I had it all planned out. I would tell him this is his last chance to settle before I file a wage claim on behalf of the day laborer I was helping. I would tell him what the law said. I would let him read it for himself. He would make excuses; I would be ready with my response. Just as I planned, he paid right then and there. I thought, “I like this whole law thing.” That was when I first considered becoming a lawyer, ten years ago.
I had a plan to figure out. I was determined to not go back to school, so how was I going to be a lawyer? I thought, people go to law school but can’t pass the bar all the time—maybe you can do it the other way around! So, I looked it up and said, “look at that! I can do an apprenticeship!”
I had it all planned out. I walked into his office, sat down, and said, “Hey Dan, let me take you to lunch.” I didn’t say why. I made sure I had a copy of the rules with me and I knew them well. I ordered a salad, so I didn’t end up wearing ketchup. I said I had a proposal. I paused. I said I wanted to do an apprenticeship under him to become a lawyer without going to law school. (I’d been a paralegal in his firm for a year by then.) That was some six years ago.
“What are you talking about?” is the most common reaction to the idea of becoming a lawyer without going to law school. But, it is common wisdom among lawyers that law school neither prepares you for the bar exam nor prepares you to be a lawyer. It is common knowledge that law school means crushing student loans. If only it was common knowledge that many can bypass law school altogether! People call it apprenticing or reading the law–the California State Bar calls it the Law Office Study Program--but my favorite term is DIY Law School. I can’t take credit for coining the phrase. Somebody called it that playfully early on in my experience, and I’ve been smiling about it ever since. Unfortunately, I can’t credit that person because I don’t remember who it was!
California is one of six states that allow some form of a legal apprenticeship instead of law school. So, I studied before my shift every day, and five years later I was a sworn-in, licensed attorney. DIY Law School is the great unknown option. It means becoming a lawyer with no debt. It means hitting the ground running, with years of practical experience. And in many ways, it’s not nearly as hard or time-consuming as law school.
What are the other five? Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. The rules are very different for each. In New York and Maine, you have to attend law school, you just don’t have to finish. In several of them, unlike in California, your supervising attorney is required to instruct you. The way I did it, he supervised me while I instructed myself. I’ve included a detailed list of each state’s rules below.
I winged it, designing my own study plan, writing my own curricula. Of course, I got advice. The most important was to not try to emulate law school—the point is to pass the bar. That has to be the focus. So, I used bar prep course materials as the starting point—these show what you need to know. Then I reverse-engineered each to create my curricula, with used text books fleshing out the material for each 12-week self-taught course. Four years of this and I was eligible to take one of the hardest professional exams in the country. It cost me almost nothing.
Law schools make life difficult for their students in ways which have little to do with the knowledge and skill needed to pass the bar or to practice law. To skip it, you will need an analytical mind, a mastery of English reading comprehension, and very good study habits. You will also need to be unusually self-motivated. Does this sound like you?
The Big Picture
This is not law school and it’s not a substitute. It’s bypassing it. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first year was trying to make my apprenticeship like law school. I planned on studying subjects not on the bar exam as elective courses, I started with Civil Procedure because I heard that’s what law school starts with, I based my syllabus on the case book I was using, and at one point one of the attorneys at my firm tried the Socratic method with me.
Six months in, I consulted Gary Blasi, who was then a UCLA Law professor. I got in touch through his son, who I knew from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley. Gary spent about an hour with me on the phone, going over his experience apprenticing a few decades ago. We mostly talked about the big picture. He was emphatic. The point of the apprenticeship was to pass the bar exam. It was not to gain an education that’s equivalent, or even comparable, to law school.
He was also very candid that in his opinion, law school does not prepare you for either the bar exam or practicing law. This is something I have heard from maybe ten other lawyers when I talked to them about my plans. In fact, I can’t think of a single lawyer who said they felt like law school prepared them for either. It involves a lot of philosophizing about the law and study of the history of law that you do not need to know. Gary was also very clear that your supervising attorney is not and cannot be a professor. They may be very good at what they do, but that does not make them a professor. This is important. If you’re going to do a self-taught program similar to mine, according to the California rules, do not expect your supervising attorney to even necessarily remember the material you are studying, much less teach it to you. You will, for the most part, have to teach it to yourself.
