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Going to Law School as a Nontraditional Student

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Blacks Law

Nontraditional students often find themselves facing several challenges that remain unknown to those who follow the traditional route to becoming a lawyer. These challenges include barriers to admissions, limited school choice, career opportunities, and more.

Here, we will explore some of the most commonly asked questions by those looking to pursue the nontraditional route to becoming personal injury attorneys or attorneys in other fields of law. We will also review the basic requirements to join as a nontraditional law student.

Who are Nontraditional Students?

Currently, the concept of nontraditional students is not really well-defined. Typically, when talking about nontraditional students, the first thing that comes to mind is that this law student did not go through the traditional process of becoming a lawyer. What does that include?

To become a qualified lawyer in the United States, students must complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree and then proceed to complete a 3-year law school.

Many states require applicants to graduate from an ABA-accredited law school. To practice law, a law student must complete their state bar exam and receive approval from the admitting board, which checks the student’s character. This is the traditional route to becoming a lawyer in the United States.

Those who do not follow the traditional route are commonly branded as non-traditional student. This could include students who have completed their studies in something unrelated to law or those who have a considerable gap between their bachelor’s degree and law school, perhaps due to work.

Not many individuals are aware that they can become practicing attorneys by avoiding the traditional route. However, recently, Kim Kardashian took to Instagram to share her success in passing the baby bar exam, the first step towards the state bar.

This led to many questioning whether such a program exists and if so, what the process is to become an attorney for a nontraditional student.

Let’s look at the requirements for law school admissions decisions for students before discussing the general concerns about proceeding as a nontraditional student in a law school or outside of one.

History of Undergrad and Law School

In many states, going to law school and having a JD degree is the main requirement for practicing law in the country.

However, in the colonial United States, that was not the case as the majority of the people working in the legal profession came from England, where they underwent training through an apprenticeship program in the Inns of Court. This was before schools focusing on law started to spring up across the country, and those looking to become lawyers had to find a barrister they could work under.

In the 1730s, the same apprenticeship system made its way to America, where lawyers now had to pass the state bar and have seven years of experience before they could start practicing. This route was brutal, and clerks under training found themselves overburdened by tedious tasks assigned to them. There was no one standard as all mentors had different opinions about the law.

Since the 1800s, law colleges have started opening their doors to those seeking a legal career. With varied subjects taught in law school, it didn’t actually prepare law students for the state bar, which is the main obstacle to clear.

Perhaps this is why many historical figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and John Marshall, among others, decided to stick with the apprenticeship program.

During the late 1870s, the American Bar Association, after tirelessly lobbying for years, was finally able to implement its rules. It convinced the majority of the states to only allow students from schools of law to appear at the state bar.

Do You Need to Have a Law Degree to Take the Bar Today?

That said, you may wonder how many celebrities today, including Kim Kardashian, are looking to become lawyers without actually attending law school.

As of now, four states in the country allow individuals to take the state bar without ever attending law school. These include California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. Aspiring young lawyers in these states do not have to go to school for law but instead join an apprenticeship program where they train under practicing lawyers or judges (mentors).

However, these programs are not really known as apprenticeship programs. In California, such an option where nontraditional students can become lawyers is commonly referred to as the “Law Office Study Program”.

Can Nontraditional Students Join Law School?

Nontraditional students are those who join apprenticeship programs and decide to pursue the law much later in their lives. These students often complete their undergraduate degrees and have considerable work and life experience before they attend law school.

Nontraditional applicants need to focus on their personal statement and deliver a strong message through their writing as to why they want to go to law school and why now. A strong personal statement is key for admitting non-traditional applicants into a law school program.

Another important requirement for entering law school is securing a fantastic LSAT score on the LSAT exams. To pass the LSAT, you must prepare in advance and schedule your timetable accordingly. The requirement for letters of recommendation can also create an obstacle for those away from school for a long time.

Aside from the requirements, many nontraditional students should consider the fact that they are leaving their full-time job to focus on their studies in law school. This can create financial hardships because they are forgoing a salary and now have to pay tuition fees while supporting their families if they have one.

Nontraditional students may find coping with the rest of the class challenging, but that shouldn’t be a factor in avoiding law school. Where they might lag, a non-traditional applicant has substantial industry experience, can create strong relationships with staff and faculty, and already have the right work ethic.

