John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and Mike Ross, a leading character from USA’s hit legal show, Suits, are more alike than some may believe. Although Marshall has been dead for almost 200 years, and Ross is merely a fictional Hollywood creation, they share a unique, and very legitimate, path to the practice of law: lawyers are not required to attend law school.
Instead of securing a JD degree, aspiring lawyers in California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington can serve for a practicing attorney and judge as an apprentice, take the bar exam, and become 100% eligible to practice law. How is that possible? This unconventional and largely unknown shortcut to the professional legal world has been around since colonial America. Shortly after Great Britain created the 13 colonies, lawyers were sent to North America from England, where these professionals gained expertise through an apprenticeship program called the Inns of Court. Most simply, this system allowed people to practice law if they just connected with a working lawyer for mentorship and training.
This process eventually evolved into another type of apprentice system in New York by the 1730s. All American lawyers had to not only finish a seven-year clerkship, but also pass a state-administered bar exam for full eligibility; students either enrolled in college to pass the exam or relied on self-study. While people found this combination of self-study for the bar exam and apprenticeship to be very rigorous, it took the next 140 years to change the system to what it is today.
The American Bar Association (ABA) was founded in 1878. This organization did not agree with the self-study aspect, and fought for a system that promoted a uniform code of ethics. They believed that in order to establish an impartial institution, national standards needed to exist. The ABA tirelessly campaigned the idea that every state should only allow law school students to take the bar exam.
The ABA was successful in most states, but California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington slipped through the cracks. As a result, they are the only states that consider apprenticeships as the minimum requirement for taking the bar exam. The benefits of this shortcut are obvious: apprentices do not have to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of loans to afford law school, nor do they have to spend years working a lucrative job to pay off their enormous debt. Additionally, apprenticeships are active-learning opportunities and allows people to see how law operates in the real world, not just learn in a classroom setting.
*Top five law schools, according to U.S. News’ Best Law Schools Ranking 2017
There are some drawbacks too. The most prestigious law firms only recruit from top-tier schools, leaving those who took the apprenticeship route with a limited number of career choices. Partly due to the efforts of the ABA, modern society has turned into a degree-obsessed environment that no longer accepts the oldest path to practicing law. Even some of the states that allow apprenticeships to replace law schools, such as California, purposefully hide information about this alternative method, making it difficult to find out about apprenticeship programs. Christina Oatfield, an undergraduate from Berkeley, found out about an apprenticeship under California’s Law Office Study Program after she received her undergraduate degree. She said, “The state bar doesn’t advertise this program really well… There is info on their website, but you really have to search for it to find it.”
The number of people who have chosen apprenticeship over law school since 1996 to 2014 is 1,142. Within that small group, only 305 have passed the bar exam. When comparing the pass rates of apprentices and of those who attend ABA-approved law schools (71.1%), apprenticeships seems like a lot of work for a relatively small return. Bar exam pass rates for apprentices are usually pretty low, as they range from 18% to 33%, but they are tied with the pass rates of those who attend non ABA-approved law schools (26.7%) and are not too far behind those of students from law schools outside the US (34.6%). These stats show that a classic law education never guarantees a successful bar exam!
Law school is not for everyone. Some need a traditional classroom setting and structure, while others prefer hands-on work experience to learn the skills they need in the real world. While the practice of law is not entirely accepting of this unconventional path to taking the bar exam, it must be comforting to know that there is a cheaper and more vocational route for the John Marshalls and Mike Rosses in this world.