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Reading Law: Embracing the Old-Fashioned Path to Legal Mastery

In the rapidly evolving landscape of legal education, where state-of-the-art law schools dominate the scene, it's easy to overlook the traditional method of becoming a lawyer: reading law. This old-fashioned practice, which involves studying under the mentorship of an experienced attorney rather than attending a formal law school, has a rich history and offers unique benefits. For those willing to embark on this unconventional journey, reading law can provide a deeply personalized and practical education.

The Historical Context

Reading law was the primary method of legal education in the United States before the rise of formal law schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the nation's most renowned legal minds, including Abraham Lincoln, studied law this way. The process involved apprenticing with a practicing lawyer, who would guide the student through the complexities of legal texts, court procedures, and the nuances of practicing law.

The Modern Appeal

Despite the dominance of law schools today, reading law remains a viable option in some states, including California, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. For aspiring lawyers who prefer a hands-on, mentorship-driven approach, this method can be both appealing and practical. Here are some of the key benefits:

  1. Cost-Effective Education: Law school tuition can be prohibitively expensive. Reading law eliminates the high costs associated with formal legal education, making the path to becoming a lawyer more accessible to those who may not have the financial means to attend law school.

  2. Personalized Learning: One of the most significant advantages of reading law is the personalized attention students receive from their mentors. This one-on-one guidance ensures that students can delve deeply into specific areas of interest and receive tailored feedback on their progress.

  3. Practical Experience: Unlike traditional law school students, who often must seek out internships or clerkships to gain practical experience, those reading law are immersed in the daily practice of law from the beginning. This hands-on experience is invaluable in developing the skills necessary to succeed as a practicing attorney.

  4. Flexibility: Reading law offers greater flexibility in terms of scheduling and pace. Students can often balance their studies with work or other commitments, making it an attractive option for those who need a more adaptable educational path.

Challenges and Considerations

While reading law has its benefits, it's important to be aware of the challenges and limitations associated with this method:

  1. Limited Availability: Only a handful of states allow aspiring lawyers to read law as an alternative to attending law school. Prospective students must ensure they meet the specific requirements and regulations of their state.

  2. Rigorous Self-Discipline: Success in reading law requires a high level of self-discipline and motivation. Without the structured environment of a law school, students must be diligent in their studies and proactive in seeking out learning opportunities.

  3. Bar Exam Preparation: Passing the bar exam is a significant hurdle for any aspiring lawyer. Those reading law must be particularly diligent in preparing for this exam, as they may not have the same comprehensive preparatory resources available to law school students.

  4. Perception and Networking: Graduates of traditional law schools may have an advantage when it comes to networking and employment opportunities. Those reading law must work harder to build their professional network and demonstrate their capabilities to potential employers.


Reading law is a challenging yet rewarding path that offers a unique blend of personalized mentorship and practical experience. For those willing to embrace this old-fashioned approach, it can lead to a fulfilling and successful legal career. While it may not be the conventional route, reading law remains a testament to the enduring value of apprenticeship and hands-on learning in the practice of law.

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