In a Vogue profile published on Wednesday, Kim Kardashian revealed she’s studying to become a lawyer and aims to take the California bar in 2022. She will not go to law school. This plan, the magazine notes, is not a unique Kardashian scheme but rather a perfectly legal alternative to the typical American lawyer’s career path in some states. But is skipping law school actually something that noncelebrities do? And, more important, is it a good idea?
The short answer is that very few people forgo a JD on their path to the law—but, in my view, more should. California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington allow aspiring lawyers to study under an apprentice for several years, then take the bar exam alongside law school graduates. If they pass, they can work as fully credentialed lawyers in the state. Individuals who choose this route in California must study in a law office for four years, at least 18 hours a week, and pass a “baby bar” after the first year. They must pay a $150 fee to start, followed by a biannual payment to the California bar of $30. The full cost rarely exceeds more than a few thousand dollars, compared with more than $150,000 for three years at many California law schools.
Why does this program exist? It’s actually a carryover from an earlier period in American history, when all aspiring lawyers “read law” rather than attend school, then took an exam to gain admission to the bar. Many celebrated attorneys of the 18th century, including John Adams, John Marshall, and Abraham Lincoln, followed this route. In fact, the first Supreme Court justice to hold a law degree was Benjamin Robbins Curtis, who joined in 1851 (and was not one of its leading lights). The practice of “reading law” began to fade in the 1870s when law schools emerged as a more standardized alternative. The last justice to join the Supreme Court without holding a JD, the widely respected Robert H. Jackson, was appointed in 1941.
Even though “reading law” remains a possibility in some states today, this route does have some major drawbacks. First, it can be difficult for would-be apprentices to find a mentor willing to work with them closely over several years. Second, the bar exam pass rate for apprentices is quite low—28 percent in 2013, compared with a 73 percent pass rate for graduates of an American Bar Association–accredited law school. Third, those apprentices who do pass the bar won’t be able to practice in most other states. If you graduate from law school, take the bar in one state, then move somewhere else, you can usually either transfer your exam scores or, at worst, take the bar in your new state of residence. But if you do not hold a JD, most states won’t let you practice, even if you take the bar. Put simply, if you “read law” in California, you’d better intend to practice in California exclusively.
Despite these problems, I strongly support programs like California’s, and I wish more states would allow them. Law school is an exorbitant racket that condemns countless students to years, even decades, of crushing student debt. Many young lawyers fear they can only pay off this debt by entering big law, then wind up spending years in a corporate practice that is soulless at best and immoral at worst. Too many American attorneys are sucked into this vicious circle. Some burn out after toiling under abusive bosses who demand endless hours of draining, unfulfilling labor. Others adapt and rationalize their unsavory work by taking on the occasional pro bono case. No wonder American lawyers struggle with sky-high rates of substance abuse and depression.
Kardashian is not going to fix this nightmare. But apprenticeships do offer a much cheaper path for law-curious Americans who don’t wish to spend a large chunk of their careers paying off a mountain of student debt. If Kardashian inspires more people to “read law” in the states that permit it, she’ll deserve credit for challenging the law school monopoly, even just a little.