Aspiring Lawyers – Interested in Becoming a California Lawyer without Going to Law School? Here’s How:
As early as age 14 I dreamed of becoming an attorney. My first job was as a file clerk in a family law office when I was 17 and still in high school. By the end of college I had worked for several law firms and after these few years of real world experience I still believed that the law was my calling. Once I graduated from college and received my Bachelor’s degree, I was already in my fourth year as a paralegal at a securities and business litigation firm. The partners there took a liking to my work product and considered me to be a hard worker and a quality individual that they wanted to remain at their firm. At this point I had a 4-year-old son and a 10-year-old stepson. I wanted to keep working at this firm because it was a good place to work and I needed to support my family. I did not want to go to law school at night or take online courses because I did not want to go deeply into debt paying law school tuition. I was aware of the existence of California’s Law Office Study Program (“LOSP”), where one can “read” the law over the course of a four-year period, pass certain exams, and become eligible to take the California Bar Exam after completion of the four-year program. California is one of only a few states that allow one to become a lawyer in this manner. The partners at the firm where I worked were also aware of this program, and we both thought it was a viable option. They were kind enough to sponsor me in this endeavor, and we were quietly confident and cautiously optimistic that I had the discipline and ability to travel this road less taken.
You have to have a certain level of education before you are able to enter the LOSP. For me, having a Bachelor’s degree sufficed. You also have to have a lawyer who has been practicing for a certain amount of years or a judge sponsor you. One of the partners in my firm sponsored me, and another one of the partners helped mentor me as well. In the LOSP, I had to figure out for myself a course of study that would work. The program does have some guidelines: for example, you must continue to work at your job while spending about 18 hours a week studying the law. You must read books and materials on the various areas of law that are on the California Bar Exam (there are about 17 different areas of law tested on the Bar Exam). Every six months you and your sponsor must submit a report to the State Bar. The report must list all of the books and materials you have read, and must include 6 mock essay exams (just like the ones that are on the actual Bar Exam) that you have taken on the subject areas you were studying and that have been graded by your lawyer or judge sponsor. For this I read case books, horn books, and commercial outlines and case summaries. In order to know what areas of the law I needed to study and what books and materials I needed to read, I used the California State Bar’s website as a source of information and also looked at the courses and books being taken and used by students at accredited law schools to get an idea of how I should arrange and order my course of study. The California Bar website also has questions and sample answers from prior administrations of the Bar Exam, and that is where I was able to pull questions for my simulated exams.
The analyst at the State Bar assigned to monitor your participation in the Law Office Study Program must review and approve your report in order for you to receive credit for each six-month study period. At the end of one year, you must take and pass the First Year Law Students’ Examination, aka the “Baby Bar,” in order to receive credit up to that point. The Baby Bar is just like the real Bar Exam except that it contains essay and multiple choice examination questions on the areas of Contracts, Torts, and Criminal Law only. With a combination of hard work and good fortune, as well as preparation through a week-long professional review course, I was able to pass the Baby Bar on my first attempt and continue on with the program. As I got near the end of the 4-year program, I took and passed the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (“MPRE”). This is a multiple choice exam consisting of 60 questions that must be completed in about 2 hours. This exam tests the aspiring lawyer on his or her knowledge and understanding of legal ethics, which play a huge role in the day-to-day practice of an attorney. Like the Baby Bar, the MPRE is another difficult exam, and California is among the states that have the highest standard when it comes to passing the exam.
After passing the MPRE, I finished up my last report to the State Bar, and then it was on to the Bar Exam itself. At this point I had read tens of thousands of pages of books and taken many written practice exams, and had passed two of the three exams I needed to pass on the first attempt. I had also gained much practical experience, as I had now worked at my current law firm for over eight years and had assisted the lawyers there in many complex cases, including cases that had gone to trial. Yet I still felt worried going into the Bar Exam.
