A motivated, self-taught, person passes state bar exam. Is a law degree required to practice law?

It’s my understanding lawyers like Abe Lincoln and Andrew Jackson were largely self-taught. They used law books that other lawyers had in their offices.

Is that still possible in any US state?

For example, there are accelerated, cram courses designed to prep people for state bar exams.

Former law students might loan textbooks to a friend that can’t afford to attend law school.

Is it possible to practice law without a formal degree?

Does it matter if it’s civil or criminal law?

In Virginia there is a sort of apprentice program, in which one can study law while working for a “Supervising attorney.” You have to have at least a Bachelor’s degree, and the supervisor has to meet strict criteria.


The states differ. Reading the law is allowed in some states. I don’t know if it’s changed but in New York anyone could take a bar exam. I don’t know if passing that automatically got you a license.

California, Virginia, Vermont and Washington are the only states that have apprentice pathways that allow you to be admitted to the bar without any formal law school. You still have to study under another attorney for a certain amount of time, though. In addition, you can do law school online.

I have an old (1984) copy of Bears’ Guide to Earning Degrees Nontraditionally by ( You guessed it ) Bear.

In it he talks about studying under a local judge or attorney to become a lawyer without the time or expense of law school.

That was 34 years ago and the link I provided was to a copy 20 years ago. So things may have certainly changed. But it could be worth your while to find out what one is still able to do sans law school.

I got my Masters Degree from a school (Regents college, University of the State of New York) that I learned about in his book.

I realize it would require a lot of study to learn a complex field without attending a graduate school.

It is interesting that it’s still possible in a few states.


Frank Abagnale claimed to have passed the Louisiana bar exam on the third try but he had a forged transcript from Harvard Law School so I don’t know if it counts.

Like the University of American Samoa.

Online law school only counts in California. All other states require a JD/LLB from an ABA-accredited law school to sit for their bar exams (except in some cases where a lawyer already licensed in another state may do so, and the four which permit reading the law). Standard 306 of the ABA accreditation guidelines permit law schools to count a maximum of 12 credit hours of distance learning toward a law degree (out of a minimum requirement of 90).

Here’s an article from Slate from 2014 discussing taking the bar exam without graduating from law school in several states.

I thought that California allowed anyone to just jump in and take the law exam but even they have higher standards.

In the states in which I am familiar (Florida and Colorado), you have to be cleared to sit for the bar exam. You cannot be cleared unless you have a law degree. So, I am not sure that the premise - taking and passing the bar but not going to law school - is even possible in some places.

Go Land Crabs!