By now most have heard about Kim Kardashian’s plan to become a lawyer without going to law school. There was some confusion because a lot of people don’t know of California’s apprenticeship exception that allows you to circumvent law school and instead learn the law in a non-traditional manner. People assumed she was “buying” her degree rather than doing it the “right” way. While I am not one to support or defend the Kardashian conglomerate, the path she’s pursuing is clearly an option that’s available to people. But the real question is, is this a realistic option that will result in a practical, useful, and successful career for those of us who don’t have millions and millions of dollars at our disposal?
Alternative paths to becoming a lawyer are an option; as are non-traditional law school formats—you may stumble upon one in your research and seriously begin consider it. Why not avoid the law school debt that comes with a 3 year program if the results are the same? Well, that is the risk–the results may actually be more limiting than you think, which can impact your career and growth. But not always! So, when is stepping outside the normal law school journey ever worth the risk?
Like everything in the law—it depends.
First, what are the non-traditional options?
A small amount of states, like California, have programs that allow someone to become an attorney (sit for the bar) if they meet other requirements instead of law school. Usually it requires a set amount of work in the law under the supervision of a lawyer, some college credit hours, and passing some exams.
Other schools provide a less traditional (and thus less expensive) approach to the law. California (loving their trend of eschewing tradition) has the People’s College of Law, which offers the lowest tuition for a JD program ($4k) for those interested in a Public Interest career. It is also unaccredited, which matters in various ways.
And even traditional law schools are beginning to embrace technology—my own alma mater reformatted its part-time program to only online courses that meet over weekends 1L year.
I’m sure if you research more within your state you’ll find other alternatives that could take you on a path to earning a J.D. without spending the thousands and thousands of dollars for a three year program.
Ok, so if these are options, why doesn’t everyone just do this? Because the risk is ultimately too high. When you opt to participate in something that is “non-traditional” you really need to consider the source providing the opportunity and go in with eyes open so that you are comfortable with the potential outcome.
Here are some concerns you should assess before committing to the non-traditional route:
Do I know what type of law I want to practice? Maybe you’ve been out in the real world for many years and the catalyst to become a lawyer is driven by one subject matter. Say, you’re an ardent workers’ rights advocate, or a real estate agent with your own business, or you’ve been a paralegal at an immigration firm for years and know immigration is the only thing for you. If you know, very specifically, what type of law you want to practice and have clear goals with how you’ll use that degree then maybe a non-traditional route is for you because it’s a clear A to B roadmap.
But what if you’re not sure what kind of law you want to practice? Or you have an idea, but have not really ever been exposed to it because you’re a recent college grad? Or you’re interested in joining a Big Law firm or do in-house at a big corporation? If that is more you, then a non-traditional route may not open as many doors as you envision. The reality is that if you enter law school without a clear idea of how you’ll use your degree (which is incredibly typical and normal btw) then circumventing the “traditional” route may limit you in your future options because most employers will struggle to see you as a viable candidate. A harsh truth is that many people in charge of hiring are going to almost always assume that alternative paths to JDs are “less than” and question your capability and skills. If you’re unclear as to what type of law you want to practice than it isn’t fair to limit yourself so early in your career.
Am I committed to staying in this state? The reality is that most law degrees/licenses don’t travel well. Unless you’re graduating from a highly ranked school, it’s more likely than not that you’ll find an easier path staying in the city where you’ve been studying and making connections in (of course people move and resettle all the time—I said it’s easier to stay put, not that it’s impossible to relocate). However, if the program you’re considering is not accredited, is new, or is considered experiential it will be much more difficult to establish a career in an area that doesn’t know the program’s reputation. Maybe you’ve been out of school for ten years, have a family, and aren’t interested in moving—if that’s you than maybe the non-traditional route is for you because you’re not going to be looking for opportunities that may require that you move. But if that’s not your current situation, limiting yourself to programs that people will question could create roadblocks down the line when it comes to career advancement or attempting to relocate.
What are the alumni doing? Most importantly, the pioneers who have attempted these programs before you—what are they doing? Are they working in areas/offices you’d be interested in joining? What’s the bar passage rate like? Does their success seem reachable to you? Do you think this program will offer the same services to make you a viable candidate once you graduate? Enough to make this “shortcut” worth it? If you can answer those questions to your satisfaction than an alternative path may be right for you.
But if the program has a not-so-stellar reputation, is not accredited, has no alumni network worth speaking of, and low passage rates—then it is likely too risky or limiting for your future goals. And likely it may be best to re-consider your options. This can be a difficult moment if you’re at a point where you feel like you’re ready to start law school, but the traditional options seem unavailable to you. If that is the case, then it’s time to stop and do a stark re-assessment to determine what can be done to better access a 3/4 year program. Maybe it means taking more time off to work and put a not-so-great GPA behind you; or saving for an LSAT course; or volunteering/working to get a better sense of why you want to be a lawyer. None of those are easy and it can feel disheartening to put your dreams on hold. But you’re not actually. While delaying enrollment may feel like a delay in your goals, the reality is that you’re still working hard to reach them and you’re doing it in a strategic way that puts you in the best place possible for starting your legal career. You owe that much to yourself—even if it takes a little longer than you hoped.