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Monday, January 21, 2008

Law - "Reading the law" not enough to take bar exam in most states

A story by Jerry Harkavy of the AP, that appeared this weekend in the Boston Globe, reported:

Self-taught lawyers have all but vanished in recent years, ending a tradition stretching back to frontier days, when prospective attorneys "read the law" under the tutelage of a practicing lawyer. Most states now require law degrees to join the bar.

The best-known self-taught attorney was Abraham Lincoln, who began his studies after getting elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834. He borrowed legal books from a fellow lawmaker.

Barry Melton, lead guitarist and co-founder of the 1960's counterculture band Country Joe and the Fish, dropped out of college in his freshman year during the Vietnam era to become a self-described "full-time anti-war dissident (with a guitar)."

While on the road with his band, he took a correspondence course in law and was admitted to the California bar in 1982. He now heads the public defender's office in Yolo County.

States that still allow law-office study include California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. The options are even fewer for correspondence study, which is allowed only in California, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

The number of self-taught lawyers has dropped, even as a wealth of material about the law has become available on the Internet.

Nationwide, only 44 applicants who did law-office study took the bar exam in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Of those, 18 passed, a success rate of 41 percent, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

By contrast, 74,215 people with law-school degrees took the test, and 71 percent were successful. * * *

Maine still allows established self-taught lawyers to practice, but new attorneys must now have at least two years of law school. That means students can forgo their final year.

The only advantage of doing so would be financial, said Cheryl Cutliffe, executive director of the Maine Board of Bar Examiners. "Some people may be in a position where they could go to work for a family law firm and save the third-year tuition."

Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, said he knew of no one who ever dropped out of law school to pursue an apprenticeship.

"The idea of reading for the law is a romantic old notion," he said. "And there's something to be said about the benefits of that kind of integration of legal education with practice."

But, Pitegoff said, law schools have been moving in that direction, especially in the third year, when students have more opportunities to apply what they learn under close faculty supervision.

For more on this topic, here is an ILB entry from Oct. 11, 2004, headed "'Reading the law' still an option in California," quoting from an LA Times story.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 21, 2008 10:32 AM
Posted to General Law Related