In order to properly prepare for the Bar Exam, I took two months off of work to study. Even after a student completes law school or this program, he or she is still not ready for the Bar Exam. It takes about two more months of hard core preparation and a crammed review of all the areas of law on the exam to (hopefully) be ready. Thankfully the partners at the firm were willing to allow me to take this two-month leave. I also signed up for yet another professional review course that helps you be ready for the exam.
The Bar Exam is administered twice a year, once in July and once in February. I was taking the February 2012 examination. So on the day after Christmas I began the bar review course and the study began. For two months, I read tens of thousands of more pages of law books, simulated about 45 essay examination questions, about 4 or 5 performance examinations, and about 700 multiple choice questions. I spent about 10 hours per day, 6 and sometimes 7 days per week, studying. Most of the time I studied on my own, but sometimes I would study in groups with other students or sometimes with just one other student. I spent many hours during these two months in cafes, coffee shops, libraries, at home, and any place where I could study. The preparation was excruciating – the exam questions are long, complex and tricky. During this two-month period there were days when I felt I knew the material pretty well, and others when I just didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. By the time the exam was approaching, I felt I had prepared pretty well and that I had a pretty good chance of passing. I was by no means certain, however.
I took the Bar Exam at the Ontario Convention Center. Many students take the Bar Exam on their laptop computers, but I was very comfortable writing, so I chose to do it that way, using the traditional bluebook method. I stayed at a hotel during the exam so that I was right next to the examination center. Since the exam is 3 days long, I wanted to make sure I was right next to the exam center and didn’t have to drive each day. On Day 1 you spend 3 hours in the morning doing 3 one-hour essay exams. In the afternoon you do a 3-hour performance test, which is a sort of mock real-life case situation. On Day 2 you take the multiple choice section of the exam, 100 questions in the three-hour morning session and 100 in the three-hour afternoon session. These are the hardest multiple choice questions you could imagine, and they cover the areas of Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Constitutional Law, Real Property, and Evidence. Day 3 is a repeat of Day 1 but this time with different essay questions and a different performance exam.
I remained very focused during the exam. I ate the same things each day and studied in between exam sessions. I had one difficult essay question on Day 1, and I felt like I did not do very well during the morning multiple choice session on Day 2. But I did damage control whenever I was struggling and took the exam one session at a time. I felt I did pretty well on the rest of the exam. At the end of the third day, I was exhausted but also felt pretty good. I was confident that I had passed, but wanted to remain humble.
The examinees, myself included, then had to wait more than 2 ½ months before we knew if we passed or not. After such a tough exam, it was torture to wait for the results. I often went on message boards and other websites where exam takers discussed, to the best of their recollection, what they thought the answers were to certain questions and how the exam might be graded. But this exercise of course did nothing to calm our nerves or answer the real question we were all wondering: Did I pass? Finally, in mid-May of that year, I received the good news that I had passed. It was a wonderful moment for me and my family, friends, and colleagues.
It is exceedingly rare for anyone to become a lawyer without going to law school. Out of the thousands of applicants who take the Bar Exam each year in California, typically only 1 or 2 of those who pass are people who did the Law Office Study Program. I would recommend this program to other aspiring lawyers, but with the caveat that this method is probably more difficult than actually going to law school. It also takes longer than actually attending law school. Moreover, you have to hold down your law office or court job for the several years you are doing the program. Finally, you have to have an insane work ethic and complete discipline – studying is required just about every day during a multi-year period. This is on top of the more than full-time hours you will have to work at a law firm. All this being said, I believe that those who can do it this way really ought to – they save a substantial amount of money, perhaps $150,000 or more, and at the same time they gain the real-life experience of working in a law firm or in a judge’s chambers while learning the law, something they would not receive if they were in the purely academic world of law school. As many people have said, law school doesn’t really teach you how to be a lawyer. But working in a law firm does teach you lawyering skills and also gives you insight into the inner workings of a law office.