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Did Your Attorney Graduate From Law School and/or Pass the Bar Exam?

The State of Washington recently announced attorney's may be licensed to practice law there without passing the State bar exam. Does that concern you? No client has ever asked whether I graduated from an accredited law school or passed the Georgia State bar exam. Most everyone assumes lawyers and judges attended and graduated from an accredited law school. Most likewise assume lawyers and judges must pass the bar exams administered by the State where they seek to practice law. Most lawyers share these same beliefs. However, they are wrong! In several States, including California and New York, attorneys and judges can practice law without graduating from law school and/or passing the bar exam! Most everyone is “stunned” by this discovery.

There are seven (7) states, where attorneys may practice law, and become judges, without graduating from law school. In four (4) states, California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, there is no requirement for applicants to even attend law school prior to taking the bar exam. In order to take the bar exam in Vermont, Virginia and Washington, applicants with a bachelor’s degree need only work in a law office, either part or full time, for anywhere from 500 hours to 10 years under the supervision of a licensed attorney. In California, applicants need only complete 2 years of undergraduate study followed by part time work in a law office under the supervision of a licensed attorney for just 3 years.  

In three (3) other states, New York, Maine, and West Virginia applicants for the bar exam need only have attended some law school, without graduating. New York requires just 1 year of law school, Maine requires 2 years, and West Virginia allows 3 years of study at a non-accredited law school. In addition to some law school attendance, these three (3) states require 1-4 years of study in a law office under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Ironically, there are no restrictions upon applicants who never graduated from law school, being supervised by licensed attorneys who have likewise never graduated from law school. 

There are four (4) states, New Hampshire, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Washington where an attorney may practice law, and become a judge, without taking the State bar exam. Three (3) other states, California, Minnesota and Utah are giving serious consideration to likewise eliminating the requirement to take the bar exam.  Washington State eliminated the State bar exam in exchange for 1.) six months apprenticeship working under a licensed attorney, or 2.) 12 credits of coursework and 500 hours of hands-on legal work. Washington is the only state in which an individual may obtain a law license, becoming a lawyer or judge, without ever attending law school or talking and passing a state bar exam.

The tricky part is many states allow “reciprocity” - meaning attorneys licensed in one state may apply to have their law license recognized by a different state, authorizing them to practice law in both states. Thus far, there do not appear to be any clear rules for states who recognize “reciprocity” for lawyers licensed in a State that does not require law school graduation and/or passing a state bar exam, to practice in a State that imposes one or both requirements.

The bar exam will no longer be required to become a lawyer in Washington, the state Supreme Court ruled in a pair of orders Friday. The court approved alternative ways to show competency and earn a law license after appointing a task force to examine the issue in 2020.


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