That said, nontraditional students who have held middle management and senior positions in their firm might find it difficult to adjust to an entry-level job after graduation. There is another way to become a lawyer: through the apprenticeship program or the nontraditional route.

The Nontraditional Route to Becoming a Lawyer in California

If you’re looking to become a lawyer without ever going to law school, then the four states mentioned are your best bet. Individuals in these four states—California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington—can become lawyers without ever attending law school.


The current requirements of the Law Office Study Program in California are as follows:

  • 18 hours of work per week for 4 years under the guidance of a practicing lawyer or judge.
  • Clear the first-year law examination.
  • Receive a positive moral character determination.
  • Pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination.
  • Pass the California Bar Examination.

Nontraditional Law Students Forgoing School Face Serious Challenges

Many law students might feel discouraged after pursuing an intense 3-to 4-year school experience only to find out that they can become attorneys without ever going to law school. Although that is true, the nontraditional path to becoming an attorney is not exactly smooth sailing.

Challenges for these students start early on when they have to find a practicing lawyer willing to take them in as their apprentice.

Although the four states do have a certain apprenticeship program, the states do not actually help nontraditional students in finding willing attorneys. Remember, lawyers are busy with their caseloads, and taking on an apprentice is an additional burden for them.

Those who actually find a practicing attorney willing to take them as apprentices now struggle. With the constant work and independent studies going on, it can become challenging for these students to clear the state bar.

Students have a greater chance of passing the state bar than those in apprenticeships, and the pass rate for apprenticeships is less than one-third of that of traditional law students.

1,142 apprentices (1994–2014) have gone through the apprenticeship program in the United States and taken the state bar. However, only 305 students actually cleared their state bar.

The low passing rate for the apprenticeship program is because a law school covers an entire breadth of topics under one roof while working under an attorney with a specialized focus, so the nontraditional student may only excel in one subject matter.

When comparing the pass rates of the four states, Washington ranks high as it provides support to nontraditional students. The state has a volunteer network that ensures study standards and monitors progress, allowing students actually to match the study pace of those attending school.

The seemingly low number of individuals passing the state bar in the remaining states may suggest that the states are not actually supporting nontraditional students. However, what’s concerning is the low number of individuals who decide to join the apprenticeship program rather than attend law school. This is because many people seemingly do not know about these programs and therefore decide to attend law schools rather than find a practicing attorney they can train under.

Is Apprenticeship the Right Path for You?

With all the challenges plaguing a nontraditional law school applicant, should you go down this route?

Well, the answer is not that straightforward. There are many advantages to training under an attorney. However, some students prefer the entire environment offered by law schools. Law schools have their standardized structure for tests, courseloads, and deadlines.

This schedule or structure is what some students may need to clear their state bar and become an attorney. Not all students are great at self-studying, and having a pre-defined schedule can help them stay on top of their studies and also receive law school experience.

That said, law school applicants must also realize that these schools do not equip the candidates with a real-world experience as the apprenticeship programs do. Apprentices receive hands-on training from qualified practicing attorneys and judges, which is a huge incentive to pursue such programs. The training prepares them for their legal careers much more in advance than law students.

Another major point that may entice a non-traditional student to stick with an apprenticeship program is the financial incentive. In the United States, many students are already burdened by the student debt crisis, and going to law school adds at least $100,000, or even more.

On average, an apprenticeship program of 4 years will cost you around $5,544, while a 3-year law school will set you back $150,402. These costs exclude the bar exam test prep courses, which range between $1,400 and $15,000.

The Apprenticeship Stigma in the United States

You may decide to forgo law school applications and settle for an apprenticeship. The road to completing your bar in a nontraditional way is a challenging journey but the challenges do not stop after completing it. 

A Challenging Career Path for Apprentices

There is a certain stigma associated with nontraditional students who undergo apprenticeship programs. Even after completing your state bar, you may face difficulties when applying to law firms, as many of these firms prefer to hire candidates from the top law schools in the nation. Apprentices may find that some of the best positions in the industry are already given to law school graduates.

Another challenge is convincing clients of your abilities. Clients would prefer that law school graduates handle their cases, and if they ask nontraditional students where they went to law school, they might be disappointed with the answer.

ABA is Not a Fan

The American Bar Association does not have much regard for the apprenticeship programs and would prefer that students go to law school.