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Can law school dropouts really join the bar?

The New York Daily News is reporting that Benedict Morelli, the attorney representing the plaintiff in the Bill O’Reilly sexual harassment case, is a law-school dropout. Can someone who never graduated from law school really join the bar?

Yes, though only in Morelli’s native New York and six other states: California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, and Washington. Despite the American Bar Association’s strong insistence that all lawyers possess a J.D. or LL.B degree from an ABA-approved law school, it’s up to the state bar associations to determine their own criteria for membership. For example, 20 states plus the District of Columbia allow graduates of foreign law schools to sit for the bar examination, while two states (California and New Mexico) and the District of Columbia extend the same privilege to applicants who’ve taken correspondence law courses.

In New York, where Morelli heads his own law firm, the requirement is that a prospective lawyer must have completed at least one year at an ABA-approved law school. After that, the future attorney can fulfill his educational requirements by engaging in something called “law office study” or “clerking for the bar”—in essence, an apprenticeship at a law firm. Such apprenticeships were standard in the 19th century, before the proliferation of law schools: Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Clarence Darrow, for example, graduated from law school. But lawyers who took this route are a relative rarity nowadays, and there are usually fewer than 400 students nationwide pursuing law office study at any given time.

The apprenticeship’s requirements vary from state to state. California asks that, after their first year of clerking, apprentices take an exam termed the “Baby Bar,” meant to measure whether the subject is keeping pace with his on-campus friends. Only apprentices who pass the Baby Bar are allowed to continue for another three years, at which time they’re considered ready to take the full-scale bar exam. In Vermont, the apprentice must simply fill out a progress report twice a year, for four years, to update the bar association on what they’ve learned while working.

Law office study is obviously appealing to many nontraditional students, particularly those who’d rather not foot the $100,000-plus bill for attending a top-flight law school. But there’s an important caveat, too: Apprentices tend to do worse on state bar exams than their peers from academia. According to a Los Angeles Times survey from earlier this month, just 20 percent of that state’s apprentices have passed the bar exam, versus over 50 percent of law school graduates.

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Explainer thanks Nancy Slonim of the American Bar Association.