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You don't have to go to law school to be a lawyer. Instead, you can participate in the State Bar's Law Office Study Program. Here are the stories of seven attorneys and their involvement in the LOSP, as either sponsors or students, or both.
by Rene Ciria-Cruz
For a lot of people, the idea of going into debt to the tune of $150,000 for a law degree isn't palatable--especially in the face of a weak economy.
Annual tuition costs for 2010 – 11 at the University of California law schools in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Davis are running between $40,000 and $44,000 for in-state tuition (and thousands more for nonresidents)--in the range of rates at Stanford University and some Ivy League schools.
Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the country lost some 200,000 jobs in legal services between 2007 and 2009 (including 15,000 at large firms, according to Northwestern University). Small wonder, then, that law school applications nationwide a re down sharply--nearly 13 percent for the fall class this year, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT.
But here in California (and just a handful of other states) there's a rarely used option for those who have the drive to become lawyers but not the financial wherewithal. It's called reading the law, or legal apprenticeship, which is basically how Abraham Lincoln became a lawyer. California is among a handful of states that formally provide this alternative. Under provisions of the State Bar's Law Office Study Program (LOSP), would-be attorneys train and study under the guidance of a practicing attorney or judge for four years before taking the bar exam. (See "The Rules")
For the students, it's a chance to learn the law without incurring massive debts. And those who sign on as sponsors have a unique opportunity to help someone enter the profession.
It's up to the LOSP student to find a mentor willing to set time aside without any monetary remuneration (they don't even get MCLE credit). Yet many mentors say the experience gives them a definite sense of accomplishment.
"You gain someone who is independent and self-disciplined," says Maja Ramsey, a retired attorney and former LOSP sponsor. That person "can be an incredible asset to your firm during the program, and afterward as a lawyer."
Of course, passing the California bar exam can be very difficult, even for law school graduates. But for those who go the LOSP route, it appears to be harder. In the past five years, 61 percent of the 39,313 examinees from California- and ABA-approved law schools passed the bar. In contrast, just 26 percent of the 39 law readers who took the bar exam made the grade. (Of the 10 who passed, only 2 were first-time takers.)
Still, even with LOSP students passing the bar at rates less than half those of law school graduates, there's no danger of the program being abolished. "It's not on the radar for change," assures Gayle Murphy, the State Bar's senior executive for admissions.
Indeed, if current economic trends continue, the case to be made for the state's law office study program can only get stronger.
Here are the stories of seven California lawyers and their involvement with reading the law--as either sponsors or students, or both.
Would "probably" be a sponsor again, "but it has to be a special person, and for me, [one with] dedication to serving the community."
In 1980, Barbara Macri-Ortiz was a union activist, not a lawyer, when Cesar Chavez asked her to manage the administration of the United Farm Workers' legal department. One of her first tasks was to get its dormant LOSP program up and running. "We need to grow our own union lawyers once more," Chavez told her. Eventually she decided to participate in the program herself, and she worked as an apprentice under the supervision of two UFW lawyers.
"By the time I was going to take the bar exam, I was already well versed in the rules of evidence and civil procedure," says Macri-Ortiz. She passed the bar in 1987 on the first try, worked in legal aid for ten years, then went on to open a community-oriented solo practice, focusing on employment, housing, and education. One of her first clients was the UFW, which was in the middle of arbitration hearings for mushroom workers. One day Jessica H. Arciniega, a UFW union organizer working with the mushroom workers, approached Macri-Ortiz and expressed interest in becoming her apprentice.
"I really evaluated her," says Macri-Ortiz. "She was college educated, committed, could write well, and was a good public speaker. My belief is Cesar gave me this opportunity. I have a duty to pass it on to a service-oriented person, not one who's out to strike it rich."
Macri-Ortiz drew on her own "active learning" experience in the union, assigning Arciniega to handle case and courtroom preparations. For the black-letter law, they used outlines of established curricula. She encouraged her student to practice the necessary tests as they tackled each subject area, as a vehicle for learning. "Take the practice test; if you do poorly, then study your weaknesses and take the test again," was her advice.
Arciniega didn't pass the big bar exam on the first attempt, "most likely because her experience with me wasn't as intensive as the one I had under the UFW," says Macri-Ortiz. "But she came really close, within 5 percent of passing."
There was no shortage of legal work at the union during her own time in the program, Macri-Ortiz says. The legal department was always dealing with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, injunctions, civil trials, and more.
Arciniega got her license in 2008 and is now an associate specializing in labor and employment and class actions with Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Esensten in Oxnard. Today she works in tandem with Macri-Ortiz on several cases, and her mentor continues to offer advice to her.
