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Who Needs Law School?

By Megan Kinneyn | Feb. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2007

Who Needs Law School?

Under the state's Law Office Study Program, it is still possible to become a lawyer without going to law school. By Susan E. Davis

By Susan E. Davis
      It's still possible to become a lawyer without a formal legal education.
      Michael Ehline always felt he had a calling to be an attorney. But he just barely made it through high school and had no college degree. Instead, he joined the Marines at 18, then worked in construction and sales, then started his own limo business.
      "I come from a family of entrepreneurs," he says. "We have no papers on the wall. We're real people."
      In his mid-20s Ehline also started working as a paralegal and found that he both loved and excelled at the job. So when an attorney told him he could become a lawyer without going to law school, Ehline says, "It was the answer to my prayers. I had always had a heavy heart about not being an attorney."
      Ehline, who now works as a personal injury and criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, is one of a very few California lawyers who have received legal training outside the hallowed halls of law schools. These attorneys "read" for the law?a practice currently allowed by only California and six other states, although in the old days, which is to say the days before law schools, that is what everyone did.
      Under the California bar's Law Office Study Program (LOSP), students spend at least four years studying law under the personal supervision of a California judge or California attorney. Early on they must pass the First Year Law Student's Examination, or "baby bar," in order to continue their studies. And like all law students, they have to pass the State Bar Exam to get their licenses.
      "It's an incredible opportunity for the many people who can't afford or don't want to go to law school," Ehline says.
      The program also works well for people who do better learning from real life than from books, and consequently it allows people from diverse backgrounds to gain a legal education. Prominent graduates include Gary Blasi, now a UCLA law professor; Marcos Camacho, who helped Cesar Chavez set up the United Farm Workers apprenticeship program, where union workers study under UFW attorneys; and Alice O'Sullivan, a workers compensation attorney with San Francisco?based Fortune, Drevlow, O'Sullivan & Hudson and vice chair of the workers compensation panel that advises the California Board of Legal Specialization.
      Despite its potential popularity, however, the program is small. Just 32 students are registered with California's LOSP this year. And as of 2004, according to the Los Angeles Times, only 64 attorneys had acquired their legal training (and then passed the bar exam) via the program since 1980?out of 436 students who registered for the program.
      Moreover, the program's bar-exam pass rate isn't that great. Last year, just one of the five California LOSP students taking the bar passed; when averaged over several years, the pass rate is less than half that of law school graduates.
      Other states' LOSPs have equally low pass rates. In 2005, for instance, just 2 of New York's 15 LOSP students passed the bar, and none of Vermont's 5 LOSP students did. Observers note that the program's high attrition and low pass rates may be due to the fact that independent study?often undertaken while working full time?is hard for all but the most disciplined students, and the quality of the instruction can be uneven.
      But those who have learned the law through LOSP say it's a powerful way to start a legal career. "It allowed me the freedom to choose what I wanted to study and to structure my own time," says O'Sullivan, who received one year of law school credit at Golden Gate University before she switched to the LOSP in the 1970s. "It took a lot of self-discipline, but it was much more exciting to me than law school."

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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