Gary had a very important piece of practical advice: start with a bar prep outline on the subject you’re going to study. Read it through, even though you won’t understand a lot of it. Use it to guide the entire course. Think of your course like reverse-engineering that outline. The goal of the course is to master the contents of the outline. The entirety of what you need to know about a subject is in there—so don’t study it if it’s not there!
Unfortunately for me, I had already put a lot of energy into topics in Civil Procedure and Contracts that I did not need to study. This is because in my first several months I was not using the bar prep outline; I was using the table of contents of a case book for one of my courses and a summary of law (for Contracts) for another, to give the course structure.
One of the unnecessary things law schools do is teach the philosophy and history of law. One of the ways they do this is by making students start with reading very early cases on a topic—sometimes hundreds of years old. They study it, analyze and dissect its contents, talk about its historical context, then study the next case that changed the law on that topic. They repeat this process until reaching the current state of the law. Of course, not all professors in all law schools do this with all subjects. But it is very common. It’s also needlessly difficult, time-consuming, and largely irrelevant. In terms of big picture, we should be doing the opposite in apprenticeships. We start with the bar prep outline’s section on a topic, then read the section on the topic in a “supplement” book, and only read cases after that.
The way I remember it, I was reluctant to give up on the idea of including things in my studies that were not on the bar exam. But I knew Gary was right, and I gradually accepted it. So, I never did study Indian Law, and I got used to designing my curricula based on bar prep outlines, and skipping material not covered there.
What this is, is four years of bar prep (or likely five to six years). That is the single most important thing I took away from my conversation with Gary. The inability to recreate law school in an apprenticeship is definitely a reason to stick to the content of the bar prep outline. But many people graduate from law school, some of whom I’m sure did quite well, who never manage to pass the bar. The bar exam is notoriously difficult—especially the California and New York exams. Any material you study that is not tested on the exam is unnecessary. Any effort you make that does not help you pass is wasted, and it potentially takes away from your ability to pass.
The Paralegal to Attorney Approach
I decided to do an apprenticeship to become an attorney before deciding to be a paralegal. I just saw that studying in a law office during business hours was a requirement, so figured that meant getting a job in a law office. Under the California rules it could have been one of many positions, such as legal secretary, file clerk, investigator, or receptionist. But working as a litigation paralegal will prepare you much better for being a lawyer and it will help you understand some of the material you are studying.
Unless this article ends up with unexpectedly wide distribution, most of you reading it are already paralegals. You’ve got that part down already. If you’re in one of the states that allow this, all you have to do is decide if it’s for you, convince your boss, and get started according to the rules.
For those few who aren’t already paralegals, don’t worry. If you have a bachelor’s degree, some office experience and intermediate computer skills, you can do it. Most employers are looking for experienced paralegals. But, there are entry-level positions out there. I got one. It may seem like a big delay to first have to get hired as a paralegal before even starting the apprenticeship. But I have talked to too many people who can’t seem to get started because they keep trying to propose an apprenticeship without first discussing employment. That approach has far more potential to cause delays. “Hire me” is already a big ask. “Be my supervisor for a law study program you’re only vaguely familiar with” is a big ask. So, separate the two. Get hired first. Establish yourself as a responsible employee—especially if they don’t know you well. I waited a full year, to be safe. Then, make your proposal.
A paralegal is a legal assistant. Despite the confusion, the terms are synonymous. Having a paralegal certificate is a big advantage when you have no experience, but it is not necessary. In my experience, employers don’t care if you have a certificate once you have experience. So, I don’t recommend taking the time to get a certificate. The one exception to this is if you really need to go back to school to work on your writing, comprehension, and analysis. Then, it might make sense to get a paralegal certificate as long as the program includes plenty of writing and comprehension. If you’re looking at a paralegal certificate program that isn’t going to cover enough writing and comprehension, you’ll need to take those courses even if they’re not required.
