Law Schools

Abe Lincoln's Self-Study Route to Law Practice a Vanishing Option

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It still is possible, in a handful of states, for an individual to pass the bar and work as an attorney without ever actually having attended law school.

But, as a practical matter, such self-study of the law is a dying career option available only to a few individuals favored with the determination—and mentors—needed to learn how to be an attorney without the benefit of attending law school, reports the Associated Press. In 2006, a total of 44 self-taught applicants nationwide took the bar exam, versus 74,215 law school graduates. Their respective pass rates were 41 percent, for the self-taught, and 71 percent, for the law grads.

The best-known self-taught lawyer is Abraham Lincoln, who borrowed books from a fellow state legislator and then practiced law in Illinois before becoming one of the nation’s most renowned presidents. Today, though, attorneys who practice without graduating from law school are increasingly rare, perhaps because of the growing option of studying law from home via Internet “distance learning” classes.

Among the states that still don’t require the now-traditional three years of legal education: California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. (California, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., also allow correspondence courses, which these days might well mean Internet study.)

Maine formerly allowed self-taught attorneys to practice if they passed the bar, but now requires two years of law school study, the article notes. (Students can spend the third year reading law on their own or pursuing legal apprenticeship options.)

Although there is clearly a financial advantage to doing so, the dean of the University of Maine School of Law says he’s not aware of anyone who has dropped out after two years to pursue such self-directed study.

However, “the idea of reading for the law is a romantic old notion,” says Peter Pitegoff. “And there’s something to be said about the benefits of that kind of integration of legal education with practice.”

(Hat tip: How Appealing.)

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