Chapter 7: Lawyer Apprenticeship Programs

Chapter 7

Lawyer Apprenticeship Programs


 If you don’t know where you’re going,
when you get there you’ll be lost

Yogi Berra

lawyer apprenticeship programsWhile it is not generally known or promoted, some U.S. states still permit one to be admitted to the bar after undergoing a number of years as a lawyer apprentice. At one time apprenticeship was the primary way, if not the only way, in which one could become a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Howard Taft, to name a few, are among the many U.S. presidents who became lawyers this way. In fact, until the middle of the 1900s, the majority of lawyers entered the profession by this route.
It seems obvious that the benefits of working side by side with experienced lawyers and judges should be welcomed by the traditional legal academic community. Sadly, however, this concept seems to be dying out rather than being capitalized upon. I believe the reason that traditional legal educators object to lawyer apprenticeship programs is the belief that it may not offer the apprentice a real opportunity to study the law in a broad manner and under controlled conditions. This argument has some merit, but it could, of course, also be argued that traditional law school does not adequately prepare students with the practical skills to enter the profession. Many new lawyers can tell you that they learned their craft after law school—and sometimes from their paralegal assistant.One solution may be to compromise. 

Apprenticeship also offers some unique features that
are just not available with traditional education.”


Although no longer in vogue, lawyer apprenticeship programs still provides a viable route to becoming a practicing lawyer in some states. The rules vary quite a bit from state to state, for instance, New York requires that you first complete one year of study at an ABA- approved law school prior to becoming a lawyer apprentice while Vermont, California, and Virginia permit one to enter practice after four years of apprenticeship and passing the general bar examination. You’ll want to review the specific requirements for each state’s program to see if it’s right for you, but in general, apprenticeships can be a great alternative to traditional legal education.

Apprenticeship also offers some unique features that are just not available with traditional education. Think about it, as an apprentice you have the opportunity to get valuable “hands on” experience working side by side with active and experienced practitioners. Let’s take a quick look at the advantages of lawyer apprenticeship.

Advantages of Lawyer Apprenticeship Programs:

 You’ll get valuable practical experience

 You’ll get immediate responses to your questions from your mentor

 You’ll get a well-balanced education

 You can concentrate right away in the specific area of practice that interests you

 You’ll make valuable connections in the profession

 Generally flexible scheduling

 You’ll save thousands of dollars over the cost of a traditional legal education

 You get paid to learn (sometimes)


There are currently nine states that permit lawyer apprentices to be admitted to the practice of law, they are as follows:


Part I of the Rules for Admissions at Rule 2 Section 3(b) states: “An individual shall also be eligible to take the bar examination as a general applicant if he/she (1) has successfully completed not less than one academic year of education at a law school accredited or approved by the Council of Legal Education of the American Bar Association or the Association of American Law Schools, (2) has successfully completed a clerkship program. . . .”


Essentially this means that you must have successfully completed one year of full-time study at an ABA-approved law school before you can enter into an apprenticeship program.


Rule VII, Section 4 of the Rules Regulating Admission states: “The legal educational qualifications required of every general applicant . . . [include study] . . . in a law office in this state and under the personal supervision of a member of the State Bar of California, who is, and for at least five years continuously, has been engaged in the active practice of law . . . or . . . in the chambers and under the supervision of a judge of a court of record of this state. . . .”
What this means is that you can become a lawyer in California purely by completing four years as an apprentice and passing the general bar examination. Should you decide that this strategy is for you, I would highly recommend that you also enroll in an online or distance-learning law school to supplement your practical experience. For example, you may wish to enroll, for example, in the West Coast School of Law, Concord Law School or, perhaps Taft Law School. (See Chapter 5 for a complete listing of U.S. online and correspondence law schools).



The Maine Bar Admission Rules at Rule 10(c)(5) states “[Each applicant must] . . . successfully complete two thirds of the requirements for graduation from a law school that had received its provisional or final accreditation from the American Bar Association by the time of the applicant’s completion of those requirements and then within 12 months following such successful completion pursued the study of law in the law office of an attorney in the active practice of law in the state of Maine continuously on a full-time basis for at least one year; provided that the attorney must, in advance, present the proposed course of study to the board for its approval and, at its conclusion, certify that the course, as approved, was completed.”


This will generally mean that you would need to have to first completed one year of full-time study of law at an ABA-approved law school prior to starting a lawyer apprenticeship program.

New York

The Rules for Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law, at Part 520.4(2) states “ . . . that the applicant successfully completed at least one academic year as a matriculated student in a full-time program or the equivalent in a part-time program at an approved law school and at the conclusion thereof was eligible to continue in that school’s degree program; and that the applicant thereafter studied law in a law office or offices located within New York State under the supervision of one or more attorneys admitted to practice law in New York State, for such period of time as, together with the credit allowed pursuant to this section for attendance in an approved law school, shall aggregate four years.”
As with Alaska and Maine, New York requires that you successfully complete on year of legal academic study at an ABA approved law school before commencing a lawyer apprenticeship program.


