Taking the Bar Exam without Law School

36 views 6:13 pm 0 Comments May 23, 2024

Pursuing a career in law typically follows a traditional path: undergraduate degree, law school, and then the bar exam. However, there exists an unconventional route that allows aspiring lawyers to take the bar exam without attending law school. This path, often referred to as “reading the law,” can be traced back to the early days of American legal education. It involves studying under the guidance of a practicing attorney or judge. While it offers a unique alternative to the conventional legal education system, this approach comes with its own set of challenges and rewards.


Historical Context

Before the establishment of formal law schools, aspiring lawyers commonly trained through apprenticeships. They “read the law” under the mentorship of experienced attorneys. This method was the norm in the United States until the late 19th century when law schools began to gain prominence. By the early 20th century, attending law school became the standard route to legal practice, yet some states continued to allow bar exam candidates to qualify through apprenticeships.


States Allowing Law Office Study Programs

As of today, only a handful of states permit individuals to take the bar exam without attending law school. These states include:

  • California
  • Virginia
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Each of these states has specific requirements and regulations for their Law Office Study Programs (LOSP), which must be thoroughly understood and adhered to by prospective candidates.


In California, the path to taking the bar exam without law school is governed by the State Bar of California’s Office of Admissions. Candidates must complete four years of study under a supervising attorney or judge, with a minimum of 18 hours per week dedicated to legal study. They must also pass the First-Year Law Students’ Examination, also known as the “Baby Bar,” after their first year of study.


Virginia’s Law Reader Program requires candidates to study for three years under a practicing attorney or judge. The supervising attorney must have at least 10 years of experience. The curriculum is prescribed by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners and includes core subjects typically covered in law school.


Vermont allows candidates to take the bar exam after completing a four-year clerkship with a judge or attorney. The clerkship must be full-time and adhere to a structured curriculum outlined by the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners.


Washington State’s Law Clerk Program is a four-year, part-time program supervised by a licensed attorney or judge. Candidates must work in a law office or judicial chambers at least 32 hours per week and complete a specified course of study.


The Pros and Cons of Reading the Law


  1. Cost Savings: One of the most significant advantages of reading the law is the potential cost savings. Law school tuition can be exorbitant, often leading to substantial student debt. By avoiding law school, apprenticeships can provide a more affordable route to a legal career.
  2. Practical Experience: Studying under a practicing attorney or judge offers hands-on experience that can be invaluable. Apprentices gain practical insights into the daily workings of the legal profession, which can be advantageous when they begin practicing law.
  3. Flexibility: Apprenticeships can offer more flexibility in terms of study schedules and personalized learning. This flexibility can be particularly beneficial for individuals with family commitments or other responsibilities.


  1. Limited Availability: The option to take the bar exam without attending law school is available in only a few states. This geographical limitation can be a significant drawback for those who do not reside in these states.
  2. Structured Curriculum: Law school provides a structured curriculum and comprehensive preparation for the bar exam. Without this structured environment, apprentices may miss out on important areas of legal education, making self-discipline and thorough study essential.
  3. Networking Opportunities: Law schools offer valuable networking opportunities with peers, professors, and legal professionals. These connections can be crucial for career advancement and job placements. Apprenticeships may lack this network, potentially making it more challenging to establish a legal career.
  4. Recognition and Perception: Graduates of traditional law schools may be perceived as more qualified or legitimate by some employers and clients. The non-traditional path of reading the law might require additional effort to prove one’s competence and credibility.


The Journey of a Law Reader

Finding a Mentor

The first step for aspiring law readers is to find a qualified attorney or judge willing to serve as their mentor. This relationship is crucial, as the mentor will guide the apprentice through their legal education and ensure they meet the state’s requirements. Establishing a strong mentor-mentee relationship is vital for success.

Developing a Study Plan

Once a mentor is secured, the next step is to develop a comprehensive study plan. This plan should cover all essential areas of law, mirroring the curriculum of a traditional law school. Key subjects typically include:

  • Contracts
  • Torts
  • Civil Procedure
  • Criminal Law
  • Constitutional Law
  • Property Law
  • Evidence

Additionally, the study plan should include practical skills such as legal writing, research, and advocacy. Regular assessments and progress reviews are essential to ensure the apprentice is on track.

Preparing for the Bar Exam

Preparing for the bar exam is a rigorous process, whether one attends law school or reads the law. For apprentices, self-study and discipline are paramount. Utilizing bar review courses, study groups, and practice exams can enhance preparation. Passing the bar exam requires a deep understanding of legal principles, analytical skills, and the ability to apply knowledge effectively.

Success Stories

Several notable individuals have successfully taken the bar exam without attending law school, demonstrating the viability of this alternative path. For instance, Abraham Lincoln famously read the law and became a licensed attorney without attending formal legal education. More recently, Kim Kardashian has garnered attention for her pursuit of legal licensure through California’s Law Office Study Program.

Modern-Day Practitioners

While these success stories are inspiring, it’s important to acknowledge that modern-day practitioners who follow this path face unique challenges. However, with determination, dedication, and the right mentorship, it is possible to achieve success. These individuals often bring a wealth of practical experience and a unique perspective to the legal profession.



Taking the bar exam without attending law school is an unconventional yet viable path to becoming a lawyer. It requires a significant commitment, self-discipline, and a strong mentor-mentee relationship. While it offers advantages such as cost savings and practical experience, it also presents challenges including limited availability, the need for a structured study plan, and potential perception issues.

For those willing to navigate this less-trodden path, reading the law can lead to a fulfilling and successful legal career. As the legal profession continues to evolve, this alternative route may gain more recognition and acceptance, providing aspiring lawyers with diverse pathways to achieving their professional goals.

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