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Traditional Route to Practicing Law Lives On


The number of lawyers in the United States has increased steadily over the past half century and is currently estimated at more than 950,000. Competition to get into law school is fierce. And the tuition is more than many Americans can afford. For some, there's another option. In a handful of states, from California to Virginia, it's possible to learn the trade the old fashioned way -- by apprenticing.

Peg Flory was in her 40s when she decided to be a lawyer. "Back when I was in high school," she recalls, "if you were female and you were interested in law, people said, why don't you be a legal secretary? So I did." She quit her job when she got married and had kids. When her youngest started school, she went back to work as a legal secretary.

Her grade school classmate, Joan Wing, tells a similar story. She was a single mother who worked as a paralegal. Both women are now successful attorneys, but neither went to law school. Wing says they didn't even finish college. "I'm kind of proud that I didn't," she grins. "It's kind of a perversity that amuses me when people ask. The only diploma I have is from high school."

Wing and Flory took part in Vermont's Law Office Study Program. Legal apprenticeships are still recognized in seven states, but the requirements vary greatly. Here in Vermont, participants don't need a college degree, but they must have completed three quarters of their undergraduate course work. Then they have to spend 25 hours a week for four years studying alongside a licensed attorney.

Peg Flory is now a mentor herself. She's been working with apprentice Shelly Rogers for two-and-a-half years. Flory doesn't get paid for her efforts, but says she benefits by having Rogers' help as a legal assistant. Every six months, Rogers has to submit a detailed progress report to the state board of bar examiners for approval. That's about it when it comes to oversight, which she says is unnerving. "You feel like sometimes you're not covering everything you need to and you really won't know until you take the bar exam, what you've missed."

Lawyers who've learned by clerking say to be successful you have to teach yourself. Peg Flory ran for local office to better understand municipal law; she took continuing legal education courses when she could, asked other lawyers for help if she needed to, and read a lot.

Flory says it's a much more 'hands on' approach to learning than time spent in a law school classroom. "After the clerking I think it's much easier for you to practice law because you've been doing it for four years," she explains. "But it's much easier to pass the bar exam when you've spent three years in law school studying how to pass the bar exam. That's a real difference!" Women outnumber men in apprenticeship programs and participants tend to be older than typical law school students. Peg Flory jokes that she passed the bar exam the same week she learned she was going to be a grandmother.

Even as it opens doors to non-traditional students, the program can be limiting as participants usually can't practice in other states. Still, in Vermont, those who have gone through it don't seem to have suffered professionally. Joan Wing was elected president of the Vermont Bar Association in 1996 and there's even a state Supreme Court justice who clerked. Participant Maryann Zavez is now a tenured professor at Vermont Law School. "Whenever people that I know who did the Law Office Study Program become judges or something like that, I go 'oh, good for them!'" she admits. "There is just sort of this sense, a sort of club or just knowing what it probably took for them to get to where they are."

The seven states that recognize legal apprenticeships consider them a worthy tradition. But legal experts say it's unlikely more states will create similar programs. Instead, they note, many law schools are looking more like apprenticeship programs, with flexible schedules and even paid internships.