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Doing It Like Lincoln: These Aspiring Lawyers Kick It Old School—By Skipping Law School

October 7, 2015
by Eli Wolfe
Students at a desk From left, attorneys Cameron Rhudy and Janelle Orsi, and legal apprentices Christina Oatfield and Yassi Eskandari-Qajar. Photo by Krissy Eliot

When Yassi Eskandari-Qajar graduated from UC Berkeley in 2011, she was prepared to go to law school. Prepared, but not excited.

As an undergrad she had found herself drawn to social justice work, and law school seemed in her future. But that idea curdled after she consulted several law students. She didn’t even need to hear them speak: The stress and misery of their experience, she says, was practically etched in their faces.

Besides, Eskandari-Qajar loved the work she was already doing as a paralegal at a small Oakland law firm called the Sustainable Economies Law Center. The prospect of giving up meaningful legal work to return to a classroom filled her with dread.

And that’s when her boss told her there was another route to becoming an attorney—one that didn’t require her to give up her day job, slave away for three years at a law school, or accumulate massive debt.

Once a common path to the bar—Abraham Lincoln read law to become an attorney—legal apprentice­ships are now a rarity.

The route is known as “reading law.” You can interpret that literally as the only requirement, but it’s more complicated. Calling it a “legal apprenticeship” is more accurate, because it typically involves studying under an attorney mentor. In most states it’s known as the Law Office Study Program, because the apprentice is supposed to spend time in an actual law office or a judge’s chambers.

Whatever you call it, it’s a shortcut (of sorts) that almost nobody knows exists. Once a common path to the bar—Abraham Lincoln read law to become an attorney—legal apprenticeships are now a rarity. Eight states allow them but only four—California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington—can really be called full apprenticeships.

At any given time there may be a few dozen apprentices studying in each of these four states, and every year a fraction of them will take the bar exam. For perspective: 8,786 law school graduates took the bar exam in California last year. That same year only 45 legal apprentices did so, in the entire country.

“It seems like the kind of thing that, for a very small subset of people, could be the best path to becoming a lawyer,” says Ty Alper, Director of Experiential Education at UC Berkeley School of Law.

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Though the U.S. legal apprentice community is still small and obscure, it’s no longer unorganized. In August, a team of apprentices based in Oakland founded the Association of Legal Apprentices to advocate on behalf of apprentices and expand the legal profession. They’ve already launched a website,, aimed at aspiring apprentices.

Lawyers arguing in court

“I think this is kind of a revolu­tionary thing,” Eskandari-Qajar says. “It’s changing the legal edu­ca­tion system in a way that probably appeals to a lot of people.”

So why choose a legal apprenticeship over law school? For the most obvious answer, compare price tags. According to the American Bar Association, typical law school graduates have $84,000 of debt if they attended a public university and $122,158 if they went to a private school.

California legal apprentices pay several small fees throughout their education, including fees to take the First Year Law Student Exam (the dreaded “baby bar”) and the actual bar exam. Legal textbooks and bar tutoring aren’t cheap. But the total cost is rarely more than a few thousand dollars.

In fact, some can even turn their apprenticeship into a profitable endeavor.

“My apprentices make the same salary that I do,” says Janelle Orsi, the executive director and co-founder of the Sustainable Economies Law Center. “So not only are they not paying to go to law school, they’re being paid to get a legal education.”

“Truthfully, I’ve encour­aged some people to drop out of law school and become appren­tices for the rest of their edu­ca­tion just based on how miser­able they are in law school.”

Orsi, who earned her degree from Berkeley Law in 2007 and says she is still $130,000 in debt herself, is a passionate crusader for the apprenticship movement. She’s convinced two of her employees to take apprenticeships instead of attending law school, and she’s always ready to pitch the idea to disillusioned law students.

