Can a person become a lawyer without attending law school or earning a law degree? In the U.S., the answer is yes. It is possible for a person to become a lawyer in four of the states in the U.S. without attending law school or earning a law degree.
This article may be useful to some Ghanaians in the U.S. or elsewhere and others who may be interested in becoming lawyers in the U.S. but may not want to attend law school.
Typically, to become a lawyer in the U.S., a person must obtain a 4-year bachelor’s degree in any course, subject or major from an accredited institution in the U.S. or its foreign equivalent; obtain an acceptable score on the Law School Admissions Test (“LSAT”); gain admission to law school; attend law school for 3 years; graduate from law school with a Juris Doctor (“J.D.”) degree; and pass the bar examination. In addition, the aspiring lawyer must be a person of good moral character who possesses the required fitness to practice law. One does not need to be a U.S. citizen to study or practice law in the U.S., and there is no upper age limit.
There are more than 230 law schools in the U.S. that award J.D. degree. Accreditation of law schools are handled by the various states and the American Bar Association (“ABA”). According to the ABA, there are 199 ABA-accredited law schools in the U.S. that award J.D. degree. (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/aba_approved_law_schools/). The rest are accredited solely by the various states. Each of the law schools prepares students to take the bar examination to become lawyers. Graduates of ABA-accredited law schools may take the bar examination and be licensed in any of the various states. However, students who attend non-ABA-accredited law schools (found mostly in California) may only be licensed by and practice in the states that accredited the law schools they attended, with few exceptions.
There is no national law licensing authority in the U.S. Each of the 50 states or the District of Columbia decides its own law licensing or bar admission policies. A lawyer in the U.S. is admitted to practice law only in the state that licenses him or her. If a lawyer wants to practice law in another state, he or she has to apply to be licensed in that other state as well, unless there is a reciprocity arrangement between some of the states.
Four states in the U.S. provide an alternative means for aspiring lawyers to satisfy the legal education requirement for taking the bar examination. Instead of requiring aspiring lawyers to attend law school and earn a J.D. degree, these four states – California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington – have made provisions for apprenticeships or training programs that satisfy the legal education requirement. The information below was copied directly from the sources indicated by the various states.
The State of California. Under the California Law Office or Judge’s Chambers Program, a person may study law diligently and in good faith for at least four years in a law office or judge’s chambers. This must be done during regular business hours for at least eighteen hours each week for a minimum of forty-eight weeks to receive credit for one year of study or for at least eighteen hours a week for a minimum of twenty-four weeks to receive credit for one-half year of study. The supervising attorney or judge with whom the applicant is studying must be admitted to the active practice of law in California and be in good standing for a minimum of five years.
Before beginning the study of law, the person must have completed at least two years of college /university work or demonstrated equivalent intellectual achievement. (A) “Two years of college work” means a minimum of sixty semester or ninety quarter units of college /university credits (1) equivalent to at least half that required for a bachelor’s degree from a college or university that has degree-granting authority; and (2) completed with a grade average adequate for graduation. (B) “Demonstrated equivalent intellectual achievement” means achieving acceptable scores on Committee-specified examinations prior to beginning the study of law. (Source: Rules of the State Bar of California - Admissions and Educational Standards , California Business & Professions Code § 6046; Title 4, Division 1, Chapter 3, Rules 4.25, 4.26, and 4.29. https://www.calbar.ca.gov/Portals/0/documents/rules/Rules_Title4_Div1-Adm-Prac-Law.pdf).
The State of Vermont. The State of Vermont has the Law Office Study Program (“LOS Program”). The LOS Program requires the aspiring lawyer to work under the supervision of an experienced Vermont judge or attorney for four years and to follow a systematic course of study. To be eligible for the LOS Program, you must have earned either (1) a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution of higher education in the U.S., or (2) an equivalent undergraduate degree in a foreign jurisdiction if you can establish that the degree is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution of higher education in the U.S. (Source: Vermont Law Office Study Program. https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/attorneys/admission-vermont-bar).
