By Jacqueline P. McMahon
Many people don’t know this, but there are two paths to achieving a successful legal career: law school and apprenticeships.
In the past, apprenticeships were the norm for obtaining a career as a practicing attorney. The apprentice would be required to work for a number of years under his mentor until he was deemed qualified. This type of work was often referred to as law office study. Some of our most famous legal and political figures, including Abraham Lincoln, chose the path of hands-on study, instead of the attending law school. Today, seven states still recognize the apprentice model of legal education: California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.
While some of these states have additional requirements for apprenticeships, for example, New York permits law office study only after the successful completion of one year at an ABA accredited law school, others have no special requirements (i.e., Virgina and Washington), and still another does not even mandate completion of a bachelor’s degree program (Vermont). It appears that the median number of years required for attainment of a “law office study certificate” (which comes in the form of a passing score on the state bar exam) is four years.
In practice, these apprenticeships take the form depicted in Melville’s short novel, Bartleby the Scrivener.
In Bartleby, Melville depicts the lifeless, pale, dull, and nearly-starved Bartleby, an apprentice, narrated by Bartleby’s mentor and a partner at a Wall Street firm in the mid-1800s. Bartleby spends his days in a dirty and dimly-lit back room, going over documents line-by-line. (And here I can’t help but picture Dickens’ Bob Cratchit, bent over his book-keeping desk illuminated by a single candle and warmed by a two-coal furnace.)
For any second-or third-year law student, the depiction sounds all-too-familiar. Summer associate programs or judicial internships generally involve long hours of researching, writing, and editing. Work in student-run journals or clinic offices demand the same. Of course, today we have fluorescent lighting and ergonomic chairs and keyboards, but the substance of the work hasn’t changed much.
In sum, aspiring lawyers are presented with two options: (1) take an exam to get into a three or four year law school program where you will work long hours in poorly lit, poorly temperature-controlled buildings, while racking up upwards of $100,000 in debt; or (2) work at a law firm performing menial, carpal tunnel-inducing work for a minimum of four years in a poorly lit cubicle, while earning a measly salary.
No wonder Bartleby “would prefer not to.”