“Truthfully, I’ve encouraged some people to drop out of law school and become apprentices for the rest of their education just based on how miserable they are in law school,” Orsi says, acknowledging that nobody has followed her advice yet. But she explains that she tries to steer aspiring attorneys away from law school because it helps them avoid a “formulaic career path.”

“People have so many different styles of learning,” Orsi says. “It’s just a potential waste of time when you have to go through the cookie-cutter educational system. A lot of apprentices—at least the ones I know—they’re apprenticing because they already like the work they’re doing and don’t want to leave it.”

Edward Tom, Assistant Dean of Admissions at UC Berkeley Law School, expressed sympathy for aspiring lawyers who can’t afford to pay for a law school education. But he cautions that given the legal hiring landscape, it may be difficult for someone with an apprentice education to find work.

“I think that the traditional employers of law graduates, people who have a J.D., are probably going to be even more focused on those who are graduates of traditional programs—the same programs that produce hiring partners at various firms.”

This fear doesn’t deter the apprentices. Christina Oatfield, who started working at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in 2011, can’t see herself working in the kind of firm that would put a premium on degrees. She disliked what she heard about law school—the competitive culture, and the fact that few schools offered classes about her interests, such as cooperative law. In her apprenticeship, she still has to prepare for the bar exam, but has been allowed to dictate the course of her studies.

“It really is up to the individual apprentice and their attorney to set up their curriculum and their study strategies,” Oatfield says.

Mentors must submit a course outline to their state bar asso­cia­tion for appro­val before engag­ing an appren­tice. But once an appren­tice­ship begins, there are few guidelines.

Students in a room
Legal apprentices train at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland. Photo by Krissy Eliot.

For example, the California Bar Association requires an apprentice to spend at least 18 hours a week for four years studying in a lawyer’s office or a judge’s chambers; submit semi-annual reports to the Committee of Bar Examiners on their progress; and take the “baby bar.” Mentor attorneys must have been in active practice at least five years, are limited to two apprentices, need to personally supervise them for five hours a week, and are required to submit semi-annual reports on an apprentice’s progress.

The vague rules and absence of oversight concerns Chris Tittle, a legal apprentice and co-founder of the new Association of Legal Apprentices.

“Beyond the actual rules themselves, there’s very little guidance on what an effective apprenticeship actually looks like,” Tittle says. “They really don’t provide any educational materials or resources.”

This lack of substantive guidance means that mentors need to invent four years’ worth of coursework for their apprentices. For attorneys who took the bar years or even decades ago, figuring out how to replicate their legal education and pass it on to an apprentice is daunting. According to Orsi, the biggest barrier facing would-be legal apprentices is finding a mentor.

“I know a lot of lawyers who I think would be perfect mentors for apprentices and they have solo practices, they have fairly flexible lives,” Orsi says. “They still don’t want to do it.”

The likelincoln blog has urged California lawmakers to amend the rules to ease the restrictions on mentors. In the meantime, few attorneys are experienced in training apprentices, and new would-be mentors have few training models. Orsi, who has had apprentices for three years, is still tweaking her curriculum.

In pursuit of a training model, the Association of Legal Apprentices has turned to the one organization in California that has a lengthy history of producing legal apprentices—the United Farm Workers labor union.

Founded in 1962, the UFW was in constant need of legal assistance. During the 1970s, it put several members through legal apprenticeships, and by the 1980s it had established a formal program. Several of these former apprentices rose to powerful positions in the UFW or other unions. One of them, Marcos Camacho, was recently appointed to be a judge on the Kern County Superior Court.

“It’s definitely not for everyone. I do as much as possible to discourage them from the program. It’s not an easy way, it’s very hard.”

Mary Mecartney, a UFW attorney and former legal apprentice, said that the program was suspended due to lack of resources during the mid-1990s, but resurrected it in 2012 as the union celebrated its 50th anniversary.

