Can You Take the Bar Without Going to Law School? Discover Alternative Paths to Practice Law

Can You Take the Bar Without Going to Law School
Kami Peter
Last Updated: July 3, 2023

Have you ever dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but the thought of going to law school for three years and accumulating a mountain of debt is holding you back? What if I told you there might be another way to achieve your goal of becoming a licensed attorney?

Believe it or not, in some states, including California, Virginia, Washington, and Vermont, it is possible to take the bar exam without attending law school. This alternative path to becoming an attorney involves completing an apprenticeship program or other alternative means, and it dates back to the early days of legal education in the United States.

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of reading the law, its history, and whether it’s a viable option for those who want to become lawyers without attending law school.

Can You Become a Lawyer without Attending Law School?

Many individuals have a burning passion for the law and a strong desire to advocate for justice. However, the conventional route of attending law school can be an intimidating and financially burdensome endeavor. Law school tuition fees continue to rise, making it challenging for many aspiring lawyers to pursue their dreams without amassing significant student loan debt.

One potential advantage of this route is cost savings, as law school tuition can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars, leading to significant debt. Additionally, this allows individuals to gain hands-on experience in a law office, which can benefit their future legal practice.

However, passing the bar exam without formal education can be challenging, and the average pass rate is around 70%. This alternative route also needs more networking opportunities and the prestige of top-tier law schools, potentially limiting career prospects.

Exploring an Alternative Path to Becoming a Licensed Attorney

Fortunately, an alternative path exists for those who wish to become lawyers without attending law school. This alternative path is often called “reading the law” and involves self-study, apprenticeships, and eventually sitting for the bar exam. Although this path is not liable in all states, it offers a unique opportunity for individuals to obtain legal knowledge and skills through non-traditional means.

Let’s delve deeper into the concept of reading the law, uncover its historical roots, examine state-specific requirements, weigh its pros and cons, explore the necessary steps, and highlight the success stories of individuals who have successfully taken this path.

What is Reading the Law (Apprenticeship Program)?

Reading the law refers to a method of legal education where aspiring lawyers acquire knowledge and skills through self-study, apprenticeships, and practical experience instead of attending a formal law school program. This alternative path allows individuals to immerse themselves in legal texts, court cases, and statutes, gaining a deep understanding of the law outside the traditional classroom setting.

Historical Background of This Alternative Path

Legal education in the United States traces its roots back to the colonial era. During this time, aspiring lawyers learned through apprenticeships, working under established lawyers, and acquiring a practical knowledge of the law. This apprenticeship model provided a hands-on approach to legal learning, focusing on real-world experience rather than formal classroom instruction.

Formal law schools offered structured programs and law degrees as legal education evolved. However, the apprenticeship program has endured as an alternative path for those who prefer a more hands-on, self-directed approach to legal learning.

The Continued Relevance and Availability of Apprenticeship Programs Today

While law schools became the dominant method of legal education, Training under the supervision of experienced attorneys in law offices has persisted as an alternative path. Despite the rise of formal legal education, some states still recognize and allow aspiring lawyers to pursue this unconventional route.

The availability of “reading the law” varies by state, with certain jurisdictions allowing aspiring lawyers to bypass law school and fulfill specific requirements such as apprenticeships, self-study, or passing additional examinations. These states acknowledge the value of practical experience and self-directed learning as viable means to gain legal knowledge and skills.

Today, the legal apprenticeship program remains relevant for prospective students who prefer a more independent study, hands-on approach to legal education. It offers an alternative for those facing financial constraints or seeking a different learning experience outside the confines of a traditional law school setting.

State Requirements for Apprenticeship Programs

If you are considering the apprenticeship programs to become a lawyer, it is essential to understand the specific requirements set by each state. Let’s examine the states that allow this alternative route and explore the eligibility criteria and prerequisites associated with apprenticeship over law school.

What states allow you to take the bar without law school?

The states that permit prospective lawyers to take the Bar exam without attending law school vary. Some states, such as California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, offer options for reading the law. However, it’s important to understand that each state has specific requirements, prerequisites, and limitations for this alternative path. Some states may require a longer apprenticeship, additional exams, or distinctive educational prerequisites.

Researching the regulations and eligibility criteria of the state where you intend to practice is crucial to determining if law through apprenticeships is viable. It’s essential to consult the official websites of state bar associations or regulatory bodies to obtain accurate and up-to-date information regarding specific state requirements and regulations.

