Can You Take the Bar Exam Without Going to Law School

Written by: Will Bond

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Can You Take the Bar Exam Without Going to Law School

Contrary to popular belief, completing law school isn’t the only route to taking the bar exam. While it’s the most common route, candidates in a select few states also have an alternative pathway.

In this Can You Take The Bar Exam Without Going To Law School article, we’ll explore the states in which you can pursue this path, the eligibility requirements involved, and whether it’s the right choice for you.

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Can I Take the Bar Exam Without Going to Law School

While aspiring attorneys in most states will have to attend law school in order to be able to take the bar exam, you won’t need to do so if you plan to qualify in one of these four states:

  • California
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington

In each of these states, candidates may take the bar exam without going to law school by completing a structured apprenticeship program known as a bar apprentice.

Though the exact requirements will vary depending on your state, these apprenticeship programs will typically involve completing a number of years of work experience in a law practice studying under the direct supervision of a qualifying attorney.

A small group of states will allow you to take an apprenticeship instead of finishing a degree at an accredited law school, but you’ll still need to complete some portion of this formal legal education. The states offering this option include:

  • New York
  • Maine
  • West Virginia

Now that you know which states offer this alternative pathway, you’ll need to understand the eligibility requirements to pursue the bar exam through apprenticeship programs in each state.

California

Under Rule 4.29 of the State Bar of California, candidates will be eligible to take the bar exam without going to law school if they meet the following requirements:

  • They complete at least two years of college
  • They study in a law office for 18 hours a week, for a minimum of 48 weeks, four years in a row
  • They’ve been supervised by an attorney or judge who’s completed at least five years of active law practice as a member of the State Bar of California
  • They spend at least five hours of the 18-hour weekly requirement under personal supervision
  • Their supervising attorney or judge has provided reports every six months to the Bar Committee on exactly what they studied, how many hours they studied for, and how many of those hours were supervised

After completing this Law Office Study Program, you’ll be able to take the California bar exam — as long as you otherwise meet the eligibility criteria.

Vermont

According to Rule 7 of the Vermont Supreme Court’s Rules of Admission to the Bar, applicants may take the bar exam without going to law school if they complete a Law Office Study (LOS) Program.

These programs involve apprenticing under the supervision of a Vermont lawyer or judge for 25 hours a week for four years. To be able to enroll in an LOS Program, you’ll need to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited higher education institution.

Throughout the course of your LOS Program, it will be your responsibility to satisfy the following reporting requirements:

  • Commencement Notice: Participants must file this with the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners (the Board) within 30 days of starting their LOS Program
  • Six-Month Report: Participants must then sign and file this report with the Board within 30 days of the end of each six-month study period
  • Completion Notice: Participants need to sign and file this notice alongside their final six-month report within 30 days of completing their LOS Program

Upon the Board’s approval of the Completion Notice, you’ll be able to take the bar exam.

Note: In order to qualify as a supervisor, a Vermont judge or attorney must have been admitted to the Vermont Bar Association for a minimum of three years before the start of the apprenticeship.

Virginia

As an alternative to law school, bar applicants in Virginia are permitted to take part in a Law Reader Program. This involves studying a minimum of 25 hours each week, 40 weeks a year, for three calendar years under the supervision of either:

  1. An attorney that has been actively and continuously practicing law in Virginia full-time for at least 10 of the 12 years immediately prior to your application; or
  2. A retired circuit court judge who has served the Commonwealth as such for at least ten years and has been retired for no less than five years

Of the 25-hour weekly requirement, candidates should spend at least:

  • 18 hours studying within their supervising attorney’s Virginia office
  • Three hours under the personal supervision of this Virginia attorney

At the end of this Law Reader Program, you’ll have to take and pass a closed-book exam designed and graded by your supervising attorney. Upon passing this, you’ll receive a completion certificate in which your supervising attorney will attest to your readiness to take the bar exam and practice law.

Note: For more information, see the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners’ Law Reader Program Rule.

Washington

Bar applicants in Washington can satisfy the education requirement for this state’s bar exam by successfully completing the Law Clerk Program under the Supreme Court’s Admission and Practice Rule (APR) 6.

To complete this program, all applicants must:

  • Be of good moral character;
  • Have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution;
  • Have taken part in full-time employment with a primary tutor in Washington State for an average of 32 hours per week consistently over four years in either:
    1. A law office
    2. A legal department
    3. A court of general, limited, or appellate jurisdiction in Washington State;
  • Work an average of three of the required 32 hours per week under the personal supervision of their tutor; and
  • Pay an annual fee for each year enrolled in the program, which is currently $2,000

In order to qualify to supervise you, your tutor must meet the following requirements:

  • Only act as a supervisor for one law student at a time;
  • Be an active member of the Washington State Bar Association in good standing without any disciplinary sanctions in the last five years; and
  • Meet the active experience requirements defined by APR 1, or have held a judicial position for at least 10 of the 12 years prior to your application

Throughout the Law Clerk Program, you’ll be required to complete a closed-book, pass/fail exam at the end of each month — prepared and graded by your tutor.

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Should You Take the Bar Without Going to Law School?

If your state provides the option for you to take the bar exam without going to law school, you’ll likely wonder if it would be better for you to go to law school or complete an apprenticeship program.

Below, you’ll find some of the key factors to consider before committing to either of these paths.

Employment Opportunities

While the legal industry continues to move away from it, a lingering bias among top US law firms still exists towards law students from Ivy League schools. As a result, forgoing law school can, in some cases, lead to missed opportunities due to this slight preference for candidates with formal legal training.

Moreover, it’s important to note the geographical way in which opting for the apprenticeship route will limit your job opportunities. This is because you’ll only be able to practice law in the state where you completed your apprenticeship in, while law school graduates can qualify in any state.

Cost

Due to the sheer cost of enrolling in law school, pursuing a path where you can take the bar exam without attending traditional law school offers notable advantages.

Unlike your peers, who may accumulate hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt on their law degrees, your most significant costs will be books, study materials, and registration fees — which typically total less than $10,000.

Ultimately, the best choice for you will depend on your individual circumstances, career objectives, and preferred learning style. Be sure to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each of these pathways before making a decision.

Regardless of which path you choose, you’ll still be required to sit and pass the bar exam — which requires the right resources.

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Bar Exam Without Law School FAQ

Do you have to go to law school to take the bar exam?

No. Some states have alternative paths like apprenticeships or “reading the law” at a law firm for bar exam eligibility, offering options to the legal profession beyond the traditional approach of law schools.
Interested in learning more? Check out our Can You Take the Bar Exam Without Going to Law School article.

Which states do not require law school?

Only four states currently permit individuals to take the bar exam without having attended law school: California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. However, candidates in these four states still must pass the state bar exam to qualify as an attorney. For more information on this, check out our What is the Bar Exam article.

What are the requirements to take the bar exam without attending law school?

Requirements vary based on the state, but typically include completing an apprenticeship under a licensed attorney or judge, passing a moral character evaluation, and sometimes passing a separate examination on legal principles. Remember, the skills that law school teaches you can be invaluable, so it’s important to ask yourself whether following these alternative pathways is the right choice for you.

What is “reading the law”?

Reading the law is a phrase commonly used to refer to apprenticing with a practicing attorney or judge in order to learn the law through practical experience, bypassing the traditional law school route. This alternative to law school classes is only available in certain states, including California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.