I Want to Dropout and Be a Lawyer Apprentice

QI’m a first-year law student and already have mounds of debt. Law school is OK. I like the challenge and the law—in other words, law is a good fit for me. I just hate that my debt will only get bigger and the jobs scarcer. I’m thinking about dropping out and trying to land an apprenticeship in New York, which lets you sit for the bar exam if you’ve worked for four years in a law office. What do you think? Do you know anyone who has done that successfully?

ANope. Teddy Roosevelt dropped out of Columbia Law School because law was so dull, but then again he did a few things after dropping out and probably would have been allowed to practice law in New York if he just asked. But my bet is you are no Teddy Roosevelt.

It’s a damn interesting question, particularly today. First, you obviously won’t work in BigLaw, as no big firm or big firm partner is going to take on the task of educating you. Or hiring you. Or even looking at your resume. Nor would most attorneys. Sure, New York lets you go to law school for a year, drop out, and then be an “apprentice” for four years in a law office. But that just allows you to sit for the bar exam. And the big catch? This:

the applicant must receive instruction from said attorney or attorneys in those subjects which are customarily taught in approved law schools.

I’m not sure how many lawyers in New York want to take on the task of opening a mini-law school in their office, but then again maybe there are some who have always been the professorial sort. Or maybe it’s not all that hard to be a professor of hard knocks.

Whatever you do, look beyond New York. California has a fairly well established apprenticeship-type bar admissions program that requires four years of work in a law office plus passage of the “Baby Bar Exam.” After that, you can sit for the regular bar exam. Hell, you don’t even need a college degree to do that one. But you still need to pass the California Bar Exam, which some pretty smart folks have failed. Repeatedly.

In the end, if you land a law job that is also on the road to sitting for a state bar exam, who wouldn’t want to get paid essentially to go to law school? Even if it’s a measly ten bucks an hour, it’s still better than hedging nondischargeable debt against an increasingly unlikely future as a high-paid lawyer. I’d be interested to know if anyone is on this route. It’s totally old school.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.


  1. Joe

    March 30, 2012 at 9:14 am

    I am a lawyer in DC and I know Virginia lets people sit for the bar after “reading” the law and being instructed by a practitioner and working in their practice for 6 years. Last I heard, though, their bar passage rates were well below those who went to accredited law schools. I would say a better route for most people is to transfer to the cheapest law school you can find, take a good bar study course (I did Bar Bri and highly recommend it) and knock the bar out the first time, instead of barely qualifying, hitting the bar exam unprepared, and taking it multiple times. Oh, and people who “read” for the bar, go to a state accredited law school, or apprentice usually can’t sit for the bar in other jurisdictions.

  2. Eurotrash

    March 30, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Chairman at one of my old firms did just that. Old-school apprenticeship and then qualified and went on to become the chairman of a multinational law firm with 10 international offices and a highly sought-after tax lawyer with a stellar client base. In his view, we were all pretty feeble-minded if we really needed all those fancy degrees to understand the law. He never even bothered with university in the first place and by the time his peers graduated, he already had several years of private practice under his belt.

  3. Sarah

    March 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Dear Ex-Bitter:

    You are woefully uninformed about this path to be doling out advice about it. I “read for the bar” and it’s not at all how you’ve described it. You don’t need to sit down in a lecture setting with your supervising attorney for 3 years being formally taught; BarBri–not law school–prepares you for the bar exam (I passed the first time in NY); and finding a job is easy because the place where you’ve been apprenticing is obviously going to want to hire you if they like you enough to keep you around for 3 years. Furthermore, you save yourself from being a slave to law school debt. This is an option we ought to be encouraging aspiring lawyers to pursue.

  4. Ravinlal

    April 5, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    Sarah – May I ask how you are taught the law by your supervising attorneys? I am preparing for the LSAT and planning on taking the law firm apprentice route after earning 28 credits (one year) of law school as I am already working as a Paralegal in an NY law firm since 2002. I am curious as to the manner of instruction and was expecting an actual lecture setting which seems an unlikely time-commitment on the part of attorneys in the billing-hours driven culture of Big Law.

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