When I first proposed an apprenticeship to my boss, I got out the rules, and told him I had a plan. I would do an apprenticeship at Siegel & Yee while minimizing the burden on the firm. I would study in my office, between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., before starting work. I would study one subject at a time, for about three months at a time. I would rotate among the associate attorneys he supervised at the firm, meeting once a week with one of them to go over what I had studied in the subject that week. I would mostly be studying on my own, and there would be very little for him to do personally. He would just need to review my work periodically and sign off on it as I sent it in to the state bar.
One of the first things he did was look at the rules for himself, saying, “Good. You can finish under someone else if you have to.” He approved my plan, saying “I support your efforts.” I got started pretty much immediately. I could tell he reacted to how well prepared I was, knowing the basics of the rules off the top of my head. Whether you’re already a paralegal or not, if you’re going to pitch this to a supervising attorney, make sure you’re as prepared as possible. You should come across calm, confident, and like you did your homework. You want to be able to answer any question they might have, right then and there. If you’re in California, emphasize that it won’t be much work for your supervising attorney because they won’t need to instruct you. That probably makes it much easier to convince an attorney to do this for you. I imagine people have a much harder time convincing an attorney to in effect be their personal tutor.
My Paralegal to Attorney Experience
“You’re a lot more polished than I was in my first year!” he said after apologizing for taking a shot at me for being a rookie. We were in the hallway outside the courtroom a few months ago. David is an experienced eviction attorney who was trying to kick my client out of her home. He made the mistake of arguing to the court that my scheduling conflict was disingenuous because no attorney would be on such a large trial in their first year. I explained that I actually had years of experience as an apprentice—that was why I would be the second chair attorney in a fairly large trial.
Apprenticing while working as a paralegal gave me years of hands-on litigation experience. I recently served as second chair trial counsel, and nearly went to trial in four other cases since I began practice in 2017. I have taken depositions, argued motions, and negotiated severance agreements and unlawful detainer settlements. I was able to hit the ground running like this because throughout my apprenticeship I performed as much directly supervised attorney work as permissible without risking committing unlicensed practice of law. I thus have authored dozens of briefs, including two appeal briefs and four oppositions to motions for summary judgment. We won all four.
At first, there was only minimal overlap between my job as a paralegal and my law studies. My job helped me understand things like what a cause of action is, what a complaint is, what an answer is, what a motion to dismiss is, what a motion for summary judgment is, and what a deposition is. It helped me understand how a brief is structured, how legal arguments are presented, how the tricks and annoyances of discovery work, how discovery meet and confer works, and how a judge is always looking at legal arguments in terms of what issues are before the court, and what issues are not.
As I progressed, I learned how to read case law as part of my law studies. This meant I could start doing legal research. Over the years, I got pretty good at it. Proof reading was always part of my job. I increasingly expanded proof reading to editing briefs. Once I knew how to research, I started adding to legal argument, with new authorities. By my third year, I was writing briefs myself, with guidance, feedback, and editing from my supervising attorney. Even though I was not allowed to take or defend depositions or argue in court, I attended many depositions and hearings, and three trials. I watched closely, took notes, and discussed strategy afterwards. It made all the difference that I had worked on these cases for months, if not years. All of this gave me a huge advantage over an attorney straight out of law school.
There were other, less obvious ways apprenticing in a litigation firm gave me a head start. I regularly worked directly with clients for months, even years, as the case progressed. If you don’t know, client relations are an incredibly important part of successfully practicing law. By the time I started practice, I had already worked closely with over 30 clients. That alone was an advantage. I also got used to the culture of a law office. I was exposed to and to some extent interacted with dozens of attorneys on the other side. That gave me a sense for what to expect. It also helped to learn where the various courtrooms in my area are, the differences between the way each operated, and what the clerk of the court expects of attorneys. It even helped a lot to learn how to wear a suit. I don’t know about you, but it was a completely foreign thing to me. If wearing a suit were still new to me, like it was during my apprenticeship, I would have a lot less confidence doing my job as an attorney.
