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Legal apprenticeships: Practice law without law school

gavel and law books

Carolyn Seklii was working as a deputy clerk in a juvenile court in Virginia when her passion for helping troubled families drove her to get more involved. Wanting to become a Guardian ad Litem, a court-appointed officer who represents the interests of children and disabled individuals in legal proceedings, Seklii knew she had a passion for the job but was missing one crucial credential: a passing grade on the bar exam. However, instead of taking the traditional law school route, Seklii, a former teacher herself, enrolled in Virginia's Law Reader Program, an initiative that allows future lawyers to write their own legal education curriculum and learn under the tutelage of a practicing attorney.

"I was a teacher, so I knew how to organize a class. For me to organize a class that would cause me to learn something was not as intimidating to me as going into a [law school] environment where everybody is 20 years younger than me and knows how to use a computer," Seklii says. "That was a little bit intimidating."

Seklii passed the bar on her first try in 2006 and has since opened her own family law practice in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She says that she's happy to not be loaded with significant student debt, but many of her law-practicing counterparts aren't so lucky. A study by the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program shows that the typical law school grad carries more than $140,000 in debt, the fiscal weight of which is compounded by iffy employment prospects for lawyers. Nine months after graduation, just over 60 percent of 2013 law school grads held full-time jobs that require bar passage, reports the National Association for Law Placement.

Did you know?

Becoming a legal assistant or paralegal can be a great first step toward a DIY legal education — getting a basic grounding in the law and legal procedures can help create a strong foundation on the path toward a legal career. Check programs in your area for more info.

That's a big part of the attraction to law reader and legal apprenticeship programs, and to lesser legal studies degree programs. According to LikeLincoln.org, a blog curated by the Sustainable Economies Law Center that focuses on legal apprenticeship programs, four states — Virginia, California, Vermont and Washington — currently allow students to take the bar after either completing a traditional law degree program or finishing three to four years of study under a supervising attorney. An additional three states — Maine, New York and Wyoming — allow students to complete one to two years of law school study combined with a few years of apprenticing.

How legal apprenticeships work

"Law schools, including UCLA, have developed a lot of clinical programs. They put law students in a situation of actually dealing with legal problems in the real world," says Gary Blasi, a former legal apprentice himself and current Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law. "In the apprenticeship, that's all I did. Some of my academic colleagues refer to my education as the 100 percent clinical method."

Requirements on legal apprenticeships vary by state, but most require working anywhere from 18 to 32 hours per week in a law office, logging a certain number of hours under the direct supervision of a practicing attorney and completing a course of study that usually closely emulates what's being taught on brick-and-mortar campuses. While states like Virginia forbid apprentices from being officially employed or paid by their supervising attorneys, Washington makes employment a requirement for those in the state's Law Clerk Program.

Legal apprenticeships are designed for "someone who is self-motivated, has excellent writing and analysis skills and has the support of their employer-tutor and their family [and] friends to persevere in the program," says Talia Clever, Washington state's Law Clerk Program Lead.

Gary Blasi connected with others going through California's apprenticeship program and credits them for helping him make it through. He says that the workload for an apprentice is comparable to that of a law student, but without the benefits a law school brings, including a diverse faculty who can answer questions, study groups and extracurricular events that reinforce material. As such, it's easy for an apprentice to get derailed.

Which may be part of, if not the entire, reason why legal apprentices often have a tougher time passing the bar than law students. Of the 185 law clerks who have taken the Washington state bar since 1984, 62 percent passed on their first attempt and 91 percent eventually passed, says Talia Clever, compared to a 70 percent average pass rate across Washington for all test-takers in the past 10 years. Nationwide, less than one-third of law readers passed the bar last year, whereas American Bar Association-approved law school grads boasted a 73 percent pass rate, according to The New York Times.

DIY lawyers prove their worth

Legal apprentices who do pass the bar may also face more trouble in the job market than law school graduates.

"The Law Clerk Program is well-suited to solo for small firm practice in Washington. Government jobs or highly competitive jobs may set certain requirements for an ABA-approved [Juris Doctorate] or seek those who attended high-status schools," Clever says.

However, though it may be tougher for apprentices to find a traditional law job at first, that discrepancy fades with experience, Blasi adds.

"My advice is to get in a situation where you can prove your worth through your work, whether it's a volunteer job or a paid job," he says. "Work with people who can see what you can do, and they can tell other people what you can do."

Eight years after passing the bar, Carolyn Seklii says that she doesn't believe that she's as impressive on paper as a graduate from a top law school who's worked in a large firm, but her experience and track record make her stand out without a prestigious JD.

"The proof's in the pudding at this point. … I don't think anybody has any doubt about my abilities," she says. "I do think when you do things like [a legal apprenticeship], you have to prove yourself in a nontraditional way."

Sources:

Gary Blasi, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 28, 2014

Talia Clever, Washington State's Law Clerk Program Lead, Interviewed by the author via e-mail through the Washington State Bar Association's Communications Manager, Jennifer Olegario, Aug. 28, 2014

"The Graduate Student Debt Review: The State of Graduate Borrowing," Jason Delisle, The New America Education Policy Program, March 2014, p. 4.
http://newamerica.net/sites/newamerica.net/files/policydocs/GradStudentDebtReview-Delisle-Final.pdf

"The Lawyer's Apprentice: How to Learn the Law Without Law School," Sean Patrick Farrell, The New York Times, July 30, 2014,
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/education/edlife/how-to-learn-the-law-without-law-school.html?_r=0

State-by-State Guide to Apprenticeships, "Like Lincoln: Becoming a Lawyer Without Going to Law School," Sustainable Economies Law Center,
http://likelincoln.org/state-by-state-guide-to-apprenticeships/

Rule 10: The Bar Examination, "Maine Bar Admission Rules," Maine Board of Bar Examiners,
http://www.mainebarexaminers.org/pages/PDF/MBarAdmissR0112.pdf

"Employment for the class of 2013 — Selected Findings," National Association for Law Placement, 2014, p. 1,
http://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2013SelectedFindings.pdf

Carolyn Seklii, Attorney at Seklii and Sullivan, Interviewed by the author on Aug. 26, 2014

Qualifying for Admission to Practice Law in California Through Study in a Law Office or Judge's Chamber, The State Bar of California,
http://admissions.calbar.ca.gov/Education/LegalEducation/LawOfficeorJudgesChamber.aspx

Rule 520.4: A Study of Law in Law Office, Court of Appeals, State of New York,
http://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/520rules10.htm#4

Rules for Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court, State of Vermont Judiciary,
https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/LC/d-BBELibrary/BBERules.pdf

"Law Reader Rules & Regulations, Virginia Board of Bar Examiners,
http://barexam.virginia.gov/reader/readerrules.html

"Law Clerk Program," Washington Courts,
http://www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/?fa=court_rules.display&group=ga&set=apr&ruleid=gaapr06

Rules and Procedures Governing Admission to the Practice of Law: Section II, Rule 202, Wyoming Judicial Branch,
http://www.courts.state.wy.us/WSC/CourtRule?RuleNumber=72#612 (Section II, Rule 202)