The State of Virginia. The State of Virginia has the Law Reader Program. Among other things, the aspiring lawyer must have received a bachelor's degree, other than a bachelor of laws, from an accredited baccalaureate institution of higher education; if requested, LSAT results, and appear for an interview. The person shall study law for three (3) calendar years. Each calendar year shall consist of at least 40 weeks, with a minimum of 25 hours of study each week, at least eighteen (18) of which hours of study must be within the confines of the Supervising Attorney's office in Virginia, either (i) during regular office hours between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. weekdays, or (ii) at such other times outside of regular office hours when both the reader and the Supervising Attorney are physically present together in the office. The Supervising Attorney shall give personal supervision to the law reader for at least 3 hours each week.
The Supervising Attorney shall be an active member in good standing of the Virginia State Bar whose full time is devoted to the practice of law in Virginia for at least ten (10) of the twelve (12) years, or a retired circuit court judge who served the Commonwealth as a circuit court judge for a minimum of ten (10) years. The reader may not be employed by and may not receive any remuneration or perquisites from the Supervising Attorney, any firm of which the Supervising Attorney may be a member associate, or anyone with whom the Supervising Attorney may share office facilities. The Supervising Attorney is not precluded from charging reasonable monetary compensation in return for instructing the reader; but the law reader program is not to be used as a means for a Supervising Attorney to obtain inexpensive labor. (Source: Law Reader Program. https://barexam.virginia.gov/reader/readerrules.html).
The State of Washington. The State of Washington has the Law Clerk Program as an alternative to law school. It is a four-year program designed to provide educational and practical experience through a combination of work and study with an experienced lawyer or judge who is referred to as tutor. The aspiring lawyer must have a bachelor's degree, and a regular paid full-time employment in Washington State with a lawyer or judge who has at least 10 years of active experience and will serve as the applicant's primary tutor. Applicants find their own employment. Once you are enrolled, a fee payment is required each calendar year (currently $2,000/year).
The law clerk and tutor study independently. A minimum of 32 hours per week performing the duties of a law clerk, including work and study, is required. The tutor is required to give at least three hours each week of personal supervision to the law clerk, which should include discussion of the law and cases and the critical analysis of the law clerk's written assignments. (Source: Rule 6 of the Washington Supreme Courts Admission and Practice Rule (APR) 6 . https://www.wsba.org/for-legal-professionals/join-the-legal-profession-in-wa/law-clerk)
Bonus information: The State of New York, home to many Ghanaians and other immigrants, has a slightly different program called Law Office Study / Clerkship Program. The program requires completion of a minimum of 28 credit hours (first year of law school) in an ABA-accredited law school before one can participate, and the program duration is 4 years, including the first year requirement (Source: Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law, Section 520.4. https://www.nybarexam.org/Rules/Rules.htm#520.4).
Additional Bonus Information. Aspiring lawyers interested in attending 100% Online JD law schools may consider St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, and Concord Law School at Purdue University Global in Los Angeles, California. St. Mary’s is the first and only fully online JD law school accredited by the ABA. Concord Law was the first fully online law school accredited by a state - the State Bar of California - and does not require LSAT. (Sources: https://www.stmarytx.edu/2021/online-jd-launch/ and https://www.concordlawschool.edu/).
These opportunities may be helpful to those interested in legal education and the legal profession in the U.S. For example, the 100% online JD law schools may enable a person living outside the U.S. to study U.S. law entirely online and be licensed to practice law in California where California law permits admission to the State Bar of persons referred to variously as undocumented noncitizens, undocumented individuals, undocumented immigrants, unlawful, unauthorized, or illegal immigrants etc. (See In re Sergio C. Garcia on Admission, 58 CAL.4TH 440, 165 CAL.RPTR.3D 855). Alternatively, to avoid immigration problems, a person could live outside the U.S. and be licensed to practice law in California as a member of the State Bar of California. Further research is necessary.
In summary, those who want to become lawyers in the U.S. without attending law school have opportunities to do so in California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Persons who complete any of the above-mentioned programs are eligible to take the bar examination and become lawyers in their respective states just like their counterparts who attend and graduate from law school.
Dr. Daniel Gyebi, Attorney-at-Law, Texas, U.S.A., is a member of the State Bar of Texas and the State Bar of California.