Then there’s how the experience of mastering paralegal work makes me a better attorney. I need far less paralegal support than most attorneys. I keep my files organized out of habit. The same goes for calendaring and planning my cases. I got so used to perfectionist proof reading that now I barely need any (of course no one should rely on proofing their own work). I also got good enough at document review that I have a better understanding of what’s needed there than any attorney straight out of law school. And, I have better working relationships with paralegals because I understand and respect them better than anybody who’s never done the job.
If you’re serious about this, the first thing to do is research. That means looking up the rules for a legal apprenticeship in your state (if you’re in one of the states where it’s even possible). I’m providing a run-down of the basic requirements each of the six states has. But if you’re going to actually do an apprenticeship, you need to look up the rules yourself. The information below is meant to give you an introduction to what’s out there; it is not meant for you to rely on in beginning an apprenticeship. Also, rules change. So, when you do look them up, make sure you’re looking at the current version!
Below is a summary of the basic requirements per state (please do not assume this is an exhaustive list):
Have at least two years of college education or pass an equivalency exam
Register with the state bar as a law student
Send a notice of intent for the Law Office Study Program to the state bar, with a modest fee
Send an outline of a proposed course of instruction to the state bar
Study in a law office (or judge’s chambers) during regular business hours for at least eighteen hours per week
Send reports to the state bar every six months listing what you studied, with copies of six written, graded exams
Have a supervising attorney who’s been admitted to the California bar, active, in good standing for at least five years, and who doesn’t supervise more than one other apprentice
Have your supervising attorney supervise you for at least five hours per week
Pass the First Year Law Students Exam—or “Baby Bar” as we all call it—after your first year of study
Send a notice of commencement to the Board of Bar Examiners with your supervising attorney’s representation that you have good moral character and fitness
Study under the supervision of a judge or attorney currently practicing in Vermont and admitted to the bar for at least three years
Study at least 30 hours/14 days for at least 44 weeks/year for at least 4 years unless you attended law school or completed part of an approved apprenticeship program in another state, in which case you can formally petition for credit for up to two years of study
Send affidavit reports to the Board every six months describing what you studied in detail and describing your study plan for the next six months
Work full-time, with an average of at least 32 hours/week in your supervising attorney’s office or judge’s chambers, performing work that contributes to the practical work of that office (the employment requirement can be waived on a case-by-case basis)
Send an application to the state bar with:
two letters of recommendation
all undergraduate transcripts
Study under the instruction of an attorney or judge who’s active and in good standing for at least 10 years with no discipline for the past 5 years
Study at least 3 hours per week under direct supervision and instruction by your supervising attorney
Complete six courses per year for at least four years, within no more than six years
you can formally petition for credit for some of your time at law school if you attended an approved law school
Take a written exam every month prepared by your supervising attorney
Send in a monthly report to the bar, including that month’s exam, certifying the supervision and the hours spent studying
Send in book reports each year on jurisprudence
Pay an annual fee (currently $2,000)
Complete an annual evaluation with your supervising attorney
Have your supervising attorney certify you are qualified to take the bar exam and competent to practice law
Note that there are other rules that apply to apprentices that are not part of the rules governing apprenticeships! For instance, in California the general education requirement, the Baby Bar requirement, and the moral character requirement are not listed in the rules on apprenticeships. They are just required for everybody taking the bar exam (general education), required for everybody who did not attend an accredited law school (the Baby Bar), or required for everybody before being admitted to practice law (moral character). The lists above also do not include all the detailed requirements for applying to take the bar exam once you have finished an apprenticeship. Those requirements are different for each state.
Every state has a moral character requirement. If you have any doubt about your ability to do this because of moral character (for instance, if you have criminal convictions) you will need to research the rules on that in detail. But do not assume you can’t do it! In California, it is still possible, on a case-by-case basis, to become a lawyer despite past convictions, especially if those convictions are not for dishonesty crimes.
Personally, I recommend completing a bachelor’s degree, even if you’re in California (the rest either require a bachelor’s degree or require some law school). If you don’t get the bachelor’s degree, at least make the requisite two years’ college work count by focusing on the skills you’ll need for an apprenticeship. Study habits are learned. Good ones are essential to a successful apprenticeship. They are usually learned through years of college education. Many people still don’t have them even after getting a bachelor’s degree. I know it seems like a big delay, but the last thing you want to do is waste years on an apprenticeship which never leads to passing the bar, because you were unprepared.