Jessica H. Arciniega decided to become a lawyer when, as a United Farm Workers organizer in 2001, she saw Barbara Macri-Ortiz in action. The latter was bringing an unjust termination case for a farmworker. "And wow! She inspired me," recalls Arciniega. "I thought, 'She's the kind of tenacious, smart lawyer and advocate I wanted to be.' "
With an undergraduate degree in political science from Pitzer College, Arciniega could have gone to law school. "Money wasn't the problem--I could've taken out a loan," she says. "But it was a time in my life that I'd been out working in the community and I wanted to continue getting my hands dirty, so to speak, instead of being cooped up in a classroom."
She asked Macri-Ortiz about the law office's apprenticeship, and to her pleasant surprise, the attorney offered to sponsor her. She would work part-time in Macri-Ortiz's office and get paid for some of her hours while learning. Arciniega seized the chance, and she hasn't stopped being "grateful for the training that prepared me for the rigorous work I do today."
Arciniega now focuses on labor and employment law. "I just won my first class certification in the Eastern District on behalf of 20,000 farmworkers in an unpaid wages case!" she reports.
Arciniega's law office apprenticeship gave her "lots of hands-on experiences, not just book learning." She researched case law, went to court with Macri-Ortiz, and consulted other lawyers in areas outside her sponsor's expertise, such as criminal defense. Combined with her UFW background, the apprenticeship gave her a rich lode of legal know-how. "The most challenging part of the program was the need for self-discipline and self-accountability," Arciniega explains. "But I would highly recommend the program to anyone who has those capabilities."
Michael Ehline joined the U.S. Marine Corps out of high school and has no college degree. After his military service, he started a construction business and ran a health club--until he heard of the Law Office Study Program. Today, he has a personal injury practice, specializing in cruise ship catastrophes and road vehicle mishaps.
"I began faxing, emailing, cold-calling attorneys to ask for sponsorship in exchange for work," he recalls. He ended up studying with four sponsors in four years, each specializing in a different practice area: personal injury, criminal defense, litigation, and criminal prosecution. Ehline thinks these lawyers agreed to mentor him because they saw his tenacity and fed off his energy. "They're all my dearest friends today, part of my extended family."
But the going was rough; Ehline had a family to support in his last two years of LOSP. "Money was tight," he recalls. "I was working at Home Depot for ten bucks an hour, on night shifts at times, living like a pauper for a while." He took jobs as a law clerk and paralegal as well. He also began attending night classes at the University of West Los Angeles Law School because he wanted "the law school experience after passing the baby bar." He passed both the baby bar and the regular bar after two attempts, getting his law license in 2005 while still in his third year at UWLA.
"How cool was that?" Ehline says proudly. "I was the big man on campus, getting a law degree while already practicing as a lawyer." He thinks he immediately got a lot of business after passing the bar because people respected his achievement. He advises taking tutorials in preparing for bar exams--he swears by Paul Pfau review courses--and capitalizing on knowledge acquired by working as a clerk or paralegal.
Isabell Wong Flores has been a practicing attorney for four years, working as a sole practitioner in criminal defense and traffic law and doing contract work for a large firm.
"Growing up in the inner city, I didn't know anything about law, didn't know any lawyers," Flores recalls. She grew up in a large family in the working class neighborhood of Oak Park in Sacramento. Her grandparents were farmworkers; her father was in the grocery business and her mother worked two jobs. Flores went to a public magnet high school for business, technology, and management and was the first in her family to go away to college, supporting herself through scholarships, loans, and student jobs. She earned a degree in business administration at Saint Mary's College in Moraga.
After college Flores studied acting in Los Angeles, became an intern at CBS, and learned about LOSP from an acquaintance. She was recommended to Jacques Chen, a business litigation sole practitioner in L.A. who agreed to be her sponsor after checking her transcript and gauging her commitment to pursuing the program.
Flores started in 2000, when she was 22 years old, and worked in Chen's law office without pay, doing secretarial and paralegal tasks as well as studying under the lawyer's supervision. She finished in 2004 and passed the bar exam in 2007 on her fifth attempt. "I should have taken more review courses sooner," she now says, ruefully. While waiting for her bar results, she worked as a legal secretary at Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles before moving back to Sacramento to start her legal career. She eventually switched to criminal defense work and tried to learn the ropes quickly, even religiously attending the Scott Peterson murder trial in Redwood City to absorb courtroom strategy and tactics. Her first court appearance, in a civil case, was scary, she admits, "but the Alameda County judge and the court personnel were very kind and afterwards gave me a lot of tips."
She dismisses talk that reading the law doesn't have the cachet of a law degree. Other lawyers, she says, actually praise her when they learn the route she took. "They're impressed because it shows I had the tenacity to reach my goal." Her website (www.floreslaw.com) boasts that she received her license to practice through LOSP.
