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

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The alternative path I am referring to bypasses the typical law school route and allows individuals to privately study for the bar through apprenticeship positions and then take the bar to become attorneys. This is most commonly referred to as "reading the law," and people who choose this nontraditional path are known as "law readers."

Currently, the seven states that offer this option are California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, New York, Maine, and Wyoming. In California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, individuals are admitted to take the bar exam if they have performed three or four years of apprentice work that has been registered with the state. In New York, Maine, and Wyoming, one is allowed to take the bar if he or she has spent some time in law school and some time working in an office-study situation.

While reading the law may seem strange to most, back in the early days of legal practice, apprenticeships were pretty much how it was done. At that time, learning to become a lawyer through apprenticeships was referred to as "Inns of Court."

Well-known attorneys such as Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow achieved extraordinary success as lawyers without obtaining J.D. degrees. Other famous lawyers who never received J.D. degrees include John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Benjamin N. Cardozo, Justice of the Supreme Court; Patrick Henry, Governor of Virginia; Daniel Webster, Secretary of State; and Strom Thurmond, U.S. Senator and South Carolina Governor. It wasn't until 1878 that the American Bar Association (ABA) began to establish itself as a force in the legal field and law schools began to become mainstream.

Nowadays, reading the law is not only seen as a more challenging route taken by aspiring attorneys (over the past seven years, only 20% of students who have been law readers have passed the bar), it is also frowned upon by the ABA, which believes that nothing should be substituted for a good "old-fashioned" law school education.

How does the number of students following this nontraditional path compare to the number of students pursuing the usual route? A 2005 article in the Chicago-Sun Times stated that, according to the bar associations in the states that allow law readers to become attorneys, "fewer than 150 aspiring lawyers are getting their legal educations in programs that require no law school whatsoever," while "more than 140,000 students attend law schools approved by the American Bar Association, and thousands more attend schools not approved by the ABA."

However, members of the bar in the seven states that still allow law reading feel that this alternative to law school is very important for a number of reasons, including the ease with which it makes it possible for second-career individuals to pursue careers as attorneys, the affordability it provides for individuals who can't afford law school educations, and the accessibility it gives to individuals who don't live near law schools.

In an article in the June 3, 2003 issue of The Christian Science Monitor, G. Jeffrey MacDonald told the story of Pamela Stonier, a 59-year-old wannabe attorney. Stonier, who came from a business background, decided to read the law because she felt it was a more realistic way to learn.

"When you read the law, every day is a balance of theory and practice," she said in her interview with MacDonald. "You're less Pollyanna-ish…because you've had your idealism challenged."

Erica Moeser, President of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, thinks that the states that offer this alternative to law school do so because of state-specific historical factors. For example, since California has always striven to be a state where people can start over and discover new opportunities, it makes sense for the state to allow non-law school graduates to take the bar.

"States have simply carried forward an ancestral method that predated the bar exam," Moeser said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

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