I recommend following the rules in your state strictly. If you’re unclear on something, you can always ask the admissions office (or whatever office governs apprenticeships in your state). Do not get cute with interpreting the requirements. For instance, the California rules currently require study in the law office of an attorney during business hours, then separately set requirements for who that attorney “with whom the applicant is studying” may be. Don’t try to study wherever you want, claiming the attorney has a “mobile,” “virtual,” or “online” office. Don’t try to interpret the rules to mean that the office you’re studying in doesn’t have to be the office of the supervising attorney. This is practical advice you should follow just out of a healthy sense of caution. The California State Bar appears to take a very hard line with anyone it decides has broken any kind of rule. Other states are probably just as strict. From what I can tell, California also appears to be much less willing to give a second chance to applicants than to licensed attorneys. If they decide you intentionally misrepresented an aspect of your study program, you may never get admitted to the bar. Ever.
This is also reasoned advice. If you study law, you will eventually get very familiar with the concept of statutory construction. This is where courts interpret, or “construe” written laws, to apply them to particular situations. The first rule of this concept is “plain language.” The court will look at the wording of the statute, assuming the words are written with their ordinary meaning in mind. Only if there is an ambiguity in the meaning as it applies to the particular case will the court go further in its interpretation. If it does go further, it will usually next look at “legislative intent.” This is the court asking what the purpose of the law was, and in particular what the authors must have meant by particular words and phrases. So, as it’s currently written, California Rules of the State Bar, Rule 4.29(A)(3) requires you to “stud[y] law in a law office or judge’s chambers during regular business hours for at least eighteen hours each week,” among other things. Rule 4.29(B) lists a series of requirements for who that “attorney or judge with whom the applicant is studying” may be. I think it’s safe to say that a “law office” is exactly that—a physical location where law is practiced. The term is not ambiguous, so we do not need to ask about the intent of the authors. But even if we give the ambiguity argument the benefit of the doubt, tell me this: if the authors thought it was okay for you to study wherever you want, why would they write this requirement at all? Likewise, I think “during business hours” means exactly that. If they thought it was okay for you to study at any time you want, why would they write “during business hours”? The same goes for a creative interpretation allowing the supervising attorney to not be the same attorney in whose office you study. Please. Obviously the “law office” is the office of the “attorney…with whom the applicant is studying.” Why else would you be required to study in the law office during business hours, with “at least five hours a week” supervised by the attorney with whom you’re studying? The rules don’t even make sense if these are two different attorneys who aren’t in the same office. I take the time to argue this because I know there are plenty of attorneys who work from a home office and who don’t hold regular business hours. There are also plenty of people trying to apprentice who have a very hard time finding supervising attorneys. So, people might be tempted to argue that the rule’s language is outdated, not reflecting the way many contemporary attorneys operate. They may claim they are only applying the rule in a reasonable way to the reality of an attorney with a “virtual” office and no regular business hours. I think it is very likely that if the question came before the California State Bar, the unfortunate apprentice trying to be cute with the rules would be forever barred from practicing law in California. Don’t risk it. Obviously, that goes for following the rules of the other states as well.
Is This for You? The answer may be different depending on what state you’re in. I completed an apprenticeship according to the rules in California. That means I had to create my own study plan, create my own curricula, keep myself on track, and (mostly) teach myself the material. If you’re in Washington for instance, you won’t have to put as much into creating a study plan since you don’t have a choice what to study and when—they provide much more structure in the rules than California. If you’re in one of the states that requires the supervising attorney to be your instructor, such as Virginia, the skills necessary to teach yourself are not as important.
But generally speaking, the skills required for studying law are at least as important for an apprenticeship as they are for law school. This probably depends on the law school–many, if not most, are very difficult (or so I’m told). They are probably needlessly difficult. There are several ways law schools make life difficult for their students which have little, if anything, to do with the knowledge and skill you need to pass the bar or to then practice law, after passing.