The Rules of Admission to the Bar of the Vermont Supreme Court, at Section 6(g) states that an applicant shall have pursued the study of law with special reference to the general practice of law:


(1) for a period of not less than four years within this state under the supervision of an attorney in practice in the state who has been admitted to practice before this Court not less than three years prior to the commencement of that study, or

(2) in any jurisdiction of the United States or common law jurisdiction in a law school approved by this Court which maintains a three-year course leading to a law degree.


This means that one may become a practicing attorney in Vermont purely by apprenticeship and without ever setting foot in a law school.

West Virginia

Rule 3.0(2)(a) of the Rules for Admission to Practice Law states “the applicant is a graduate of a non-ABA accredited law school, which school is of such stature that its graduates are eligible to take the bar exam of the state, District of Columbia, commonwealth or territory of the United States in which the law school is located, and

(b) The applicant has completed three (3) years of law office and work in this state as a legal assistant or paralegal, under the supervision of an attorney or attorneys admitted to practice in West Virginia, and provides to the Board a certification by the highest court of the state, District of Columbia, commonwealth or territory of the United States in which the law school is located that its graduates are eligi­ble to take the bar examination of that jurisdiction. . . .”


West Virginia is unique in that the rules provide an avenue for graduates of non-ABA approved law schools to become members of the West Virginia Bar if they successfully complete a three year lawyer apprenticeship program. The key to taking advantage of this provision is that you must be eligible to take the bar examination in your particular law school’s jurisdiction.



The Code of Virginia, 1950, as amended, at Section 54.1-3926, authorized a lawyer apprenticeship program known as the “Law Reader Program.”

According to the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, “[t]he law reader program is intended to provide an alternative legal education for people who, although otherwise qualified for admission to law school, are, by reason of various circumstances, unable to take or complete a law school course of study. The program is not intended for persons who are unable, by reason of academic, aptitude, or other deficiencies, to obtain admission to an approved law school. The program is designed to supply, in combination, a theoretical, scholastic and clinical experience.”


If approved, successful candidates will undergo three years of intensive apprenticeship under the supervision of a Virginia attorney.


I particularly like Virginia’s apprenticeship program because it recognizes that law study is not for everyone and therefore limits the program to candidates who would otherwise be qualified to attend an ABA-approved school. This avoids wasting the time (and perhaps money) of persons who really have no business studying law. The downside is that you must take the LSAT, an examination that some argue is not indicative of one’s ability or probable success in law school. Still, the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners should be applauded for offering a wonderful alternative to traditional law school without sacrificing high standards.


Rule 6 of the State Bar of Washington Admission to practice states at subsection 3 “Every applicant shall . . . obtain regular full term employment in the State of Washington as a law clerk with (i) a judge of a court of general or appellate jurisdiction, or (ii) a lawyer or a firm of lawyers licensed to practice in this state and actively engaged in the practice of law; (4) submit on forms provided by the Bar Association (i) an application for admission to the law clerk program, (ii) the tutor’s statement . . . (5) appear for an interview . . . (c) Length of Study . . . Four calendar years: Each calendar year shall consist of at least 48 weeks with a minimum of 30 hours study each week”


In addition the apprentice must take monthly written examinations, administered and graded by the tutor. And the apprentice must appear before the Board of Governors at least once per year for an evaluation of their academic progress.


Washington offers a great “full” apprenticeship program with good built-in controls to protect the apprentice from pursuing a career he or she is not suited for, and, to assure that only qualified apprentices are permitted to take the general bar examination.


Rule 202 of the Rules and Procedures Governing Admission to Practice of Law provides for up to two years credit for an approved lawyer apprenticeship program. Section (a)(2) states that “[t]he time of study in the office of a member of the Wyoming State Bar or judge, showing the actual period of such study, together with a listing and description of the substantive topics of law studied. Evidence of tests taken, as well as written material, may be requested. . . .”

This means in effect that you must complete at least one year of full-time study at an ABA-approved law school before commencing an apprenticeship program.

Summary of Lawyer Apprenticeship Programs

There are currently nine states that have viable apprenticeship programs that are worth considering. However, you must consider that with Alaska, Maine, New York, and Wyoming you must generally first complete one year of full-time study at an ABA-approved law school. Remember, that to be admitted to an ABA-approved school, you must have a strong undergraduate GPA, take and score well on the LSAT exam and make the cut of the admission’s committee. Most students who are accepted to and make it through their first year of law school are well advised to stay the course and work hard to graduate. However, sometimes, things don’t always work out the way you planned and you might find that, due to financial hardships or personal issues, you have to drop out. For such individuals, these states offer a wonderful opportunity.

Five states offer full lawyer apprenticeship programs, as follows: California, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia. If you live in or near one of these states you may want to consider an apprenticeship program. In these states you can actually do your entire legal study under the supervision of a judge or lawyer. As wonderful an opportunity as this may be, I would still highly recommend that you enroll in a distance learning or online law school to supplement your program. The reason? Bar examinations are quite difficult and you will need a great academic foundation—take every edge you can get!

A Final Word of Caution

The specific rules for lawyer apprenticeship programs vary somewhat from state to state and, like all rules, are subject to change without notice. If you are considering an apprenticeship program, be certain to contact the Bar Association of the particular state you are interested in to get a copy of the most current requirements. A complete list of state Bar Associations and contact information may be found in Appendix A. Lawyer apprenticeship programs are a great way to learn the law.


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