Eligibility Criteria and Prerequisites for Pursuing This Path

Each state that permits “reading the law” typically establishes specific eligibility criteria and prerequisites for aspiring lawyers to meet. These requirements ensure that individuals pursuing this alternative path possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience to practice law competently. While the exact criteria may vary, they often include:

  1. Education: Some states require a minimum level of formal education, such as a bachelor’s degree, to pursue legal study. However, the specific educational requirements may differ from state to state.
  2. Apprenticeship: Many states require prospective lawyers to train with a licensed attorney or judge. The duration of the apprenticeship can vary, ranging from a few years to a set number of hours.
  3. Study Materials and Examinations: States may require law apprentices to study specific legal materials and pass additional examinations, such as the First-Year Law Students’ Examination (FYLSE) or the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE).
  4. Character and Fitness: As with traditional law school graduates, law apprentices pursuing law study must demonstrate good moral character determination and meet the state bar association’s character and fitness requirements.

Pros and Cons of Apprentice Programs

When considering the alternative path of “reading the law” to become a licensed lawyer, weighing the advantages and disadvantages is important. Let’s explore the pros and cons associated with this unconventional approach.


  • Flexibility and Potential Cost Savings: “Reading the law” offers greater flexibility in pace and schedule. Future lawyers can set their own pace of study, choose their learning materials, and customize their legal education. This flexibility can benefit individuals with other commitments or financial constraints. You can save on the cost of law school as it eliminates or reduces the need to be a law school graduate paying expensive tuition fees.
  • Real-World Legal Experience: Apprenticeships and practical experience are integral to “reading the law.” By working alongside experienced attorneys or judges in law offices, future lawyers gain firsthand exposure to the legal profession. This real-world legal experience can provide invaluable insights, improve practical skills, and offer networking opportunities within the legal community.
  • Independence and Self-Directed Learning: It allows individuals to take ownership of their legal education. Aspiring lawyers can choose the study materials, focus on areas of interest, and tailor their learning experience to their needs and preferences. This self-directed learning fosters independence and can empower those who prefer a more hands-on approach.


  • Limited Availability and State-Specific Requirements: One of the significant drawbacks of “reading the law” is its limited availability. Not all states permit this alternative path, and the specific requirements vary among jurisdictions. This can restrict aspiring lawyers who wish to pursue this route, as they may need to relocate to a state that allows “reading the law” or adhere to specific prerequisites set by their desired jurisdiction.
  • Rigorous Self-Study and Preparation: Aspiring lawyers must be disciplined and motivated to acquire legal knowledge independently. The absence of a structured curriculum means individuals must proactively seek out relevant resources, understand complex legal concepts, and stay up to date with changes in the law.
  • Potential Challenges in Finding Employment: While “reading the law” equips individuals with legal knowledge and skills, finding employment without a law school degree can present challenges. Some employers may prioritize candidates with formal legal education or prefer graduates from accredited law schools. Demonstrating competence and convincing potential employers of the value gained through “reading the law” can require additional effort.

Bar Exam

Prospective lawyers in the United States take an exam to become licensed attorneys. The exam tests a candidate’s knowledge of the law and ability to apply it in practice. Passing the bar exam is a requirement to practice law in the majority of states in the U.S. The exam typically includes both a written and a performance test, covering various subjects such as civil procedure, contracts, torts, and criminal law.

The average pass rate for the exam is around 60%, but this can vary depending on the state and the school attended. It is a challenging test that requires many hours of study and intensive preparation.

Steps to Take the Bar Examination Without Going to Law School

Careful planning and preparation are essential if you are considering taking the bar exam without attending law school. Here are the key steps to successfully navigate this alternative path.