I just like the sound of DIY Law School. But, an apprenticeship is really nothing like law school. You will need a supervising attorney, but under the California rules, that attorney will probably not be your professor. You will be teaching yourself. To do that, you will need a naturally analytical mind. To create your own study plan, you will need to be capable of design. For any apprenticeship, you will need a mastery of English reading comprehension. You will need to be unusually self-motivated. You will need to already have very good study habits. If the California self-taught approach is for you, you have probably already taught yourself something, maybe many things.
Why does an apprenticeship require a naturally analytical mind? A law student may not really get a concept until the professor (or a classmate) explains it several times. This is less of an issue in the states where the supervising attorney is required to instruct. But otherwise, logical, analytical thought will need to come naturally to you, so that for the most part, you get it simply by reading it. If you find yourself confused a lot, especially in an academic setting, you might be better off in law school.
Why design? Again, it’s more important in states that don’t provide much structure. Unless you are fortunate enough to have guidance from people who have already done this, design is important. When I say design, I mean the entire plan from filing the notice of intent to getting sworn in. I mean each curriculum. And I mean each subject outline. I have an unusual combination of analytical and creative tendencies which leave me comfortable, even satisfied, designing things. I don’t mean engineering or architecture, though I do think such design uses similar mental functions. Have you ever gotten a proud satisfaction out of designing a complex set of spreadsheets with conditional formulas and cross-references? Or maybe you have classroom experience, and designed an entire course. Maybe you have experience in event planning, or campaign planning. If you’ve never done such things, so what? But, especially for those of you in California, if you balk at the idea, and can’t imagine successfully doing it, you might be better off in law school.
Don’t underestimate the need for English skills. This goes for every state. My folks who learned it as a second language, this will be harder for most of you. Let’s be real: it’s a weird language with very little consistent logic to it. That makes any academia in English a challenge for a lot of people. The law, especially case law written more than fifty years ago, seems intentionally written in difficult to understand English. The concepts of the law and all the terminology many of you have never heard before will be difficult enough. You do not want to deal with the extra layer of not understanding the vocabulary or getting lost in the complex sentence structure. This, and the need for good study habits, is why I don’t recommend an apprenticeship if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree. A lot of people have trouble with English reading comprehension and composition. If you used to have such trouble, but got past it, don’t worry. If you still have trouble, you might be better off in law school.
Self-motivation is arguably the most important. In California, you can take as long as you want on your apprenticeship (but at least four years). That is dangerous! Like the vast majority of the kids I went to community college with, you may never finish. Have you gotten into a regular exercise routine, and kept it, without even so much as a gym membership, much less classes? Have you kept up music practice (and I mean proper practice, not just playing) with neither classes nor lessons? Did you immediately give yourself so many projects while unemployed that it completely occupied your time? This is what I mean by self-motivation. If you’ve repeatedly tried and failed at such things, can’t imagine doing them, or have a history of never finishing projects, you might be better off in law school.
Study habits are learned. Maybe you learned some by trial and error combined with applying your analytical skills. Maybe you learned some from a few good study-aid books, from classmates, or from professors. If you’ve ever studied anything, you developed habits. In my opinion, most people have bad study habits. These include reading something all the way through, then reading it two more times because you don’t understand, or aren’t retaining the information. It includes attempting to write lecture notes verbatim before understanding the concepts (my method is to only write notes once I understand, and always put it in my own words). It includes studying for hours without breaks, studying while exhausted, or studying with the TV on or other stimuli distracting you. I imagine plenty of people learn better study habits for the first time in law school (as with any graduate school). You will need to already have them to do this. If you’re not sure what good study habits are in the first place, or you’re guilty of the majority of my examples of bad habits, you might be better off in law school.
The DIY Law School I did is self-taught law. If self-taught law is going to work for you, chances are you are just a self-taught kind of person. I taught myself to type, play guitar, design very complicated excel spreadsheets, convert my car to run on vegetable oil, brew beer, and care for bonsai trees. Ok, I took a one-semester guitar class and a few bonsai workshops–lets call those two mostly self-taught. I also had planned to teach myself calculus while unemployed for a few months, only to have the misfortune of getting a job. I still plan to get to that one. You don’t need to have already done these kinds of things. But, especially for those of you in California, if doing them sounds outlandish to you, you might be better off in law school.