As a principal creator of the new program, Mecartney put together a comprehensive curriculum for apprentices. She’s doesn’t try to sugarcoat it: The program is brutally demanding. Apprentices are expected to work full time for the UFW as attorneys in everything but name. After getting a crash course in labor law and agricultural law, they start conducting investigations, participating in hearings, and assisting attorneys on their cases. On top of that, they’re expected to carve out time to study bar topics.

“I do a lot of screening because it’s definitely not for everyone,” Mecartney says. “I do as much as possible to discourage them from the program….It’s not an easy way, it’s very hard.”

The upshot, according to supporters: Apprentices who successfully complete the program and the bar emerge as legal gladiators. “Our legal apprentices do everything—they know what the legal secretary does, they know what paralegals do,” Mecartney says. “Someone who comes straight from law probably wouldn’t know what a legal secretary is able to do, or a paralegal.”

Unsurprisingly, people willing to take on this kind of work usually have a personal stake in the union.

Farm workers picking strawberries in a field

Brenda Rizo, a UC Berkeley graduate, signed on in 2012 as one of the UFW’s first new apprentices. Born into a farmworker family in the Central Valley, she spent her high school summers working in the fields alongside her parents, feeling the blisters, the brutal heat, the exhaustion.

Then in 1999, a car crash in the town of Five Points killed 13 farm workers, including a friend of Rizo’s mother. At the time, farm vans were not legally required to be equipped with proper seats or seatbelts, which contributed to the high death count in the van. The crash outraged farm workers across California, including Rizo.

After college, she signed up on as a UFW apprentice. The UFW, which employed three full-time lawyers at the time, badly needed her assistance. Rizo recalls how she and two other paralegals were put to work on virtually all of the UFW’s cases. Some days she drove back and forth across the Central Valley, attending hearings and investigating complaints.

“After working 14, 15 hour days and coming home, you really don’t want to do the studying,” Rizo says. “I mean, who wants to come home after work and read law?”

But apprentices have to take a test known as the First Year Law Student Exam. This “baby bar” is notoriously difficult—Rizo has failed it twice, and she’s anxiously awaiting the results of her third attempt.

Even after passing the baby bar, apprentices have a lower chance of passing the bar than students in law school. According to the National Conference of Bar Examiners, only 30 percent of the apprentices who took the bar passed it last year, compared to 57 percent of individuals who attended ABA-approved law schools.

“I didn’t set out to become an attorney, I set out to find housing. And out of that whole struggle I ended up in court a lot.”

Why? It’s counter-intuitive, but one former apprentice contends that becoming familiar with the realities of legal work can actually harm an apprentice’s chances of passing the bar. “Very little of this experience, real life experience, helped me passing the bar,” says Steven DeCaprio, a long-term advocate for the homeless in Oakland. “In some instances it actually hurt.”

Unlike many other legal apprentices, DeCaprio chose the route as an act of self-preservation. After moving to Oakland in the late 1990s, he lost his job and soon after lost his home. For a while DeCaprio existed in a precarious state, crashing on friends’ couches or sleeping in his van while he tried to figure out a more permanent housing solution. His research eventually led him to adverse possession—the legal term for squatting. Having decided that his right to squat was protected by law, DeCaprio found an abandoned home and began making it inhabitable.

“I didn’t set out to become an attorney, I set out to find housing,” DeCaprio says. “And out of that whole struggle I ended up in court a lot.”

Over the next several years, he was repeatedly cited for trespassing on the property. Determined to get the citations dismissed, he began teaching himself the rudiments of law. By the time he decided to become an apprentice, DeCaprio said he had become an unofficial expert on adverse possession law.

“Lawyers come to me and ask me questions about squatting, as opposed to vice versa,” DeCaprio recalls.

But his familiarity with practicing law did him no favors during the bar exam. On his first attempt, he discovered that he had to write formulaic legal arguments that would never be used in an actual courtroom. Instead of starting his legal arguments with a conclusion—the common practice in court—his bar essays were supposed to end with the conclusion.

