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.

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.

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.

Professional law school, which normally includes a broad-based, three-year curriculum leading to a Juris Doctor degree and preparedness for a state bar examination, is a relatively new means of training for a profession as ancient as Hebrew scripture. Well into the 19th century, American lawyers were "sole practitioners" who followed the English model of apprenticeship known as "Inns of Court." Not until 1878 did the ABA organize and soon thereafter set out to make law school a requirement for every lawyer.

States that still accept alternative training in 2003 tend to have deeply entrenched, cultural reasons as a result of their particular histories. In Vermont, for instance, the state was formed through a series of land disputes and quickly forged a tradition of qualifying ordinary farmers to defend their turf in court. California by contrast earned a reputation for enabling newcomers to make a fresh start, and access to the legal profession has evolved accordingly.

"States have simply carried forward an ancestral method that predated the bar exam," says Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Yet states that rely on law-office study go further, and say its value is as practical and contemporary as it is traditional.

"We are a state of minorities," says Jerome Braun, senior executive for admissions for the State Bar of California. "The idea is that we want to provide the opportunity for as many people as possible to enter the profession. If you limit access to those who have attended ABA-approved schools, you'd have people who wanted to go into law as a second career and wouldn't be able to do it" because they live far from a metropolitan area or cannot afford the tuition.

An ethos for broad access to the legal profession, however, has to be balanced in each state with the need to guarantee that every licensed lawyer is adequately trained. The bar exam - even in California, where the test is notoriously challenging - "just means [a person] passed a certain test on a certain day" to demonstrate "minimum competence," according to Mr. Braun. This means the responsibility for crafting a high-level, independent program rests with a self-regulating trio: student, superviser, and the state's protocol for independent legal study.

In Vermont, those who read the law simply submit bi-annual progress reports on the skills and subjects they've been mastering. In California, independent students must take a test at the end of the first year. Those who pass are examined again only when they take the bar. Otherwise, students are expected to pick the brains of those supervising their work as clerks or paralegals, rotating their focus (from contracts to criminal and constitutional law, for instance) every six months.

This broad-based ideal, however, often gets tested against the daily needs of practicing attorneys who work as mentors. David Edwards, for instance, gave Stonier a desk to share with another law clerk in Burlington, where he works as a sole practitioner. She reports to work during time off from her insurance sales job in Montpelier - nights, weekends, some days. There and at home she writes briefs, organizes evidence, sorts files to prepare for a day in court - yet her focus in his practice seldom encompasses more than litigation.

"That's what she's good at," Mr. Edwards says. "So that's where I use her."

In Marilyn Skoglund's case, law- office study in the late 1970s enabled her to quit her job as an editor, work with a team of lawyers in the state Attorney General's office, and continue to support her then-7-year-old daughter.

She passed the bar on her first try.

For the past six years, Ms. Skoglund has held what she deems "the best job; I can't believe I get paid." Her job: Vermont Supreme Court justice. Despite her rise to the top and her gratitude for Vermont's flexible program, Skoglund doesn't urge would-be lawyers to follow suit.

"It's not for everybody," Skoglund says. "You have to be really focused and self-disciplined, because you'll be taking the same bar exam as everybody else."

When they finally take the bar exam after at least four years of preparation, those in Vermont's law-office study program generally come in behind those who spent three years in law school. The average passing rate over the past 10 years for law-office study candidates in Vermont has been 49.6 percent, compared with a 73.4 percent passing rate for law school graduates.

Those who read the law say they sometimes encounter barriers in their careers. Skoglund notes that she could not get a license to practice law in most states, even though she sits on the high court bench in Vermont. Similarly, New Hampshire has blocked establishment of a tri-state bar association with Maine and Vermont since both its neighbors license lawyers who lack law degrees. And private employers have also been known to condescend, even when an applicant has a valid law license.

"It is true there are firms in Vermont that don't respect the intellect of people who have been through this [law-office study] program, even though this has always been how lawyers were trained," Stonier says.

To keep pace with national trends, Vermont has, over the past two decades, become more specific in outlining expectations for those reading the law. Such decisions reflect the evolving will of the state's lawyers, since law is regulated in almost every state by the supreme court, whereas other professions are regulated by an executive branch of state government.

According to state regulators, lawyer apprenticeships are not likely to catch on elsewhere, despite their practicality for today's second-career types. Other states seem to value standardized training above access to the profession.

But in states where lawyers still train side-by-side, law study programs seem in no danger of disappearing.

"The long-term trend is for there to be pressure to get away from this program," says Richard Cassidy, chairman of the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners. "It's tempting to think about [requiring law-school training], but it's an economic-diversity issue. Some folks just wouldn't be able to swing it. And if we didn't have an alternative, then we'd be missing all those who have become fine practitioners."

Have briefcase, will practice

Well-known American lawyers who did not go to law school or who did not finish

Patrick Henry (1736-1799) governor of Virginia

John Jay (1745-1829) first chief justice of the Supreme Court

John Marshall (1755-1835) chief justice of the Supreme Court

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) secretary of State

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) president

Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) representative, senator from Illinois

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) defense attorney in Scopes trial of 1925

Benjamin N. Cardozo (1870-1938) justice of the Supreme Court

Strom Thurmond (1902- ) US senator, governor of South Carolina

Source: David Wallechinksky, "The Book of Lists"

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