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The self-made lawyer

Not every attorney goes to law school. Seven states allow another path to law practice - the same one that Abe Lincoln took.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2003

Divorced and with two grown sons, a business background, and a fixer-upper house in Hardwick, Vt., Pamela Stonier lives a lifestyle that tells of the possibilities in 21st-century America.

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This summer, Ms. Stonier is cramming to push open one more door that, although rarely used today, was commonplace just a century ago. At 59, she hopes to become a licensed lawyer. But to get to this point, she has had to rely on a little-known, seldom-used training method that dates back to the Middle Ages.

Stonier is one of a few hundred students in seven states - including 43 in Vermont - who aim to become lawyers without ever having enrolled in law school. Like many of them, she works side-by-side with a practicing lawyer, learning by day in a real-life laboratory and by night in the solitude afforded by dim lighting and open textbooks on torts and property.

Law-office study programs, also known as "reading the law," defy a national trend in recent decades to standardize education requirements for licensed professionals. They do so despite pressure from the American Bar Association, which tells all 50 states in its 2003 Code of Recommended Standards for Bar Examiners: "Neither private study, correspondence study or law office training, or age or experience should be substituted for law-school education."

Pressures notwithstanding, states that have preserved the "self-made lawyer" path made famous by Abraham Lincoln are standing firm in their determination to make the profession an accessible option for those daunted by the price tag for law school, which often exceeds $100,000 for three years. What's more, the old-fashioned approach seems to open doors to low-paying but rewarding career paths that tend to end, even for idealistic graduates, as soon as the law-school loans come due.

"This is why I'm coming out of all these years very relaxed and able to use the law to help people resolve problems in their lives," Stonier says. Instead of working in a firm to pay back loans, she plans to open a nonprofit "justice center" where anyone can "learn what they need to right something that is wrong in their lives and do so in a manner that would stand up in court." And she swears her training hasn't been compromised.

"When you read the law, every day is a balance of theory and practice," she says. "You're less Pollyannaish ... because you've had your idealism challenged."

Only seven states - Vermont, New York, Washington, Virginia, California, Maine, and Wyoming - offer law office study as a road to the bar exam. States offering this path seldom have more than 50 students pursuing it at any given time. Correspondence study or learning law on-line have attracted more than 1,000 participants at a time, but only California, New Mexico, and Washington, DC, will administer the bar exam to someone with this training.

The rest of the states abide by the American Bar Association's (ABA) recommendation to limit bar access to those with a law school education. The reason, according to ABA President Alfred Carlton, is to guarantee higher standards than a state bar exam can do alone.

According to Mr. Carlton, the fact that most states require law-school training suggests that most Americans want their lawyers trained by accredited institutions.