"Most clients don't ask about where you went to law school," she says. "They mostly look for lawyers who treat them with dignity, who try to understand them, and who they can trust." Criminal defense makes up much of her caseload; primarily, her clients face DUI charges and traffic citations. She also devotes a good amount of time to civic causes--working on relationships between the community and law enforcement--and to politics (she's a former regional director for the Northern California Young Democrats Latino Caucus in the Sacramento area).
Going through law office study "was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life," Flores recalls. "I had to give up my social life. I had extremely limited vacations for four years. But," she adds, "I'm a highly motivated person and I believe in myself, so it worked out well."
Gary Blasi, a law professor at UCLA, says, "The second time I was in a law class was when I started teaching law" in 1991. He passed the bar in 1976, after four years of apprenticeship and study at a law office.
When he started the program, Blasi, who's now a well-known housing advocate in Southern California, was working nights as a production manager at an orange juice factory in Los Angeles. By day, he was a peace activist. He was also "completely broke" and still paying off substantial education debts--after earning a master's degree in political science from Harvard University. He had no interest in the law. "I just didn't understand the range of useful things lawyers could do for ordinary people," Blasi recalls.
But then he began to work as a volunteer at the Echo Park Community Law office, which serves low-income clients. And when the office began accepting law readers, he decided to give it a shot. There were initially six in his group, and together with the general counsel of the office they designed their course of study based on general guidelines for the bar exam and the curricula of the UCLA, USC, and Loyola law schools. "It was good that I had a collective to study with," he says. "That's not allowed today." (LOSP now allows only two participants per sponsor.) Blasi also helped with practical legal work at the law office, except arguing in court.
"The law being studied was mostly settled, there was little legal theory, we rarely studied law reviews," Blasi recalls. He warns that no single lawyer or study program could be equivalent to a law school with a full faculty.
After about a year in the program, the Echo Park law office hired Blasi as a full-time paralegal/secretary. One of the clients Blasi helped was Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran who wrote Born on the Fourth of July, after his arrest at a war protest. In addition, he recalls, the office managed to strike down the registered-voter jury selection process in L.A. County, which he said was "tilted against the poor." Blasi passed the bar on his first attempt in 1976.
If Blasi were to redesign law school curricula today, he would drop the third year and replace it with problem-based practical work--like the public interest law clinics he now teaches at UCLA.
Blasi says the bottom line is that LOSP isn't for everyone. "I wouldn't encourage people to do the study program if they don't have the stamina and conviction to study some uninteresting stuff without peer support," he says. "It's a risky proposition."
Justine Durrell and her now-retired law partner Maja Ramsey were among the first lawyers in the country to pursue civil damages for sexual abuse by priests. They recovered millions of dollars on behalf of the victims. But long before all that, Durrell worked as a legal secretary at Ramsey's office.
"I was a single mother and I wanted to go further professionally," says Durrell. She asked Ramsey to sponsor her in reading the law, and Ramsey agreed.
Her studies prepared her well in personal injury, which was Ramsey's strong suit, but Durrell was vulnerable in less familiar areas, such as property law. Continuing to work full time, it took Durrell six years to get through her apprenticeship. She failed the baby bar twice before hiring a tutor, than passed the bar exam in 1989 on the first attempt.
"I should've gotten a tutor earlier for the baby bar," she says. "Studying law, taking the bar exam, and practicing law require three different thought processes."
After she earned her bar card, Durrell began working for Ramsey as an associate, and eventually she became a partner. When Ramsey retired, Durrell took over as a sole practitioner. For large, complex cases, Durrell teams up with Ronald B. Schwartz of Newport Beach. She's now heavily involved in toxic exposure cases, having successfully litigated for victims exposed to pollution and mold. She also defended an embryologist in a suit against a fertility clinic that failed to disclose a mix-up of embryos.
Years sponsoring: 1983-89
Would be a sponsor again if she hadn't retired, and would recommend it.
"It wasn't hard for me at all to supervise Justine's study," Maja Ramsey recalls. "Justine [Durrell] was a trusted employee with vast amounts of discipline and practical experience. She was already familiar with civil procedure--she was a steady gal." The two arranged schedules so that Durrell could take time off for exams.
Ramsey suspects Durrell may have had some doubts after passing the bar, a certain insecurity about whether her education was sufficient. "But she was a grown-up with lots of practical experience behind her, so she did well. We ended up being law partners, remember."
Ramsey treasures her experience mentoring Durrell. "I would do it again," she says, "I think it's a marvelous opportunity for people who want to become lawyers. I'm grateful for the opportunity."
Through California's Law Office Study Program, veteran practitioners help aspiring lawyers join the bar.
Rene Ciria-Cruz is an associate editor at California Lawyer.
Daily Journal Staff Writer
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