Sunday, January 20, 2008

Self-taught lawyers disappearing.

I spotted the following item today in the online edition of the Boston Globe:
Beatrice Mayo practiced law in Maine for more than half a century before retiring in 1994. But she never spent a day in law school.

After high school, Mayo went to work for an attorney and took an interest in his law books. She took the bar exam in 1940.

"She was a very smart lady, and I think she was well enough prepared that she passed it on her first try," Lloyd Lindholm recalled of his aunt, who died late last year at 92. As for her lack of a law degree, he said: "I don't think she ever felt it was a deterrent."

Self-taught lawyers have all but vanished in recent years, ending a tradition stretching back to frontier days, when prospective attorneys "read the law" under the tutelage of a practicing lawyer. Most states now require law degrees to join the bar.

The best known self-taught attorney was Abraham Lincoln, who began his studies after getting elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834. He borrowed legal books from a fellow lawmaker.

. . .

States that still allow law-office study include California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming. The options are even fewer for correspondence study, which is allowed only in California, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia.

The number of self-taught lawyers has dropped, even as a wealth of material about the law has become available on the Internet.

Nationwide, only 44 applicants who did law-office study took the bar exam in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Of those, 18 passed, a success rate of 41 percent, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

By contrast, 74,215 people with law school degrees took the test, and 71 percent were successful.
To read the rest of the article, click here. I was genuinely surprised to learn that people who "read law" the old-fashioned way can still be admitted to the bar in some states. My professors in law school gave me the impression that the self-taught lawyer was a vestige of the past, a relic that became obsolete with the growing professionalization of legal practice in the years after World War II. It doesn't take much reflection to realize that law professors would naturally have a strong interest in disabusing their students of the notion that one can practice law without having gone to law school.

On a practical level, I suspect that the career options for self-taught lawyers are limited even in jurisdictions where one can theoretically win admission to the bar without obtaining a law degree. We've moved beyond the point in history when a brilliant but largely self-taught polymath could be hired to teach at a prestigious university, and we've probably also moved beyond the point when a self-taught attorney could be hired by a major law firm or a public prosecutor's office.

Reading about the small number of bar applicants who did not attend law school, I wonder how many law-school graduates opt not to take the bar at all; I suspect there's a few of us in every graduating class of every law school in the United States. As for the truly committed individuals who read law privately, manage to pass the bar exam and find legal employment, I commend them for beating the odds and wish them the success that they richly deserve. AMDG.


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