“In legal practice, the judge doesn’t want you to waste their time, they want you to get to the point” DeCaprio says. “So in practical legal writing, you start with your conclusions and you only discuss facts that are disputable, because you want to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible.”

He passed the bar on his second attempt, but the State Bar of California refused to grant him his license on the grounds that he had been previously convicted of trespassing.

CNN panel
Steven DeCaprio discusses squatters’ rights on CNN.

It was a disappointing setback after so much labor. But DeCaprio—who is appealing the Bar’s decision—noted that without an apprenticeship, he wouldn’t have been able to even study law in the first place. “Squatting is a way for people without resources to acquire land,” he says. “The law office study program is a way for people without resources to become attorneys.”

Others also see legal apprenticeships as a way to empower marginalized communities. Earlier this year Rachel Johnson-Farias, a UC Berkeley graduate and public interest attorney, founded ESQ Apprentice—an Oakland-based nonprofit to help low-income youth of color complete legal apprenticeships.

She points out that the legal profession is overwhelmingly white and male, a reflection of the skewed demographics in most law schools (according to the ABA, more than 70 percent of law students enrolled in ABA-approved schools in 2014 were white). Although legal apprenticeships can be a struggle, she sees them as a potentially useful tool for people of color who want to practice law.

“It’s not impossible by any stretch of the imagination,” Johnson-Farias says. “With a lot of attention, a lot of investment and resources and individualized preparation, it will increase the chances—perhaps more than a traditional path through law school would—of passing the bar.”

To achieve this goal, ESQ Apprentice will rely on a culturally competent curriculum, starting with basic reading and writing, which Johnson-Farias considers a necessary supplement for students educated in crumbling public schools. From there, apprentices will be paired off with mentors and begin studying bar topics.

But she isn’t just trying to diversify the legal profession. She wants ESQ Apprentice to have a ripple effect in low-income communities that don’t have ready access to law. Her hope is that legal apprentices—whether or not they pass the bar—take their knowledge and pass it on to their family and friends, whoever needs it most.

“Unfortunately for people living in poverty, interactions with the legal system tend to hit them from every angle,” Johnson-Farias says. “It could be workers rights, it could be housing, it could be criminal justice, it could be [prisoner] re-entry.…It could be all these different areas that come up because of what low-income communities are facing on a daily basis.” 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that many legal apprentices continue working in the community they apprenticed in. “If you can stay in your community, become a lawyer and know the needs of your neighborhood, in the long-term you’re going to be a benefit for the people who really need it,” says Yassi Eskandari-Qajar.

Student reading a book while another writes on a whiteboard
Legal apprentice Yassi Eskandari-Qajar at work.

Someday it may be possible to fold an apprenticeship into a law school education. In 2013, President Obama announced that law schools “would be wise” to consider reducing classroom education to two years, with students spending their third year in a law office or clerkship. Orsi agrees that law schools should seize the opportunity to increase diversity in their student bodies.

“If a law school were to get on board with this—create a two-year program, create a one-year program, create part-time programs, or night classes that are meant to be combined with apprenticeships—it might actually have an edge as far as attracting a wide variety of potential students,” Orsi says.

For now, though, apprentices operate well outside the periphery of law schools, and they experience disadvantages compared to their law school-educated peers. As Edward Tom observes, apprentices who pass the California bar can’t practice outside the state, which can pose a major limitation to a young lawyer’s career.

The ALA is trying to get the California State Bar to increase resources for apprentices. But in a state with 185,000 active lawyers, it’s hard for a handful of apprentices to get the attention of the state bar.

No matter—legal apprentices are used to working alone. One day their path to the law may become visible. And if it does, they’re convinced it will change things for the better.

“We think that this is a way of not just providing potentially dignified livelihoods to a new group of people, “ says Tittle, “but also changing the very fabric of who practices law, and therefore who shapes the legal system.”

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