What all this comes down to is most people need the structure of classes and the presence of a professor to explain things if they are going to learn law. If you’re one of the few, go ahead, be excited! This is a pretty cool way to become a lawyer.
Weighing the Options So far, I’ve talked a little about the nature of legal thinking and a lot about the skills and personality traits you’ll need. But even if you can do this, you should still take your time deciding if you should.
Talk to several people who went to law school within the past fifteen years—what was it like, how did it prepare them, how did it not, what was rewarding? Ask yourself if that might be a better option.
Be clear about the downsides. You will not have a degree. Many employers (and clients) are impressed by degrees from prestigious law schools. This is especially true in the very beginning. It may be a serious disadvantage, competing with applicants who have degrees. Of course, if you can get an interview, you may be able to convince people that you actually have far more practical experience than applicants straight out of law school. So, it cuts both ways.
You may never pass the bar. Be clear about that too—obviously you should not dwell on it and remember that possibility exists even if you go to law school. It’s important to recognize the risks though, and that is one of them. It is a different risk than going to law school but never passing the bar. The pass rates for apprentices are much lower. If you finish an apprenticeship but never pass the bar you will not have a degree. There are quite a few jobs out there that do not require admittance to the bar but either require a JD or are much easier to get if you have one.
This will also take considerably longer. Law school is three years. Students graduate in May, and at least in California, they take the July Bar Exam, and get results in November. An apprentice in California is required to complete four years of officially reported study before Bar Exam eligibility. The timely registration deadline for the bar exam is about three months before, and it takes a few weeks after completing your studies to get the official eligibility. This means you would need to finish your four years in March to take the July exam (or pay extra for late registration if you finished early enough to still meet that deadline). So at the very least it will take about 14 months longer than law school. That is a significant amount of time you will not yet be practicing law.
But it could easily take much longer. If you’re in California, you will not get credit for your first year until you pass the “Baby Bar” (First Year Law Student’s Exam). It is only administered twice per year, and the pass rate is usually around 20%, so your apprenticeship could easily take five or six years. That is not something to gloss over when making this decision.
Debt is obviously a factor weighing in your favor. Law school is notoriously, needlessly expensive. But keep in mind that you may not be making much money during your apprenticeship. It varies, but most paralegals, investigators, legal secretaries, file clerks, and receptionists are not highly paid. For some, an apprenticeship may mean a drop in income, which could mean acquiring more debt to compensate. Depending on many factors, you may need to work less hours at times to allow for more studying (or even work part time the entire time). And though the cost of the program itself is nothing compared to law school, it is not free. Besides the fees for the apprenticeship program, expect to put several thousand into books, bar prep classes or tutors, and exam fees.
Momentum Is Building
I have it all planned out. Every year more enroll in an apprenticeship in California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington instead of completing law school. This will only increase as more people reject unnecessary law school debt. They will also increasingly realize what so many lawyers already know—law school doesn’t prepare you for the bar exam, doesn’t prepare you for being a lawyer, and has about as much value for a lawyer as studying the development of language has for a fiction author. That is, you might learn some fascinating things, but it probably has little to do with your ability to do your job.
About the author: Micah Clatterbaugh is an associate attorney at Siegel, Yee & Brunner, a firm in Oakland, California. He began his apprenticeship there in 2012 and was sworn in as an attorney in 2017. His autodidacticism and rejection of conventions have a long history. He dropped out of high school but graduated from UC Berkeley thanks to the California Community College system. Besides law, he taught himself to type, play guitar, design complicated excel spreadsheets, convert his car to run on vegetable oil, brew beer, and care for bonsai trees. You can reach Micah by email at email@example.com.
 Law summaries and practice guides are essential resources for litigators—within a couple years of practicing you will probably learn to rely on them for guidance in almost everything you do, particularly when you encounter an unfamiliar issue. They are not appropriate for bar prep!