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How to Become a Lawyer Without Going to Law School

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No, I’m not suggesting just hanging up a shingle without taking the bar. To do so would result in needing to get your own defense attorney instead of becoming one, since the unauthorized practice of law is a felony in many states.

I’m referring to “reading the law,” the process of becoming a lawyer by apprenticing with a lawyer or judge and then taking the bar exam. Before law schools were common, this was the method by which many people became lawyers. In fact, this is how Abraham Lincoln trained to become an attorney. Less famously, so did Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Sanders, though he also took some legal correspondence courses by mail.  In June 2019 it was reported that Kim Kardashian-West is currently preparing for a legal career in California by reading the law.

Abraham Lincoln while a traveling lawyer, taken in Danville, Illinois. 1857. Photograph by Amon T. Josin.
Abraham Lincoln while a traveling lawyer, taken in Danville, Illinois. 1857. Photograph by Amon T. Josin.

Several states still allow people to become attorneys using this method, including (at the time of this writing) California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington State. The process varies by state, but it typically requires a person to study for a period of time under the supervision of a licensed attorney in that state. After that requirement is completed, the person must then take and pass the state’s bar exam.

Though it was once a common method of becoming an attorney, it’s now rare. The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners reported that ”of the 22,817 persons who passed the Virginia Bar Examination from February 2001 to February 2019, only 32 of them read law under the supervision of attorneys.”

But if you’re not one to let long odds dissuade you, put on your string tie and white linen suit, and hitch up the wagon for the long course of study that is reading the law. Should you succeed in your studies, you will be able to begin your opening arguments with the line, “Your Honor, I may be just a simple country lawyer, but…”

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