  1. Researching State-Specific Regulations and Requirements: Begin by examining the regulations and requirements of the state where you intend to practice law. Each state has its own rules regarding “reading the law” and eligibility criteria for bar admission. Familiarize yourself with the specific guidelines, educational prerequisites, apprenticeship duration, and any additional exams you may need to take.
  2. Identifying Mentors and Resources for Guidance: Seek out mentors and experienced legal professionals who can provide guidance and support throughout your journey. Connect with lawyers who have taken the bar exam without attending law school or individuals familiar with the “reading the law” process in your chosen state. They can offer valuable insights, share their experiences, and advise on navigating the challenges of self-study and apprenticeship.
  3. Developing a Comprehensive Study Plan and Timeline: As “reading the law” requires self-study, creating a comprehensive study plan is crucial. Start by identifying the subjects covered in the bar exam and gathering materials such as legal textbooks, study guides, and online resources. Break down your study plan into manageable sections, allocating time for each subject and allowing for review and practice exams. Create a realistic timeline aligning with your commitments and the bar exam date.
  4. Attending Bar Exam Preparation Courses and Workshops: While not mandatory, consider enrolling in bar exam preparation courses or workshops designed for individuals taking the bar without attending law school. These programs can provide structured guidance, review sessions, practice exams, and additional resources to enhance your preparation.
  5. Engaging in Apprenticeships and Practical Experience: Many states require aspiring lawyers to complete an apprenticeship or gain practical legal experience. Seek opportunities to work under the guidance of experienced attorneys or judges. This apprenticeship period allows you to apply theoretical knowledge, observe legal proceedings, and develop essential skills. Actively engage in legal work, such as research, drafting documents, and attending courtroom proceedings.
  6. Forming or Joining Study Groups: Collaborating with fellow “reading the law” candidates can provide a supportive learning environment and foster peer-to-peer knowledge sharing. Consider starting or joining study groups with like-minded individuals preparing for the bar exam. Regular meetings can involve discussing legal concepts, sharing study materials, and conducting mock exams to simulate the exam environment.
  7. Adhering to a Disciplined Study Routine: Consistency and discipline are crucial when preparing for the bar exam without going to top-tier law schools. Establish a study routine that works best for you, considering your preferences and peak productivity times. Dedicate focused study sessions, minimize distractions, and balance self-study and practical experience.

Success Stories of Famous People Who Taken Bar Exam without Attending Law School

While taking the bar exam without attending law school may seem unconventional, numerous individuals have successfully pursued this route and become licensed attorneys. Let’s explore the inspiring success stories of individuals who have taken the bar exam without attending law school, examining their experiences and insights.

  1. Abraham Lincoln: One of the most well-known success stories of a lawyer without law school is that of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln embarked on a journey of self-study and “reading the law” while working as a store clerk. Through determination and perseverance, he passed the bar examination in 1836 and became a respected lawyer, using his legal knowledge to shape the nation’s history.
  2. Michelle Pfeiffer: Michelle Pfeiffer, a renowned Hollywood actress, took a break from her acting career to pursue her dream of becoming a lawyer. Without attending law school, she dedicated herself to self-study and successfully passed the California bar exam. Pfeiffer’s inspiring story demonstrates that with determination and focus, it is possible to transition into a different field through “reading the law.”
  3. Thomas Jefferson: Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, is another notable figure who followed the path of the apprentice program. Jefferson studied law under the direct supervision of George Wythe, a prominent attorney and judge. Through intense study and apprenticeship, Jefferson gained the necessary legal knowledge and passed the Virginia bar exam, launching his successful legal and political career.

These success stories demonstrate that getting hands-on experience from prestigious law firms under apprenticeships can be a viable pathway to becoming a licensed attorney. While the journey may require additional effort and determination, it allows individuals to pursue their legal aspirations outside the traditional law school framework.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to take the Bar exam?

The cost of taking the Bar exam varies depending on the state and jurisdiction. Generally, the fees associated with the Bar examination include the application fee, examination fee, moral character and fitness evaluation fee, and any additional fees imposed by the state. These costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. It’s important to note that the expenses don’t end with the exam itself, as there may be additional costs for bar review courses, study materials, and potential travel expenses. It is advisable to research the specific costs associated with the Bar exam in your chosen state to budget accordingly.

Can you practice law without a law degree?

While a law degree is typically the traditional path to becoming a lawyer, some jurisdictions offer an alternative route known as “reading the law.” This path allows individuals to study the law independently, gain practical legal experience, and take the Bar examination to become licensed attorneys. However, it is essential to note that “reading the law” requirements vary by state, and not all jurisdictions permit practicing law without a law degree. Research the specific regulations and eligibility criteria of the state where you intend to practice to determine if practicing law without a law degree is possible.

Final Words

Remember, each state regulates the legal profession, and requirements vary significantly. Conduct thorough research and consider your personal circumstances and goals before deciding on the most suitable path to pursue your legal career.

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