of 25 hours of study each week. At least 18 hours each week must take place in the supervising attorney’s office, who must provide at least three hours of personal supervision over the law reader each week. 


The supervising attorney must have at least a year of experience, and the apprentice is not allowed to be employed or compensated by the supervisor.


Here the apprentice must be employed by the supervising attorney for four years in a law office, with at least 30 hours of work/study and three hours of direct supervision each week. The supervising attorney has at least 10 years of experience. Apprentices are required to pay a $1,500 annual fee.


At least two years of study at a law school is required, and then one year of law office study.

New York

Law office study can follow at least one year of law school, with the combination of law school and law office study totaling four years. 


A combination of one to two years of law school with one to two years of a law study program.

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