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The unorthodox path of 'reading the law', become 'law readers' and enter the field of Law

published April 18, 2024

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( 408 votes, average: 4.8 out of 5)
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The traditional route to a legal career in the United States typically involves obtaining a law degree from an accredited law school and passing the bar exam. However, there exists a lesser-known yet intriguing alternative known as "reading the law" or becoming a "law reader." 


This method, which combines apprenticeship with self-study under the guidance of a practicing attorney or judge, offers a unique pathway into the legal profession. This article explores the concept of reading the law, its historical significance, how it works today, and the pros and cons of choosing this unconventional path to legal practice.


Historical Background


Origins and Prominent Figures

  • Early Legal Education: Historically, reading the law was the primary method of legal education in the United States before the rise of formal law schools.
  • Famous Law Readers: Notable figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson followed this path, which highlights its credibility and historical importance.

Decline and Resurgence

  • Shift to Institutional Learning: With the proliferation of law schools in the 20th century, reading the law saw a significant decline.
  • Modern-Day Relevance: Recent years have seen a modest resurgence in interest, driven by the high cost of law school and the desire for more flexible, accessible legal training options.

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How It Works


Requirements and Process

  • Eligible States: Only a few states, such as Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and California, currently allow aspirants to read the law.
  • Supervision: Candidates must study under the supervision of an experienced attorney or judge for a specified period, typically four years.
  • Study Plan and Examination: Law readers must follow a rigorous study plan and periodically pass assessments or bar exams as required by their state's law.

Success Rates


Bar Exam Statistics: Law readers tend to have lower pass rates on the bar exam compared to traditionally schooled peers, a factor often attributed to the lack of structured educational support.


Advantages of Reading the Law

  • Cost-Effectiveness: Avoids the significant debt associated with law school tuition.
  • Flexibility: Allows for a more personalized study schedule and the possibility to work while studying.
  • Direct Mentorship: Provides practical, hands-on learning experiences through close mentorship.

Challenges and Considerations




Reading the law is a unique path to becoming a lawyer that eschews traditional educational routes in favor of an apprenticeship-style learning model. While it offers significant benefits such as cost savings and personalized mentorship, it also comes with challenges such as limited geographical licensure and potentially lower success rates on bar examinations. For those who are self-motivated, disciplined, and have access to a qualified mentor, reading the law can be a rewarding entry into the legal profession. As the legal education landscape continues to evolve, this path might appeal to an increasing number of candidates seeking alternative routes into the field of law.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)


Q: What is 'reading the law'?


Reading the law refers to an alternative legal education method where an individual studies law under the supervision of a practicing lawyer or judge without attending traditional law school. This method involves a combination of mentorship, self-study, and hands-on practice.


Q: In which states is reading the law permitted?


As of the latest information, states like California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington allow this path to legal practice. Each state has specific requirements and regulations governing this practice.


Q: How long does it take to complete the law reading program?


Typically, the law reading program lasts for about four years, which is comparable to the duration of part-time law school. The exact duration can vary based on the state’s requirements and the candidate's pace of study.


Q: What are the requirements to start reading the law?


Requirements vary by state but generally include:

  • Being of legal age (usually 18 or over)
  • Having a certain level of education, often at least a high school diploma
  • Passing a background check
  • Finding a qualified legal mentor who agrees to supervise the apprenticeship

Q: How does one find a mentor for reading the law?


Finding a mentor involves reaching out to practicing attorneys or judges who are interested in supervising an apprentice. Candidates can network through legal associations, contact law firms directly, or use connections within the legal community to find a suitable mentor.


Q: What kind of assessments or exams must law readers pass?


Law readers are typically required to pass periodic assessments set by their supervising attorney and ultimately the state bar examination. Some states also require the First-Year Law Students' Examination (FYLSE), commonly known as the "Baby Bar."


Q: How do success rates for law readers compare to traditional law students?


Law readers generally have lower bar exam pass rates compared to their traditionally educated counterparts. This variance is often attributed to the lack of structured educational support and formalized teaching environments.


Q: What are the main advantages of reading the law?


The primary advantages include:

  • Significant cost savings as compared to attending law school.
  • Flexible learning schedules that can accommodate employment.
  • Personalized mentoring and practical experience directly in the legal field.

Q: What are the disadvantages of reading the law?


The main disadvantages are:

  • Limited geographical recognition; not all states allow law readers to practice.
  • Potentially lower success rates on the bar exam due to less formal preparation.
  • Missing out on networking opportunities and resources that are typically available through law schools.

Q: Can a law reader practice in any state once qualified?


No, law readers are generally only permitted to practice in the state where they completed their apprenticeship and passed the bar exam. If they wish to practice in another state, they might need to meet additional requirements, which could include attending an accredited law school.


Q: Is reading the law a good fit for everyone?


Reading the law is best suited for highly self-motivated individuals who are capable of structured self-study and can thrive without the traditional educational environment. Prospective law readers should also be prepared for the challenges of finding a mentor and navigating the preparation for the bar exam independently.


Q: Is it easier to read the law than to attend law school?


While reading the law may seem easier due to its flexibility and lower costs, it requires significant self-discipline and commitment. Without the structured environment and resources of a law school, candidates must be proactive in managing their studies and preparing for exams.


Q: How does one prepare for the bar exam as a law reader?


Preparation for the bar exam as a law reader involves thorough self-study, regular practice tests, and deep engagement with legal concepts. Many law readers also choose to enroll in bar review courses to enhance their preparedness for the rigorous examination.


Q: What kind of legal careers are available to law readers?


Law readers can pursue most of the same careers as law school graduates, including working in private practice, serving in public positions, or working for non-profit organizations. However, opportunities might vary based on the state and the professional network they develop during their apprenticeship.


Q: How can a law reader build a professional network?

  • Building a professional network as a law reader can involve:
  • Participating in legal associations and groups.
  • Attending legal and community events to meet other professionals.
  • Engaging in online legal forums and platforms to connect with peers and mentors.
  • What are the financial implications of reading the law compared to attending law school?

Reading the law significantly reduces or eliminates the tuition costs associated with attending law school. However, law readers may face potential income loss if they reduce their work hours to focus on studies. Additionally, the initial costs of bar exams and preparatory courses need consideration.


Q: Can law readers specialize in any area of law?


Like law school graduates, law readers can specialize in any area of law that interests them, provided they gain sufficient knowledge and experience in that area during their apprenticeship. This might include fields like family law, criminal defense, corporate law, or environmental law.


Q: How is the law reading apprenticeship structured?


The apprenticeship structure can vary, but generally involves:

  • Regular meetings and learning sessions with the mentor.
  • Assignments and readings that cover a broad and comprehensive curriculum.
  • Practical experience through shadowing the mentor and participating in real legal work.

Q: Are there any post-qualification requirements for law readers?


After passing the bar exam, law readers, like all attorneys, must meet continuing legal education requirements and adhere to professional ethical standards. These requirements vary by state but are designed to ensure that all practicing attorneys remain competent and up-to-date with legal developments.


Q: How has the perception of law readers changed over the years?


The perception of law readers has gradually improved as more people seek alternative education methods and as notable law readers have successfully entered the legal profession. However, some skepticism remains, particularly concerning the rigor of preparation and the breadth of legal training compared to traditional law school graduates.

published April 18, 2024

( 408 votes, average: 4.8 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.